Pseudoscience And Police Policy

Matt Apuzzo, over at the New York Times, wrote Police Rethink Long Tradition on Using Force. At the beginning this stood out to me, and I wanted to make a comment:

During a training course on defending against knife attacks, a young Salt Lake City police officer asked a question: “How close can somebody get to me before I’m justified in using deadly force?”

Dennis Tueller, the instructor in that class more than three decades ago, decided to find out. In the fall of 1982, he performed a rudimentary series of tests and concluded that an armed attacker who bolted toward an officer could clear 21 feet in the time it took most officers to draw, aim and fire their weapon.

The next spring, Mr. Tueller published his findings in SWAT magazine and transformed police training in the United States. The “21-foot rule” became dogma. It has been taught in police academies around the country, accepted by courts and cited by officers to justify countless shootings, including recent episodes involving a homeless woodcarver in Seattle and a schizophrenic woman in San Francisco.

A common question is presented to criminal justice students. It follows the format of, “Who do you think is more powerful: a judge, a district attorney, or a police officer?” Invariably, young students respond judge or district attorney. This makes sense, because in the hierarchy of the criminal justice process a judge or a DA is more powerful. These are the persons who can bring charges, dismiss a case, hand down sentences, and so on.

Of course, it’s a trick question. The purpose is to show students how powerful police officers are. Typically for the benefit of students who intend to become police officers, a la look at all of the responsibility you will shoulder. And yes, the correct answer is the cop. Why? Because only the police officer has the broad, unilateral authority to take a life. The decision to shoot someone holding a knife – or the decision not to shoot someone and use nonlethal force instead – is the common example.

(We could also say the cop is the most powerful because, upon arrest, the criminal justice procedure is initiated. And despite a legal presumption of innocence, in practice the defendant is forced to mount an expensive defense, and/or submit to conditions of release and investigation. The arrest and criminal justice process itself, even without conviction, becomes tantamount to sanction and punishment.)

This brings us back to the 21-foot-rule. It’s ubiquitous in firearms training. It is presented with the weight of fact. It would be natural to assume, based on how this figure is presented, that decades of ongoing research led to its discovery. Images of men and women in white lab coats conducting experiments, kind of like the crash-test ads used to sell automobiles, float through the mind. Lots of double-checking, re-designing experiments, and engaging in bitter academic disputes. After all, we’re basically asking is this when you should decide to kill someone. It’s an important question.

We probably don’t consider that the answer was invented by one guy’s scribbles decades ago, and then published in a cop-porn magazine.

Maybe we also don’t consider that from that point in the 1980s police departments have used the 21 foot heuristic to train killers. This is not hyperbole; training literally follows the format of this is when you should kill. And individual officers, mostly young men who are not especially educated, are not equipped to question the science behind the number. Even if they were, that isn’t a part of the job description. There is no place for questions. This is not intended to be criticism. Individuals are trained, conditioned if you will, to respond to perceived threats in rehearsed ways.

The way a threat is perceived, even if something is to be perceived as a threat at all, is also a part of training. This is all determined by policy, which is why the police in the United Kingdom, which has more knife crime than the United States, rarely shoot knife-wielding suspects. (And this can be applied to all of Europe.) It’s also why in the United States waving a knife at the cops is tantamount to suicide. This is when you need to kill, then, is not an objective statement. It’s determined, subjectively, by policy.

And that is intended to be criticism.

Let’s say that the number is wrong. What if the distance is 25% greater than estimated; not 20 feet, but 25 feet? And to simplify, what if all police officers shot knife-wielding suspects at 20 feet, but no police officers shot knife-wielding suspects at 25 feet? The distance – five feet – becomes responsible for thousands of additional homicides committed by police officers.

It’s an interesting idea to think about, but in practice it doesn’t matter. The police shoot people, including unarmed people, and armed people at distances far greater than 25 feet, all the time. All it does is illustrate the sloppy nature of these policies.

And policy it is. We might think that the rule on when cops are legally tasked with committing homicide is strictly hedged by law. But it is not. The reasonableness standard for the use of lethal force is subjective, thus broad. Individual police departments determine, administratively, how they train officers to kill. It is not a legislative decision, which means there is no oversight, no input from the public. There doesn’t even pretend to be.

Take that, representative government myth.

The police will decide for themselves when it is acceptable to kill you. And the legality will be determined by the departmental policies those same cops have written. The rationales for those policies will be based on in-house psuedoscientific research, breeding myths comparable to only using ten percent of your brain.

This should come as no surprise. Myth is a foundation of police policy, procedure and dogma. The very existence of the D.A.R.E. program, which is literally an anti-drug propaganda operation, is illustrative. And entire institutions, such as the DEA, exist only as long as certain myths are in place.

Now, criminal justice as a field is considered to be a social science. As such, it wavers between presenting itself as a science and not. Indeed, many aspects of criminal justice and the social sciences in general do conform to the scientific method. And many do not. Policing, by and large, falls into the latter category. In fact, the rejection of science and the scientific method is almost a prerequisite for policing. Again, D.A.R.E. is a salient example. The police officer is literally required to lie and present nonscientific information to children as if it were fact.

But, perhaps more sinisterly, the anti-scientific mindset pervades policing. And the 21-foot-rule is an example. The police don’t only propagandize the outside. They also propagandize themselves. As in Orwell’s 1984, Party members believe their own dogma more strongly than the proles do. Suffice to say, pseudoscience is the norm.

And maybe this is another example of how slavery is bad for slaves and for masters. If we assume ignorance is bad, or dogma is bad, or that the rigorous belief in false principles – and action based on false principles – is bad, we have to accept that police officers hurt themselves as an inherent condition of learning to hurt others.


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