How to Stop "Cop Hunting" by Michael Bell
25 Dec 2014
How to Stop “Cop Hunting”
By Michael Bell
The shooting deaths of two police officers in New York City by an African-American man apparently bent on revenge is a tragedy of the system. As we can see both from the protests against police nationwide in the aftermath of Ferguson, Missouri, and in the vicious phenomenon of “cop hunting’’—revenge-style shootings like the one in Brooklyn last week, and perhaps in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on Sunday—the system is broken, and the reason is a breakdown in trust. This issue is not going away anytime soon. The problems of police accountability—of keeping our streets safe, but in a responsible way so that the public regains its faith in “the thin blue line”—are fundamental and will take years to fix. They are comparable, in fact, to the kind of safety problems that the aviation industry once suffered. And as in aviation, they are problems that can be fixed.
I should know. I spent 22 years flying jets for the United States Air Force. And sadly, I also lost a son to a police shooting 10 years ago. So I’ve studied both problems for some time.
Let me explain how they compare. Three-quarters of a century ago, when the aviation industry was in its infancy, it was a chaotic mess. When a loss of life occurred, there was no organized system of investigation, and very little accountability. Authorities tried to decipher the state of affairs leading up to a crash but many times found it impossible to pinpoint the cause without knowing all the circumstances that were in play. This need to know led to the development of such investigative tools as the flight data recorder (known popularly as the “black box”), voice recorders and other such technology. Their eventual implementation began during the mid-1950s.
Interestingly, there wasn’t the knowledge of a pilot’s physiology as there is today. When a modern crash occurs, surviving pilots are required to submit to a blood test and the bodies of deceased pilots are autopsied. During the early 1960s, pilots weren’t too keen about giving a blood sample, just as many police today aren’t happy about the idea of body cameras. Pilots believed they were entitled to protection against self-incrimination and to their privacy. They saw no harm in drinking a bit of alcohol or taking pain-relief medication before flying. Yet these pilots, tired of watching their colleagues die and wanting to help the industry become safer, allowed for some privacy intrusions in the interest of prevention. They accepted early on that the industry was not trying to punish them; it was only trying to fix or prevent.
When police shoot and kill civilians, investigators regularly take physical data from the deceased, but rarely from the officer. Police officers are human and are subject to the same chemical effects on performance and judgment as anyone else.
Today, a similar awakening must occur within our police departments. To regain public trust, police must allow a minor intrusion of their privacy and demonstrate to the public that the officer was in a clear frame of mind when a life was taken. Alcohol, mood-altering drugs or steroids must not be permitted to affect an officer’s judgment or performance.
We pilots know full well that we share much in common with our law-enforcement brethren. High speed and unpredictable and deadly consequences exist in our lives each day. We both try to protect people from harm, yet the numbers of yearly aviation deaths and plane crashes have been dropping for decades, while police-related deaths, when examined through independent tracking sources, appear to be increasing at an alarming rate.
When it comes to accidental homicides by police, the current system of investigation parallels that of the aviation industry decades ago. The deaths of Tamir Rice, Amadou Diallo, Douglas Zirby and my son Michael Bell (to name just a few) are what are known as “mistake-of-fact” deaths, which today comprise roughly 25 percent of police-related deaths. This is unacceptable. If that percentage of mishap were applied to air travel, nobody would ever leave terra firma.
The Obama administration’s $75 million investment in 50,000 police body cameras is a very good start. The early version of the body camera—the dashboard camera—has proved useful in documenting police interactions and factors at the time of an incident, but police officers weren’t initially too keen on that idea either. Yet many came to accept “dash cams” as beneficial to police, and generations of new recruits have just accepted them as a standard feature of the job. Like a jetliner’s flight data recorder, “body cams” will improve the recording of data relating to a police-involved death but, by themselves, will not drive the systemic change in culture our country seeks. A systemic change to save lives will occur only when all collected data and their subsequent review mirror the methods developed in the aviation industry.
An example of these methods is the National Transportation Safety Board’s “go team." This team of multidisciplinary experts, placed on 24-hour standby, reacts quickly and meticulously on all crash site debris. Their structured process—simply stated, an extensive checklist—leaves no stone unturned. Every item, even if the team feels that it may not be a contributing factor, is still looked at in full detail to eliminate it as a cause.
Success leaves clues, and it’s time to understand why one profession is succeeding in preventing work-related deaths and the other isn’t.
In my professional judgment, there are six essential elements of a competent airline crash-investigation system: (1) recording and capturing data in a timely manner; (2) having investigations conducted externally to the pilots and airlines involved; (3) having an independent review of the investigation findings; (4) holding pilots and airlines accountable for errors made; (5) maintaining a national database of crash data; and (6) transparently reporting investigation findings, conclusions and consequences.
The United States Air Force learned early on that pilots who shared combat moments together should not investigate a friend or co-worker’s mishap. They would be tempted to ask, “How could you find me at fault? We defeated the enemy together, our wives are best friends, and little Bobby and Kevin’s birthdays are on the same day.” These internal organizational reviews introduced the natural bias of friendship and camaraderie and produced flawed conclusions. Thus, mishap and safety investigation teams were formed, allowing for external professional investigation of a crash.
Currently, most police departments conduct internal organizational reviews under the control of the department’s chief. In the case of my own son’s death at the hands of a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who shot him in the head, several of the officer’s co-workers determined in just 48 hours that the officer’s actions were justified. Moreover, they absolved the department of any responsibility by concluding that training issues did not contribute to the death. In essence they said, “We investigated ourselves and found we did nothing wrong.”
Six years ago, US Airways Flight 1549 made its now-famous “splash landing” in the Hudson River. The incident made heroes of the cockpit crew, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles. They brought the Airbus A319 to a safe landing after the jet lost both engines due to bird strikes just after takeoff. Yet “Sully” and Skiles weren’t absolved of responsibility until they were cleared by the National Transportation Safety Board. Even though no one died in the nearly miraculous landing, a federal safety panel issued more than two dozen safety recommendations related to the airliner landing on the Hudson. I cannot find one objection to the NTSB’s ruling of the incident. Why? Because recommendations handed down by the NTSB are trusted due to safeguards against bias that are built into the system.
External investigation results must be reviewed by an independent board to determine cause and attribute responsibility. Today, only the five presidentially appointed board members of the NTSB determine probable cause developed through the investigative efforts.
For the past decade, since my son’s death, I and many others worked for the passage of a new law in Wisconsin that requires departments to bring in outside investigators to investigate a police-related death. Even though nationwide we have seen some cities and counties order external investigations of police-related deaths, Wisconsin Act 348 was our nation’s first statewide mandate of them. I hope there will be more.
Another thing that became clear to me after my son’s death was that the district attorney’s role is to provide cover for the police, and the police's role is to ensure that the district attorney remains in office. Any misstep in that relationship affects the DA’s electability. It’s not that DAs don’t have ethics, but DAs and police share “combat moments” together. As demonstrated by the protests that are occurring nationwide in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, the perception of flawed and biased reviews have come back to haunt the system.
There is merit in having members of any profession review one another’s work. Their work entails difficult discretionary decision-making, and only those similarly schooled and practiced in that decision-making can properly judge its exercise by others.
Police “professionals” need to review “law enforcement” from a distance. Reviewers must be skilled in and knowledgeable about policing, but they must not have an institutional or personal stake (i.e., a lost promotion opportunity) in the process. Recently retired police chiefs or sheriffs, criminal justice or law professors, police trainers, former prosecutors or judges provide the right balance between professional familiarity and independence to review incidents of police-related deaths of a civilian.
Just as we won’t allow an airline company to pick and choose who will be on the NTSB, we shouldn’t allow a police department to pick who sits on its review panel. A high-ranking elected official, who does not directly oversee the agency being reviewed, must appoint the members of this independent review panel.
In a promising draft of Wisconsin’s law, the chief judge of each Wisconsin judicial district was designated to appoint the review panel. A trusted review body in an officer-involved shooting is just what the police profession needs and, hopefully, Wisconsin legislators will revisit independent review and mandate this feature soon.
Another dimension of accountability is personal responsibility. One aviation mishap can improve aviation safety forever, because the aviation industry reviews each incident and takes steps to prevent similar future incidents. Imagine the uproar if passengers were killed by poorly trained, drunk or irresponsible pilots who simply got a new job after they’d botched the previous one. The aviation industry holds responsible those people who have demonstrated irresponsible behavior. Military pilots go before a Flight Evaluation Board, and the Federal Aviation Administration can and, most importantly, will suspend a pilot’s license, require additional training or fine the airline company. One at-fault accident and your chances of being hired by another national carrier are close to zero.
Yet, as in the case of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot dead in Cleveland, the officer involved had a documented history of “dismal” performance. Typically, dismal performers tend to move from one police department to another after a firing.
Which leads us to another needed change: a national database of police-related shootings and deaths. In aviation investigations, once the cause is determined, that information is distributed throughout the profession to reduce the chance of it happening again. Since 1962, the NTSB aviation accident database has stored data on all civil aviation accidents and selected incidents within its jurisdiction.
Generally, a preliminary report is available online within a few days of an accident. Factual information is added when available, and when the investigation is completed, the preliminary report is replaced with a final description of the accident and its cause. As an instructor pilot, I spent many hours studying aircraft mishaps to teach new pilots what killed others and how to avoid their mistakes.
Yet there is no national database on police-related deaths. We know that in 2013, our nation lost 23 percent of its honeybee population, and we have an accurate estimate of how many rats are in New York City, but we don’t have a public accounting of how many times a police officer killed a civilian, whether justified or not. In other words, this lack of data is intentional, and it’s almost as if mistrust was built into the system right from the start. States can legislate solutions, but only after we are aware of the trends.
In aviation, there is also an established system for whistle-blowers. Got a problem and don’t want to ruin your career by reporting on your company or flight squadron? The Aviation Safety Reporting System is a nonpunitive program for anonymously reporting unsafe activities. The ASRS program is operated by NASA, which collects and analyzes reports, then forwards findings to the FAA. This ensures no pilot or mechanic is identified by the FAA and subjected to retribution by employers or colleagues.
Police need to develop an equivalent system, thus allowing any officer to report on safety and ethics concerns without fear of retribution. One needs only to look at the turmoil that NYPD Detective Frank Serpico experienced when he tried to report graft to his superiors—even today, 40-odd years later, he is resented by New York City police—to understand how important this feature would be to the police profession.
Today, most people take the safety and reliability of flying for granted. That didn’t happen by accident, if you’ll pardon the phrase. It took decades of hard work and trial and error. It appears that substantial portions of the U.S. public cannot say the same about the police. Slowly, but with an increasing sense of urgency, police departments are coming to see that they must have more transparency and accountability if they are to earn back the public’s trust. The history of aviation points to a way forward.
The story about Michael Bell's son is at "The Thin Blue Line is under attack"
Michael Bell is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.