Is Junk Science Helping Cops Get Away With Unjustified Shootings?

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USA - Law Enforcement - School Shooting Training Drill
Photo: JIM PATHE/Jim Pathe/Star Ledger/Corbis

Videos of police shootings seem to be changing the way the U.S. talks about law enforcement. Videos of the shooting deaths of Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Sam Dubose, in particular, appear to show police resorting to lethal force when there was no reason to do so. As a result of this evidence, there’s been a growing national conversation about how to reform law enforcement to prevent these incidents, and much of this conversation has focused on ways for police to de-escalate encounters so they don’t lead to guns being drawn in the first place. One psychologist, though, is preaching just the opposite — and he’s getting paid by the government to do so.

The New York Times has the story of William J. Lewinski, a psychologist who gets paid $1,000 per hour to serve as an expert witness in police shooting cases, and who also runs a consulting business that trains law enforcement. Summing up Lewinski’s role in court cases, Matt Apuzzo writes that, “His conclusions are consistent: The officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person. Even when shooting someone in the back. Even when witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer’s story.”

Much of Lewinski’s training centers on research he conducted on human-reaction times. In experiments in which grad students pretended to pull a gun and then immediately flee, for example, Lewinski claims to have shown that a police officer could see a suspect draw — while simultaneously drawing their own gun and firing in response — all in the time it took for the suspect to begin running away. If the cop hits the suspect, in Lewinski’s argument, it would wrongly give the impression that the cop shot a fleeing person in the back. And more generally, he claims to have shown repeatedly that officers are at a disadvantage because of just how quickly a suspect can pull out a gun and fire — meaning police are right to think that if they hesitate for a split second too long, their lives could be in danger.

"The studies are the foundation for much of his work over the past decade," notes Apuzzo. But there are some problems.

Because he published in a police magazine and not a scientific journal, Dr. Lewinski was not subjected to the peer-review process. But in separate cases in 2011 and 2012, the Justice Department and a private lawyer asked Lisa Fournier, a Washington State University professor and an American Journal of Psychology editor, to review Dr. Lewinski’s studies. She said they lacked basic elements of legitimate research, such as control groups, and drew conclusions that were unsupported by the data.

“In summary, this study is invalid and unreliable,” she wrote in court documents in 2012. “In my opinion, this study questions the ability of Mr. Lewinski to apply relevant and reliable data to answer a question or support an argument.”

Lewinski also draws on the concept of inattentional blindness —  a situation "in which the brain is so focused on one task that it blocks out everything else," as Apuzzo puts it — to explain instances in which a police officer’s recounting of events is not backed up by video or forensic evidence, allowing authorities to resolve these discrepancies without turning to a simpler explanation: The officer lied. This approach, too, has been called into question by many experts, including "Arien Mack, one of two psychologists who coined the term inattentional blindness."

If the science is so questionable, how does Lewinski keep popping up in these cases? He simply seems to be a useful guy to have around if you’re defending a law-enforcement agent, or if you want to appear serious about training them to respond to the threat of a suspect with a weapon. Even as the Department of Justice has accused Lewinski’s research of “lacking in both foundation and reliability," as one document put it, it has been a source of business for him — the Department paid him $55,000 to help defend a federal drug agent against use-of-force charges and $15,000 to help train federal marshals.