Use-of-force policies for both the St. Louis Metropolitan Police and St. Louis County Police departments say officers can shoot someone to “protect themselves or others from what is reasonably believed to be an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury.”
Protesters who have been marching throughout greater St. Louis, demanding greater police accountability for more than a month, say those policies give officers too much leeway. They want more limits on when officers can draw and fire their weapons. But an expert on deadly force says the solution isn’t more restrictions — it’s better training.
The latest protests stem from a December 2011 police shooting. Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man, led two white SLMPD officers on a high-speed chase after the officers tried to arrest because the suspected he had been selling drugs.
After a crash, both officers ran to the driver’s side window of Smith’s car with their weapons drawn. One of them, 36-year-old Jason Stockley, fired multiple shots, killing Smith. A judge found Stockley not guilty of first-degree murder, a verdict that touched off the protests.
In Kenny Murdock’s opinion, Stockley and so many other officers are too quick to shoot. So far this year, SLMPD officers have shot 15 people, eight of them fatally. Numbers were not immediately available for St. Louis County.
“The police officer walked up to the car and shot very quickly because he got scared, and that’s currently legal,” said Murdock, who is the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter PAC.
Stephen Houldsworth, who, like Murdock, is a regular at the post-Stockley protests, also views the current policy as a “get out of jail free” card.
“All over the country, we’ve seen that all a police officer needs to say is, ‘I feared for my life,’ no matter how reasonable or unreasonable that fear was,” Houldsworth said. “We’re allowing that bias, that thought, to be an excuse for inexcusable behavior.”
But University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor David Klinger said he saw something much different when he looked at the Stockley shooting.
“It’s not good tactics,” said Klinger, who was a police officer in Los Angeles and Washington state before entering academia. He has written several papers applying a sociological theory known as “normal accident theory” to policing.
Normal accident theory
Charles Perrow, a sociologist at Yale, developed normal accident theory after studying the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Basically the theory says that the more complicated and interconnected a system or a situation, the more likely an accident will happen.
In scenarios like this, the risk of an accident can be reduced — but never eliminated completely.
In policing, Klinger said, officers reduce the chance of an “accident” — shooting someone who doesn’t need to be shot, for example — by being tactically sound.
Everything officers learn in the academy is meant to make situations simpler. The main ones are time and space. Officers who put a gap between themselves and the people they are dealing with have more time to consider all of the options, including whether or not to use force.
Stockley and his partner didn’t do that, Klinger said.
“What I would have done is I would have ensured that we both stayed back at the patrol car with our guns drawn, waiting for other units to show up, and then order the suspect out,” Klinger said. “If he comes out with a gun, and he points it in our direction or threatens us, he gets shot, and then the video is very, very different from the video that had so many people outraged.”
Officers will have to shoot people sometimes, Klinger said. But he believes 25 percent of fatal police shootings could have been avoided if officers used better tactics.
“Sometimes an officer doesn’t adhere to his or her training,” Klinger said. “Sometimes they haven’t been trained well. Sometimes they were trained well 10, 15 years ago when they went to the academy and haven’t gotten any refresher training.”
Richard Schicker, a 12-year veteran of St. Louis’ police department, knows firsthand what happens when you ignore what you are taught. He was a young officer working nights when a call came in about a burglary. Schicker, who had been sitting at the station writing reports, responded without telling dispatch where he was going.
“I followed some of the procedures to stay safe,” Schicker said. “I didn’t park right in front of the house, and I waited for the other car to show up.”
As Schicker was waiting, the person who had called 911 pointed to the backyard. Schicker went around the back, and ended up confronting the burglary suspect. Schicker chased him without waiting for backup.
“I caught up to him, he fell, and we ended up struggling over my gun,” Schicker said. “He got it, and I ended up having to unload it and fire the round off because I thought if I lost it, he was going to kill me. I made so many tactical mistakes that I got myself into a situation where, make no mistake, it was deadly force straightaway.”
Every officer wants to be the hero, Schicker said. They don’t think about what can go wrong, and “then you get yourself into something where it goes really poorly.”
More often than not, Schicker said, younger officers will ignore what’s smart tactically in favor of being the hero.
“I think more training, and having older officers pull people aside and saying, ‘hey, look, this is why we don’t do these things,’ leads you to being a little more calm about things,” Schicker said.
Eric Austermann, an instructor at the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, said he finds younger officers are usually pretty good at the technical side of policing, since they’ve just come out of the academy and it’s fresh in their minds. But they haven’t yet learned how to talk to people, which is the foundation of policing.
That will come with experience. Older officers, Austermann said, are usually pretty good communicators. But sometimes they have trouble tactically.
“They say well, I do traffic stops this way, and since nothing has ever happened to me, I must be doing it the right way right? And they continue to do that,” Austermann said.
Schicker, the St. Louis officer, said he probably wouldn’t feel comfortable calling out an older officer who was doing something wrong tactically. But according to Klinger, the UMSL criminology professor, the only way to make sure officers shoot fewer people is to make sure departments are encouraging a culture where everyone feels free to point out the mistakes of others — regardless of their rank.
"If people would just listen to what I say about tactics and management, it offers far more leverage” to improve policing, he said.
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Read all of our coverage of the Stockley verdict here.