How Police Learn When to Shoot

They watch a grim canon of videos in which their colleagues have been killed in the line of duty.

Police officers all over the country have seen the 1991 video of Darrell Lunsford, a constable in Texas who was killed by three men whose car he had pulled over. PoliceOne, an industry news source, calls it “one of the most famous, tragic videos in law enforcement.”

Video still courtesy of PoliceOne

In recent months, videos in which police officers are seen using lethal force against civilians have become disturbingly common. It’s a grim new canon of violence: Walter Scott shot in the back in South Carolina; Eric Garner struggling to breathe on the streets of Staten Island; Tamir Rice losing his life over a toy gun in Cleveland; Kajieme Powell crumpling to the ground in St. Louis. The videos have become reference points in the national debate over policing, and a catalyst for a political movement to reform police tactics and training. They have undoubtedly changed the way large swaths of Americans view law enforcement.

When police officers watch these videos, however, they interpret them differently: Where civilians might see racial profiling and excessive use of force, cops might see sound protocol rooted in the dangerous realities of the job. This, by now, is well understood. But what is less-known outside of law enforcement circles is that police officers have their own canon of disturbing videos: a collection of widely viewed and much-discussed field recordings in which their fellow officers are killed or gravely injured in the line of duty.

These videos, most of them captured by dashboard cameras, have been watched by police officers across the country for years, and they are talked about with raw emotion on law enforcement message boards. For many officers, they represent a chilling reminder to never lose sight of the unpredictability they face on the street—and to resist any political pressure they might feel to forget their training in the face of danger.

The videos are also used as learning tools. In fact, while most of them are easily accessible on YouTube, if you know what you’re looking for, many officers first see them at the police academy, where instructors use the videos as a powerful audio-visual aid to illustrate how quickly a seemingly innocuous situation—a routine traffic stop, for instance—can turn violent, and what can happen if an officer doesn’t follow standard operating procedure, or, more specifically, if he is too reluctant to fire his weapon.

“Some of these videos show very poor officer safety decisions,” said Sgt. Craig Jones, a training instructor with the Connecticut State Police. According to Jones, new recruits in Connecticut are shown footage of officers being killed in the line of duty along with other kinds of instructional videos. As he put it, “We don’t show an overabundance of [the violent videos] because we don’t want [recruits to think] this is what’s going to happen in every situation, because it doesn’t 98 percent of the time.” Nevertheless, he said, the videos of cops harmed in the line of duty play a crucial role. “We need [police officers] to have it in the back of their minds that these things do happen,” Jones said, “and that if you put yourself in a bad situation because you’re not thinking tactically… that can end in your demise.”

Perhaps the most infamous and widely circulated video of this sort depicts the 1998 murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller of the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia. (You can watch it here, but keep in mind that, like all the other videos linked to in this article, it makes for graphic, upsetting viewing.) In the grainy, 3½ minute recording, Dinkheller can be seen pulling over a pickup truck on the highway and greeting the driver with a friendly “how are you doing today?” The driver, dressed in a loose-fitting jacket and a white cap, gets out of his car, and, after ignoring a request to keep his hands out of his pockets, starts taunting Dinkheller and doing a deranged-looking dance in the middle of the road. “Fuck you, goddammit, here I am—shoot my fucking ass,” the man says. The situation escalates rapidly. Dinkheller radios for backup as the man, starts rummaging in the back of his truck. Seconds later he has produced a .30 caliber M1 carbine and crouched beside his car door; after Dinkheller orders him five times to put the gun down, the man starts shooting. The last 30 seconds of the video show the driver running back to his truck, gun in hand, and driving off. By this time, Dinkheller, who has been hit by 10 bullets, including one at extremely close range, is dead.     

Seeing videos like this one, said Sgt. Kendale Adams, the public information officer for Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, “leaves an imprint on most of us.” According to Adams, recruits in Indiana are shown all kinds of videos during training, but “when you see the videos that end with the killing of a police officer,” it has a particular impact. “It brings a realness to our profession,” he said.  

The videos can also teach more specific lessons. The Dinkheller footage, for instance, is often used to illustrate the importance of not giving a suspect the benefit of the doubt when he is ignoring orders and acting in a clearly threatening manner.

“There were multiple times when he would have been justified in using deadly force against that individual with the rifle, and he either hesitated or chose not to do it,” said Dave Grossi, a former lieutenant in upstate New York who spent 12 years teaching at Calibre Press, a leading private law enforcement training program based in Illinois. The key in presenting something like the Dinkheller video to students, Grossi said, is making sure they understand how the officer who perished could have avoided his fate.

“We use these videos of officers who have made mistakes as a prelude to saying ‘OK, now, what did the officer do wrong here?’ ” Grossi said. “And then we follow that up either with a slide presentation or a lesson plan or videos of officers who have done things properly.”

Peter Segreti, a retired NYPD detective who leads tactical training sessions at police agencies around the country, told me that he has shown the Dinkheller video to drive home the point that, as a police officer, you can’t count on everyone you encounter in the street to be a rational and benevolent person.

“What happens, I think, is that the officer affixes their values on the bad guy,” Segreti said. “You come into a room and there’s a guy with a gun, and you think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t shoot anybody—so that guy’s not gonna shoot anybody either.’ But you’re affixing your values on that person, and then he turns around and starts shooting at you. How do you break an officer from thinking that way? You have to expose them to the threat of being killed.”

Another incident that police officers all over the country have seen on video—PoliceOne, an industry news source, calls it “one of the most famous, tragic videos in law enforcement”—is the 1991 death of Darrell Lunsford, a constable in Texas who was killed by three men whose car he had pulled over. In the video, Lunsford can be seen searching the suspects’ vehicle and discovering marijuana in their trunk while two of them confer in Spanish about how they’re going to take him down. Lunsford is then jumped, stabbed with a knife, and shot in the neck with his own gun.    

“That one’s a pretty significant video,” said firearms and use-of-force instructor Wes Doss, president and founder of the Arizona-based Khyber Training Group, which provides tactical instruction to the military and law enforcement. “You see a whole world of things all starting to unfold in front of you, because you’re sitting in the bleachers watching it—you’re not in the middle of it, so you’re able to kind of be that third party watching from the distance—and you really see some mistakes being made.”

In particular, the Lunsford video is used to teach officers the importance of maintaining total control over suspects, and not giving them any opportunity to catch you off-guard. “He allowed both suspects out of the vehicle at once, he never patted either one of them down, and then he allowed them to speak to each other in a language he didn’t understand,” said Sergeant Jones, from Connecticut. “The deputy allowed that to happen. So that’s the point we make with our trainees when we show it to them.”

Other well-known and widely viewed incidents include a 2013 firefight involving an Oregon State Trooper who survived a roadside attack at the hands of a former soldier, and the 1992 murder of Corporal Mark Coates of the South Carolina Highway Patrol after a routine traffic stop. Grossi says that when worked at Calibre Press, he had over 200 videos of police confrontations involving deadly force at his disposal when conducting firearms and use of force training.

In recent months, use of force decisions by police officers have come under increased public scrutiny, and some departments are reassessing their traditional rules of engagement. In this climate, several firearms instructors told me, officers are more likely to feel hesitation about using their weapons in circumstances that call for it, out of fear of being thrown into the center of a media controversy, disciplined by their department, or sued. This phenomenon—which is apparently common despite the public perception that police officers are rarely held accountable for misconduct—is known in police circles as “litigaphobia”—the fear of litigation. As it was described to me, it’s an affliction that can cause officers who are caught in dangerous situations to freeze up out of concern for getting in trouble, and jeopardize their lives in the process.

Videos like the Dinkheller shooting, several firearms instructors told me, can serve as a corrective to litigaphobia by showing officers, in dramatic fashion, the consequences of hesitation. In other words, while police critics around the country are calling for reforms that would make officers less inclined to use of force, there are some in law enforcement circles who believe that, in the wake of Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland, making sure that officers are prepared to use force is becoming an increasingly important part of training.

Emanuel Kapelsohn, who has been a firearms trainer for more than 30 years and sits on the board of directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, put it this way: “One of the biggest problems we have in police training today… is getting officers to understand when they need to use force and getting them to be willing to use it.” 

Kapelsohn cited a recent news story out of Ohio, involving an officer equipped with a body camera who held off firing his gun when faced with an uncooperative suspect who was running toward him with his hand in his pocket. The officer, Jesse Kidder, was ultimately able to arrest the suspect without using force, and was later widely praised in the media for his restraint. Kapelsohn thought that was the exact wrong response: “From a professional point of view, the officer made an extremely poor tactical decision and needs to be retrained, not commended,” he said. “Whether Ferguson was going through his head, I don’t know. Whether Staten Island was going through his head, I don’t know. But an officer has to be prepared and trained and capable of shooting someone even though he doesn’t want to. This was someone who needed to be shot, should have been shot.”

This will no doubt strike many Slate readers as wrongheaded, if not outright alarming. That’s how it struck me, when I first heard Kapelsohn say it. Then I watched some of the videos that he and the other trainers and police officers I spoke to had told me about: Dinkheller, Lunsford, this terrifying one that shows a parking lot shootout in Texas that ended in an officer being shot in the face. And while I still retain the civilian’s intuition that police officers should avoid the use of deadly force at all costs, I did come away from the videos with a clearer appreciation of the mindset that police officers, many of whom been trained using these videos, must carry around with them on the job.

The fact that terrible things can happen to police officers is obviously not an excuse for allowing police officers to do terrible things to innocent citizens, or to overlook the frequency with which violence is done in the name of the law to innocent black Americans in particular. But the existence of these videos, and the role they play in training law enforcement professionals and shaping how they think about the use of force, serve as a reminder that police officers and the people they are sworn to protect often see things very differently. In fact, it turns out this is literally true: While we’re watching videos of “them” killing “us,” they’re watching videos of the opposite.