When police officers shoot an unarmed suspect, they often face state or federal charges for homicide or for violating civil rights by the use of excessive force. They are also exposed to civil liability in state or federal lawsuits. In all of those situations, the officers turn to expert witnesses to explain their actions to juries.
The New York Times recently explained how a psychologist can help police officers obtain favorable verdicts in civil and criminal trials. The article profiles William J. Lewinsky, a former psychology professor who has provided expert assistance in two hundred police shooting cases in the last ten years. The Times calls Lewinsky “one of the most influential voices” in the psychology of police shootings. Critics ask whether his testimony is based on valid research or “junk science.”
An Advocate for Police Officers
According to the Times, Lewinsky’s testimony consistently justifies police shootings, even when the officer’s version of the shooting is contradicted by video evidence, physical evidence of how the shooting occurred, and witness testimony. Even when the shooting victim was unarmed or shot in the back, Lewinsky’s testimony exonerates the officer.
Lewinsky’s company, the Force Science Institute, trains officers that it is reasonable to shoot suspects who engage in ambiguous conduct that could be perceived as threatening. That training is based on Lewinsky’s controversial research, which concludes that officers who wait to see a weapon before shooting a suspect are putting their lives at risk.
For example, a Portland trial in which Lewinsky testified involved a police officer who stopped a driver for a red light violation. The driver put his hand in his pocket. The officer told the driver to take his hand out of the pocket and then shot the driver when the driver started to obey that command. The driver was unarmed. Lewinsky testified that the officer behaved appropriately.
Lewinsky’s advice to police officers opposes the modern trend to develop clear use-of-force guidelines that require officers to follow a “continuum” that allows the use of deadly force only as a last resort. A typical continuum approach instructs police officers to begin interactions with verbal commands. When those commands are resisted, officers are permitted to use appropriate physical force (perhaps including chemical sprays), escalating to nonlethal incapacitating force (such as a Taser) when resistance becomes aggressive. Officers are typically trained to assess threats before they respond and to use deadly force only to overcome a deadly threat.
Force Science vs. Junk Science
Lewinsky bases his opinions on the study of “force science,” a field he largely invented. His maverick approach is consistent with his educational background. He designed his own doctorate in a field he calls “police psychology.” The police psychology doctorate, awarded by an alternative university, is not available elsewhere.
Lewinsky defines force science as “the research and application of unbiased scientific principles and processes to determine the true nature of human behavior in high stress and deadly force encounters.” The gist of his research is that suspects can pull and fire guns very quickly. His conclusion is that officers can only protect themselves by shooting when they suspect a gun is about to be pulled, even if they have not actually seen one.
Critics suggest that Lewinsky’s theory puts the lives of police officers (who are paid to take risks) ahead of the lives of innocent victims who have done nothing to endanger the officers. An editor of The American Journal of Psychology calls Lewinsky’s research “pseudoscience” while the Justice Department says that Lewinsky’s findings are unreliable. Yet, as Lewinsky points out, the Justice Department also paid him $55,000 to testify on behalf of a federal drug agent who killed an unarmed 18-year-old.
Lewinsky’s credentials stress that he has spoken at “peer reviewed” conferences and mention that his research is published in law enforcement journals, but Lewinsky does not specifically claim to have published peer-reviewed research. He has been criticized for relying on research findings that have not been reviewed by other scientists, for failing to conduct research using control groups, and for drawing conclusions that his data does not substantiate.
Lewinsky has also been criticized for basing testimony on his own assumptions about why police officers acted as they did, and for giving testimony that fails to account for the possibility that officers who describe a shooting are lying to protect themselves. None of that seems to matter to juries, which tend to side with the police officer when Lewinsky testifies.
According to the Times, Lewinsky is a popular expert — despite the $1,000 per hour he charges to testify — because he has the qualities that lawyers hope to find in an expert witness: he sticks to his guns, he is not easily rattled during aggressive cross-examination, he is “affable and confident,” he gains the trust of jurors by citing research findings, and he establishes a rapport with juries by sprinkling sports metaphors into his testimony. Shooting an unarmed person, he tells juries, is like swinging at a bad pitch.
Jurors in many jurisdictions are predisposed to view police officers as heroic and to view their self-protective actions as justified. Influenced by television shows and movies that portray police work as more dangerous than it really is, jurors are inclined to side with police officers when they use deadly force. As the Times points out, Lewinsky gives them a reason to do so.