Target Practice: Racism and Police Shootings Are No Game
At 2:10 a.m. on December 19, Denver police officer Timothy Campbell was standing in the middle of the street in a west Denver neighborhood, his gun pointed at a man.
The patrolman had been driving north on Irving Street when he'd passed a 1997 Saturn that seemed suspicious. When Campbell made a U-turn, the Saturn quickly sped down a side street and pulled into a driveway. As the officer drove up, a man — he looked to be in his early thirties, Hispanic, wearing a light, baggy jacket — jumped out of the car and ran. Campbell followed him on foot, through back yards and over fences. The man reached the 3200 block of West Ada Place, where he slipped on a patch of ice. He got up and continued down the street, falling twice more. By now Campbell had closed the gap, and when the man got up again, the two were facing each other, less than ten feet apart. Campbell had his service pistol drawn: a .45-caliber semi-automatic Glock.
The man reached into his pants pocket, put his hand behind his back, then started moving his hand forward. Campbell saw the glint of something metallic. He fired two rounds, paused, then fired four more. The man fell onto a pile of dirty snow.
When paramedics arrived just after 2:15 a.m., they found 33-year-old Jason T. Gomez, hit in the shoulder, stomach and legs, mortally wounded. Near his left hand, they spotted a white Bic lighter with a silver rim.
A lighter on the pavement where there should have been a gun — that sight can make even the most hard-boiled law-and-order types queasy. And the image of a dying, unarmed man, a minority shot by a cop, can rip open a city's carefully patched-together image. When news broke that Gomez had been pronounced dead at Denver Health, readers began leaving online comments comparing Gomez's lighter to the soda can that Frank Lobato reportedly was holding when he was shot and killed in his home by a Denver officer in 2004. Or the kitchen knife that Paul Childs had in his hand when the mentally disabled teen was shot and killed by cops the year before. The posters reached back nearly a decade, to the death of Mexican immigrant Ismael Mena, shot by SWAT officers in a botched drug raid.
"[Gomez] was not a perfect person, but [he] did not deserve to have an entire clip of bullets emptied into him for pulling out a lighter," said one.
"Again, Denver cops are exterminating Blacks and Mexicans," wrote another.
Long before Campbell faced off against Gomez on that icy street, though, the Denver Police Department had started taking a long, hard look at what role race played in officer-involved shootings. To do so, it was using an unlikely tool: a rudimentary video simulation developed by psychologists at the University of Colorado. Over the past half-dozen years, that simple computer game has allowed researchers to not only measure the influence that cultural bias has on police decisions, but to make some surprising discoveries regarding how the human mind forms and acts upon racial prejudice.
In 2002, Tracie Keesee spotted a small article in the Rocky Mountain News about a CU study demonstrating that participants playing a virtual-simulation scenario were quicker to fire at black male figures than at whites. This interested Keesee, who was not only a University of Denver graduate student working toward a degree in criminal justice, but also a lieutenant in the DPD with deep roots in the city's African-American community.
"I thought it was really relevant to large police organizations — the use of deadly force and how it impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans," says Keesee, who's now a district commander considered a strong candidate to become the city's first female and first black police chief. "Whenever you read the newspaper, whether it be New York or Chicago or Denver, it continues to be a very prevalent question."
Over the years, law-enforcement officials have used hundreds of jargon-filled euphemisms to avoid the query at the heart of so many police-shooting controversies: Are cops more trigger-happy when aiming guns at minorities? Since the 1970s, sociologists and political scientists have consistently found that minority suspects in the United States face lethal force from police officers at a disproportionate rate. According to 2001 figures from the Department of Justice, black suspects were five times more likely to be shot and killed by officers than white suspects. But that same study also showed that the chances of a police officer getting shot by a black man were about five times higher than by a white man. And how much could these findings be attributed to the fact that minorities are much more likely to face economic deprivation and populate disadvantaged, high-crime areas — and thus have a greater probability of contentious encounters with police?
For social psychologists at the CU Stereotyping and Prejudice lab (CUSP), the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo — an African immigrant shot nineteen times by New York City cops when he reached for his wallet rather than a gun — seemed an ideal starting point for a study of racial bias. Joshua Correll, a graduate student at the time, followed the subsequent investigation of the officers and the allegations that race might have played a role in the shooting. "And that seemed interesting and plausible, but it was hard to understand how much of a role race actually played, because we didn't know what would've happened if Diallo had been white," says Correll, now a professor at the University of Chicago.
So Correll and Bernadette Park, a psychologist who's been at CU since the mid-'80s, developed a video shooting game that involved black and white male targets holding either guns or innocuous objects such as cell phones or soda cans. They told study participants — found in college classrooms and along the 16th Street Mall — to shoot only when the simulated characters were armed. The data revealed that players forced to make split-second decisions were prone to shoot images of unarmed black men and on average were quicker to shoot at black men holding guns than white men who were armed.
"[Participants] set a more lenient criterion to shoot for African-Americans than for whites," says Park, adding that this tendency was seen not just among Caucasian players, but also among players identifying as black or Hispanic. In 2002, she and four colleagues published a report on their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A year later, University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald did his own study, putting college students in the role of plainclothes police officers in a computer simulation where potential targets of different races appeared from behind dumpsters as fellow officers, citizens or gun-wielding criminals. Players had greater difficulty distinguishing weapons from harmless objects when they were in the hands of blacks rather than whites, resulting in more wrongful shootings of black targets.
The studies established shooter bias as a broad cultural predisposition, but researchers had no way of knowing if police officers would test the same way. So CUSP contacted the Chicago and Los Angeles police departments, but they refused to participate in further studies. "Basically, we had a really hard time finding anyone who was willing to even say 'I'll open the doors,'" Park remembers. The academics finally teamed up with the Police Executive Research Forum, a national law-enforcement policy group, and won a grant to extend the shooter-bias tests to cops. But the police group got nervous and backed out at the last minute, Park says, effectively closing the door on the CUSP project.
Then Park got an unexpected call from Keesee.
"She said she was a graduate student and wanted to ask me some questions about the study," recalls Park. "I called her back and we chatted a little bit about it, and about ten minutes into the conversation, she said she was actually a police lieutenant."
Park mentioned the conversation to her colleagues: "And they said, 'Did you ask her if we could have access to the Denver police?' And I said, 'No, she just wanted to know about the work.' And they said, 'Call her back after the meeting!'"
Park did, and Keesee was open to discussing the idea. But as a then-thirteen-year veteran of the DPD, she knew that gaining authorization to test the city's cops for racist shooting tendencies would not be easy. For starters, the departmental bureaucracy would have to overcome its natural instinct to close ranks to outsiders, a stance that becomes particularly useful whenever race is at issue. "A lot of large organizations would not allow outside researchers to come in and look at hot-button topics such as race bias and the use of deadly force," Keesee acknowledges.
So she decided to take the idea right to the top: Chief Gerald Whitman, who agreed to let the CUSP researchers have a sit-down with department brass. Then Whitman had to weigh whether getting useful data on police-shooting decisions was worth the possible damage that negative results might have on the department's already tenuous image within the black and Hispanic communities. After all, fallout from the Mena shooting had ultimately forced the resignation of the previous chief, Tom Sanchez, in 2000. But ultimately, Whitman agreed to the DPD's participation.
"I wanted to see what we could learn from this survey," says Whitman. "It was something that would improve officer safety and citizen safety and make us better police."
"It took a lot of courage for the chief to agree to let them come in and do some research," adds Keesee.
Keesee, who is continuing her education by working toward a Ph.D. in intercultural communications at DU, is currently the commander of District 3, which covers Capitol Hill south to the Denver Tech Center. It's the district in which she was born and raised — her mother was a nurse, her father in the military — and where she started her career as a police officer in 1989. At the time, she was a single parent with a young daughter. She'd considered becoming a lawyer, but opted for law enforcement instead. "It was between joining the Denver Police Department and joining the Houston Police Department," she says. "This being my home, I decided to stay here."
But Keesee's district includes neighborhoods with some of the lowest minority populations in the city. So when it came time to find officers to volunteer for the study, Park and Keesee spread their recruitment efforts across four police districts, eventually getting shooter data from 124 local officers. To compare the cops with community members, they staked out Division of Motor Vehicle offices in the same districts and asked citizens to do the shooter simulation. For a national sample of cops, Park and other researchers traveled to officer-training seminars across the country.
The results of their study were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last July, in a paper titled "The Thin Blue Line: Police Officers and Racial Bias in the Decision to Shoot." As in the earlier CUSP study, community members displayed a greater willingness to shoot an African-American target than a white one. But while police officers still displayed discrepancies in speed of response depending on race, they vastly outperformed civilians in accuracy — meaning that cops did not make the ultimate decision to shoot based on a target's skin color.
For Correll, who'd initially hypothesized that officers would show the same biases as civilians, the results were very surprising. "Police officers are people," he says. "They have the same basic mental processes that we do, and they should be governed by the same types of things. So in a culture that pretty regularly associates black people with danger and criminality, we might expect [police] to look just like everyone else."
Instead, this study indicated that police officers' training not only affected whether they chose to fire at a target, but made them less likely to shoot on the basis of race.
The DPD and the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance held a press conference to announce the results. The New York Times picked up the story, as did National Public Radio, but to the disappointment of both the researchers and the DPD, no local outlets covered it. After all the times the department had been hammered by the media for controversial police shootings, the one time it had new information shedding light on a complex subject, no one paid attention.
"It made you stop and think about the long-held assumption that we all have," Keesee says. "This was very important from a law-enforcement prospective. A significant step was made to answer a question that communities of color have had for a very long time."
Keesee did receive inquiries about the study from police departments in several other cities. And national law-enforcement organizations heralded the results as further evidence that cop-shooting decisions are not driven by race bias, that the widely held belief that police are "trigger-happy" for certain ethnicities doesn't stand up.
If anyone is trigger-happy for minorities, it's society at large.
I have come to the "shooter study" test site in the psychology building on CU's Boulder campus to find out if I'm a racist.
I'm welcomed by a graduate student whose job is to watch other students as they simulate shooting people of different races. The data is then compared to the performances of Denver citizens and police officers, as well as officers from around the country. This is not the only CUSP study in progress; five faculty social-psychologists and half a dozen graduate students work here, researching everything from how blacks with greater Afro-centric facial features are disproportionately represented in prison populations to how racial prejudice can be measured in brain waves.
"Go ahead and have a seat," the grad student says, gesturing toward dozens of desks, a small computer on each, lined along the walls. I'm given a consent form that says I know this is an anonymous, voluntary study. On the desk in front of the computer screen is a little box with three buttons. The green one is labeled "shoot," the red one "don't shoot." There's also a yellow button that I'm supposed to press when I want to start. I do, and instructions pop up on the screen that tell me my task is to shoot anybody holding a gun. I have less than a second to make a choice, and if I don't, I lose points. The point system goes like this:
+5 points for deciding not to shoot at an unarmed man
+10 points for shooting an armed man
-20 points for shooting an unarmed man
-40 points for being shot
There are two versions to this game — a fast one and a super-fast one. I'm on the super-fast one, which calls for quicker decisions and has a greater likelihood of revealing racial bias. I'm given a practice round, and the game flips through a series of background images showing locations in Denver: a light-rail shelter behind Union Station, a sidewalk in Civic Center Park, an alleyway near downtown, a spot on Capitol Hill. The first man who pops up is a white guy crouching with a gun. I press "shoot." As the game continues, the images come faster. I find myself accidentally shooting white men with Coke cans, black guys with cell phones. But if I wait too long on an image, I lose my chance and points. So I choose "don't shoot" prematurely a few times and get shot, losing still more points.
When I start the real game, I make correct choices on the first three images but bungle the next two. There's no gunfire; the only sound is the periodic clack of the button as I try to decide on my course of action as quickly as possible. When I shoot another black guy with a cell phone, I wonder if I've just revealed some hidden racial bias. So when I see the image of another black male, I overcompensate by hitting the red button too quickly — and end up getting shot myself.
After about two minutes, the game is over. While I'm not confident of my accuracy score, I think I'm pretty safe from scoring as a racist, since I probably shot as many unarmed white males as blacks. The truth of the simulation, however, is not necessarily measured by the overall score, but in milliseconds. How long did it take me to decide if I viewed a person as a threat — and with which race was I most often correct?
The results of my test are determined by this formula: f(1,361)+239.37,p<.001. it showed that i was percent more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black than white took me a third longer decide man not threat. and this computer game.>
In the field, cops are dealing with chaotic and hazardous situations, when mere milliseconds separate the momentary flash of a potential weapon and when they have to decide whether to pull the trigger. How can training — even the best training — overcome the entrenched factors of cultural bias?
Though Denver was spared the brutal race riots that shook cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York in the '60s and '70s, race relations here have an uneasy history, stretching from Denver's earliest days through its stint in the 1920s as a KKK stronghold. "Another Black Man Killed," a pamphlet distributed around the city in 1961, denounced the shooting of Eugene "Skijump" Cook by two officers. "How long are these white men going to be allowed to walk our streets and kill us off and walk again?" its anonymous author raged.
Minority Views of the Police, a book based on numerous interviews with Denver residents and police officers, published by the University of Denver in 1969, concluded that the most important factor influencing residents' view of the police was ethnicity: "Negros and Spanish-named persons share among themselves views of the police that are less favorable than those of the rest of the community and which are not materially affected by the success they achieve in life in terms of social and economic position." At the time, the percentage of black and Latino officers in the Denver Police Department was about 5 percent. At the end of 2006, approximately 32 percent of Denver officers were minority — below the city's non-white population of about 50 percent, but a close match with the ethnic makeup of the metro-area recruiting pool.
But those changing realities, as well as studies like CUSP's, don't deter the DPD's critics. African-American activist Shareef Aleem, who's read the "Thin Blue Line" report, says it has little to do with real-life scenarios. "I don't deal with video games when I'm out on the street. I'm dealing with real cops with attitudes," he notes. "With the Denver and Aurora police departments, if you're black or Latino, the police are more aggressive towards you, insofar as shooting you or beating you down." The only reason the DPD would feel compelled to participate in such a study, he adds, is because it has such a checkered past with racially biased shootings: "I'm looking at what's the motivation of the study and what's the political message they're trying to get out. If they're trying to show that this is some kind of magic pill, that they don't discriminate, that's bullshit. If you've got to do all this to prove you're not racist, you're definitely racist."
But Joseph Sandoval, a professor of criminal justice at Metro State College, thinks the study suggests that the DPD is becoming more open to changing a culture that once permitted and even encouraged the use of deadly force. "In the '60s and '70s, if an [officer] didn't pull out a gun and shoot immediately, they were branded as cowards," says Sandoval, who helped create the Public Safety Review Commission and the Citizens' Oversight Board.
But while Sandoval thinks the department has come a long way regarding the shooting of civilians, particularly minority civilians, he doubts that racial bias can ever be eliminated completely. "Police officers are a product of the communities within which they live and those biases are there very clearly in our society," he notes. "Maybe it will never be eliminated. However, that kind of racial bias can be pushed to the background in situations involving shootings."
In 2006 and 2007, there were nineteen officer-involved shootings. Of the individuals shot, eleven were Hispanic, five were black, two were white and one was Asian.
Since 1996, forty people have been killed by Denver police, out of a total of 86 deadly-force incidents when an officer shot someone. The vast majority of those killed were armed with guns and knives, but other instances involved just a stick, a fake gun, a cell phone or a soda can.
In July 2004, Officer Ranjan Ford and two other cops used a ladder to climb through the second-story window of an apartment in the South Lincoln Park housing projects. They were searching for Vincent Martinez, who was suspected of assaulting his girlfriend after an argument in a bar, then refusing to let her leave her home for seventeen hours. When they crawled into the dark house, they didn't know that Martinez had already fled out the back and that his uncle, 63-year-old Frank Lobato, was lying naked in bed, unable to walk without crutches.
"I said, 'There's someone on the bed,'" Ford recounted in a videotape, "and before I know it, this guy pops up out of nowhere...just sat straight up and goes, 'What the fuck?' And I saw something shiny in his right hand. And my reaction was to drop down and shoot. I mean, I, I thought I was going to get killed."
Ford said that he mistook a soda can in Lobato's hand for a gun. Although tests didn't find Lobato's fingerprints or saliva on the can, both the Denver District Attorney's Office and a grand jury declined to press charges against Ford. Denver Manager of Safety Al LaCabe concluded that Ford was not justified in the shooting and suspended him for ninety days (later cut to fifty). "I believe there is a reasonable possibility that officer Ford may have simply been startled by Frank Lobato's movements," LaCabe wrote in his 22-page decision letter, "or interpreted those movements as a deadly ambush and momentarily reacted while his finger was on the trigger of the weapon, causing him to unintentionally squeeze the trigger while simultaneously ducking."
That answer didn't satisfy Lobato's family. Attorney Kenneth Padilla filed a $10 million civil-rights lawsuit against the city for "failing to properly hire, train and supervise" the officers who'd responded to the scene; a city attorney fought to get the lawsuit dismissed. This past January, a federal judge ruled that a jury be allowed to hear Padilla's argument that the DPD's failure to train its officers on decisional shooting and use-of-force policy had resulted in Lobato's death. Rather than take its chances at an ugly public trial, the city decided to settle with the Lobato family for $900,000.
"The city paid over a million dollars to defend that case," says Padilla. "They could've settled with this family early on and saved the city a million dollars in taxpayers' money. I think that's obscene."
Padilla also represents Vicky Trujillo, the wife of Jason Gomez.
Tiffany Ito, a social neuroscientist with the CUSP lab, used the shooting simulator to map out the brain activity of citizen volunteers, attaching electrodes to their heads to measure electrical impulses. On her computer screen, she now pulls up a series of charts that detail which parts of the brain were working, and how powerfully they were working, during the milliseconds it took for a shooter image to appear and the participant to decide what to do.
In early studies, Park explains, the scientists would talk about whether only white participants would show cultural bias. "Because then it would have a meaning, right?" she says. "If it was something that whites show and blacks don't, then it is a prejudice of dislike toward black." But that's not what more recent data indicated. "It has less to do with 'I don't like this group' and more to do with 'I associate this group with danger,'" Park notes. "It's certainly part of the culture, given that you see it within African-Americans, and given that they are picking up on more general cultural associations with blacks and danger."
Tom Aveni, a police officer and shooting trainer for thirty years who's studied so-called questionable shootings since 1995, calls the CUSP study "absolute garbage."
"You've got a computer game where they splice a brief exposure of a still photo," he says. "So there's really no realistic situational context. We don't have a crime being committed, we don't have actions."
Aveni, who's with the New Hampshire-based Police Policy Studies Council, has done research of his own using a more elaborate shooting simulator, which he says shows that the behavior of the suspect, rather than the suspect's race, has the biggest influence on an officer's decision to shoot. Aveni presented more than 300 officers with dozens of scenarios involving everything from robberies to muggings to burglaries; the suspects the officers encountered varied in age, race, gender and manner of dress. In half of the situations, the suspects were holding flashlights or cell phones. Aveni found that officers were more likely to shoot if the suspects were young rather than old, and wearing "punk clothes" rather than dressed up. But the most important factor was whether the subject acted in a way the officer found intimidating.
"If an officer responds to an armed robbery and gives a verbal command — 'Show me your hands! Don't move!' — and the person turns abruptly, especially in a partial crouch or a full crouch, he's gonna get shot whether he's armed or not," says Aveni. "Because the expectation is, this guy is fleeing the scene of a robbery, he's not obeying verbal commands, and now he's turning toward me in a threatening manner. That is what drives a decision to shoot. Irresponsible behavior in a felonious context will get somebody shot."
CUSP researchers have been careful to point out that their simplified task is in no way meant to simulate what officers experience in real-life situations. "But I do think that factors in the environment affect cognition and how people process information, including how easy it is for a person to process if another person is holding a gun or not," Park notes.
At its most basic level, Ito says, a stereotype is a natural human function that allows the brain to detect various threats. "We have primitive, quick-acting threat-detection systems — we call them visualence systems — that would be sensitive to a wide range of stimuli," she explains. "If you're walking through the forest and you feel something move next to you, it could be a snake, it could be a little critter trying to bite you. You'll orient to that, try to quickly figure out what it is."
So if it's a snake, you jump — but if it's a bunny?
"Your brain says it's fine," she says. But since the brain is pretty sensitive when it comes to false-positives, it's better to jump even though it's a stick than not to jump. "And there's a lot of biologically relevant stimuli that would trigger reactions from snakes, spiders, certain kinds of movement," she adds.
But while some of our responses are encoded by nature, other threat-detection stereotypes are social constructs that we've learned. "Through years and years of TV shows, for example, that have given your brain unconscious signals that one group is like this and another group is like that," Ito points out. "Well, then, maybe when you're walking down the street, you just unconsciously orient to those kinds of folks more."
In threatening environments, the brain is constantly on the lookout for danger. This same response is activated by the shoot/don't-shoot scenarios, where a brain might react faster to a black man as a threat (i.e., holding a gun) than a white man, resulting in the skewed results. But the brain also has a "conflict-monitoring" stage of decision-making where it tries to resolve two seemingly incongruent images (black guy without a gun) in order to make the correct choice.
Ito hasn't had a chance to do brain scans of the police officers who've done the simulations, but she says she suspects the results would show that through training, the officers have better developed the process of separating an actual threat from their initial bias. "The subtle influences that we have growing up are so powerful. We're talking about decades of influence," she explains. "And in the case of race, everything around us is giving us messages about the way different racial groups are, whether we realize it or not."
She points to the tiny voltage measurements that show where the participants' brains seemed to be separating black targets from white targets.
Is this what a stereotype looks like?
The trainers are in red shirts, standing behind four twenty-something police recruits in bulletproof vests.
"Shoot 'em six times, real quick," says one trainer. "Ready! Go!"
The recruits snatch the guns from their holsters and fire a quick volley of bullets into the paper targets about ten feet away. The blasts reverberate through the bunker-like firing range near Invesco Field that the DPD uses for training exercises.
Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
"Excellent. Okay, let's do it one-handed now. Go!"
Sergeant Marek "Ribs" Rybkowski stands behind the recruits, carefully watching to see whose hand dips and who has the best trigger control. He's going to show me the correct way to fire a gun using the department's shooting simulator, which is much more technologically advanced than the CUSP lab's simulator.
"Being police officers, we're responsible for every round that leaves the muzzle of the gun," Rybkowski explains. "We have to make sure that if we make the decision to shoot, obviously the ramifications to the public and to ourselves is serious."
While the paper targets have the familiar silhouette of a human, they also include the image of a gun. "Everything we shoot at has to have a threat on it," Rybkowski says. "So all of our shoot targets have a gun or some other type of weapon. We don't shoot at anything that isn't armed." The DPD started using this target in 1998.
That was the same year the department bought its first training simulator, the Range 2000. The string of events leading to its purchase stretched back to the 1985 shooting death of Leonard Zuchel. One evening that August, the manager of a McDonald's near downtown called police after the 26-year-old Zuchel created a disturbance. Officer Frederick Spinharney and another partner responded to the scene and found Zuchel on the street, arguing with two teenagers. As the officers approached, Zuchel spun around and Spinharney shot him, mistaking a pair of nail clippers the young man was holding for a knife. Zuchel's parents filed a lawsuit charging that police training was inadequate and that the city lacked "live" drills that would provide practice on when to shoot or not to shoot. A court agreed that "a direct connection existed between the inadequacy and the shooting," and in 1993 the family was awarded $330,000. That case led to cities around the country adopting greater requirements in decisional shooting training.
The same year as that verdict, Spinharney shot and injured another man during a domestic-disturbance call. In 1996, after Spinharney fired into a car during a traffic stop, then-chief David Michaud kicked him off the force. Two years later, Officer Robert Schneider, an expert in firearms training, testified at a civil-service hearing on Spinharney's dismissal. He criticized the city's decisional training efforts since Zuchel's death and said that Spinharney had received no additional training of any kind after his three shooting incidents. (Schneider went on to file his own lawsuit against the city, claiming that he had been transferred as a trainer in the SWAT division as retaliation for his damning testimony. A jury awarded him $75,000 in damages.)
While Rybkowski acknowledges that high-profile shooting incidents prompted some of the alterations in DPD firearms training, he says the changes are more a reflection of the general evolution of police-training techniques nationwide. These days, the city is using an upgraded video simulator called the MILO Range. While the DPD has two other video simulators in buses that rotate between districts so that officers can complete their required regular training, the MILO is a live-fire simulator, with a twenty-by-twenty-foot screen and speakers. A video is projected onto the screen; behind it are infrared lights that show where bullets pass through the paper.
Though I admit I have never fired a gun in my life, I am given a handgun.
"Do I have to wait for the person to point it at me?" I ask.
"Not necessarily," Rybkowski says. "A lot of it depends on your perception. Do I perceive a threat? It's something that we deal with as far as the law goes. Let's say I see someone just bringing the gun up. I can shoot. Or maybe you have a suicidal party that has their gun like this." He points his fingers like a gun and puts it to his temple. "And they move their gun. How much time does it take to go from here to there? It's all about your perception of a threat, and that's what you have to be able to articulate, which is also part of the training. Can I articulate why I did what I did, and does it follow state law? Does it follow department policy?"
"Do I have to give any voice commands?"
"Like, 'Drop the gun'?"
But before I get an answer, the simulation has begun. A recorded voice tells me that I've gotten a report of a suspicious individual by a parked car. The video has me approaching the side of a car; there's an older black male in the driver's seat. I see something on the seat next to him, but he's already grabbed it and swings it around to me. I barely have time to utter "Drop the gu—" before he hits me with a spray of bullets. I fire back twice, but it's clear I am dead.
Then we run through the simulation again, and instead of reaching for a gun, the man suddenly pulls out his ID and cooperates.
Another simulation features a suicidal waitress holding a knife to her wrist. Rybkowski tells me it was filmed at a local C.B. & Potts. When the waitress comes at me with the knife, I shoot her twice, both direct hits. I am feeling proud of myself until Rybkowski tells me that I got so close the waitress could have stabbed me. I should have stepped farther away, behind a table or other obstacle.
The next simulation is a robbery situation in a bar, where I get fired upon by a white male. Again, I am dead.
Rybkowski says the MILO works well because it forces officers into situations where they have to learn to take multiple factors into account so that race becomes irrelevant.
"The fact of the matter is, we all do have prejudices," he admits. "But through training and experience, you have to learn how to put those aside and treat everybody the same way. And that means treat everybody with respect and professionalism, first of all. But also, if I would have been biased in my life to think of a person as perhaps being more of a threat than someone else because of their race, I might be making a big mistake. My life might depend on that. If I have two males, one's white and one's black, but if I'm focused on the black because I have a bias to him as a threat, well, he may not be the problem.
"Maybe it's the other guy."
In 1996, then-Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter asked retired Colorado Supreme Court justice William Erickson to chair a special advisory commission and look into police deadly-force procedures after the death of Jeffrey Truax, who was shot by two Denver officers moonlighting at a Broadway club. The Erickson Commission ultimately reinforced the DA's existing process of determining if criminal charges should be filed against an officer following a shooting, but advised that certain changes be enacted to promote openness. Some of its recommendations were implemented in 2003 by new Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who created the DPD's Use of Force and Tactics Review Board and mandated that the Denver Manager of Safety, who oversees the police department, also issue a public report after any DPD incident involving use of force that results in a citizen's death or serious bodily injury.
Two years later, after the shooting of Paul Childs, the city also established the Office of the Independent Monitor, hiring as its director Richard Rosenthal, who came from a similar position in Portland. Denver is now one of only five cities in the country that has a city-funded watchdog independent of the police department whose sole focus is police use of force, Rosenthal says.
Today, whenever a Denver officer intentionally shoots at a human being, the incident is investigated by four separate entities, each of which issues a report. The DA's office determines whether the officer should be charged criminally; the DPD's Use of Force Review Board considers whether the officer's decision to shoot violated department policy; the Denver Manager of Safety issues a comprehensive report, and the OIM also issues an assessment.
The monitor's office doesn't just review documents after the fact; it's involved as soon as a shooting occurs. The OIM has a "roll-out protocol" that applies to assorted critical-force situations. In 2007, there were sixteen roll-outs, seven of which involved shootings.
"We can cover the questions that night and not have to wait a month and try to get our questions answered," Rosenthal says. "The facts, the evidence, is established within 24 hours of any case. And this is the stuff we need to return our decisions. And most of the time, we find the department's decisions to be reasonable. But every once in a while, there are instances where we're not going to agree."
The Jason Gomez case is not one of them.
Gomez had an arrest record dating back to 1993 on charges of burglary, vandalism and assault, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. Out on parole since February 2007, he was wanted again for a previous parole violation by last December, when Campbell spotted his Saturn moving erratically on Irving Street. A seven-year veteran of the force, Campbell decided to execute a U-turn and get the license-plate number, but the car made a quick move to the right and into a driveway.
As Campbell pulled up, a man exited the car and ran. After radioing dispatch, the officer gave chase. When he caught up with the man, he was "bobbing kind of like a fighting cock," Campbell later said. "He was prancing all around...jerking back and forth...bobbing his head." Along with making aggravated motions, the man also shouted, "I'm going to kill you" — loud enough so that the threat was heard by nearby residents inside their homes — and "GKI! GKI!," referring to the west-side gang Gallant Knights Insane. Campbell said he had his gun drawn when he observed the man pulling his arm from behind his back, and metal flashed. Campbell pulled the trigger twice. "Is that all you got?" the man yelled, and moved toward him, saying, "I'm going to kill you." Campbell shot him four more times before he fell.
Although several residents said they heard the commotion and the gunshots, only eighteen-year-old Max Alderton said he witnessed the incident.
In a statement given immediately after the shooting, Alderton said he was in bed when he heard screaming outside his window. He looked out and saw a "bald man," identified as Campbell, standing with another man, who was kneeling. "The bald guy was shouting, 'I'm gonna fucking kill you!'" Alderton said, adding that when the other man got up to run, "the bald man withdrew a gun, began chasing him and fired five to seven shots at him." But Alderton changed his version in a later video testimony, when he said the bald guy fired one shot after the other guy ran. At that point, Alderton said, he ran to tell his roommate to call 911 and heard more shots.
Investigators discounted Alderton's accounts because they didn't match up with autopsy results that showed all the bullet entry wounds being anterior rather than posterior. If Gomez had indeed been running away when Campbell fired, the bullets would have struck him in the back rather than the front. The autopsy also showed that Gomez had crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol in his system at the time of his death.
The DA's office decided not to charge Campbell in connection with the unarmed man's shooting. "The fact that Gomez made his verbal and physical threats to kill Campbell while possessing a lighter, rather than a firearm or edged weapon, is of no consequence under the facts of this case," the DA's report concluded. The OIM concurred with the DA's determination that Gomez's death was "suicide by cop." (The Manager of Safety has not yet released his report.)
Padilla, who is considering another lawsuit against the city in connection with Gomez's death, is skeptical of both Campbell's account and the subsequent investigations. "I think this raises very serious issues of the [DA's office] discounting the ear- and eyewitnesses to what they say occurred in this case," he says. "And to claim that this was suicide by cop belies common logic."
Gomez's sister, Cynthia Pacheco, says the behavior described by Campbell doesn't sound like anything her brother would do. "If this was in a different neighborhood, I think they would've taken steps," she says. "They could have Maced him, they could have Tased him, something like that. There are certain procedures they should follow instead of just shooting at people and killing them."
CUSP researchers are now studying Denver Police Academy cadets to see how well they perform the simulated-shooting task at different stages in their training. "One thing that they care about is that there isn't anything that goes on by way of training that would promote cultural bias," Park says of the DPD. "That's something that community members will often lob against the police, that if they don't come as racists, they're trained to be racists."
So far, however, the data shows that the cadets look and act like the community they're from when they enter the academy, which means they show race bias both in the latencies — differences in speed of decision to shoot — and the actual shooting errors. But by the time they exit the academy, they no longer display the race bias in errors. "They look much more like the police," Park says.
For Keesee and other veteran police officers, the shooting studies seem to prove that training reduces instances of biased shootings. But the research also raises other questions. What part of the training is most successful? Is it something cadets learn at the academy or on the job? "There are still a lot of questions that have to be answered, and a lot of things need to be done," says Keesee. "Why do these perceptions still continue? Why have the [shooting] events occurred? Why do they continue to occur? Is there something that is in the training? The studies just give us another direction on where to look, another jumping-off point. Where do we go from here?"
In his 2003 research, Anthony Greenwald determined that while more sophisticated simulators, such as MILO, make people more sensitive to weapons, that training doesn't undo unconscious race stereotypes or bias; he recommended that police receive bias-awareness training that would give officers the chance to discover and counteract automatic stereotypes that could interfere with the best performances of their duties. Correll has started working with Meggitt Defense Systems, a company that develops police-training simulators, to create videos that will test if officers are showing race bias. Officers will then get printouts of their results so they can see how any hidden prejudices might be influencing their shooting choices.
The DPD is hoping to use CUSP's research to help develop a training program that could be a national model for other departments. Keesee would like to see the department create a research consortium with other law-enforcement agencies, to ensure that critical questions continue to be asked — and police officers continue to take a long, hard look at themselves.
"There's a lot of interest there, but there's a lot of fear there as well," Keesee says. "Especially from a chief's standpoint, from a liability standpoint. Would you open yourself up to do that? At some point as leaders, you have to take that risk to answer the question."
One simulation at the DPD's shooting range involved a call from other officers about a suspicious man near a bus stop. He was sitting on the grass, kind of hunched over. There were children standing behind him, and one of the other officers told the kids to move to the other side of the street. A bus was pulling around the bend in the back right as the man stood and began ranting about not passing school and losing his girlfriend. He turned to face us and his sweatshirt flapped open, revealing something long and cylindrical underneath his belt.
Rybkowski stopped the tape. "Now, what do you see here?"
"Is it a bomb?"
"Maybe," he replied. "Or maybe not."
I looked harder. It could have been a bomb, or a thermos or a package. Rybkowski moved the simulation forward frame by frame. The bus was pulling up directly behind the man.
"Now, I've had officers refuse to shoot because they said they didn't want to miss and hit the school bus," he said. "We often discuss the morality of it. Yeah, it may be a legally justified shooting, but is it morally justified? Did you actually have to do that? And that's something that everybody had to decide in their head."
He pushed "play," and the man detonated the bomb in a fiery explosion.
Was that man black or white?
Get the Weekly Newsletter