By P.A.J. Waddington
Many of those who have commented on the Mark Duggan inquest jury verdict have expressed disquiet at the jury’s conclusion that whilst the killing by police officers was lawful, Duggan was not holding the gun at the time he was shot. This is not as bizarre as it might first appear.
I don’t know whether the jury had the benefit of hearing research evidence from the United States (where, sadly, police shootings are much more common), but their conclusion is consistent with it. Professor Bill Lewinski of Minnesota University has conducted a series of controlled behavioural experiments concentrating on the speed with which a police officer is able to react to an armed threat. In one experiment experienced police officers were shown a video in which a young man approaches the camera, pulls and raises a gun, fires a shot, then turns and runs away. Officers were given a blank-firing handgun and asked to shoot as soon as they felt it appropriate. All of them felt that as soon as the gun came into view they decided to opened fire. In fact, every one of them fired after the ‘assailant’ had turned and run a couple or more paces. In short they would have shot a genuine assailant in the back.
How could this be? Any of us who drive a motorised vehicle are familiar with this phenomenon, although we are mostly unaware of it. It is called the ‘thinking distance’: the distance a vehicle travels whilst the driver is ‘thinking’ about applying emergency braking. At 20 mph the distance is six metres and rises progressively to 21 metres at 70 mph. What is there to think about? Well, the brain first needs to apprehend the danger, integrating visual, auditory, and other stimuli in order to do so. Then the brain needs to decide what to do: can the danger be avoided by steering around the obstacle, or should the brakes be applied, or both? It needs to take into consideration other dangers that might arise, say, from an avoidance manoeuvre that risks swerving and colliding with other vehicles. Finally, the brain needs to activate muscles. We imagine that all this occurs instantaneously, but it takes time and vehicles can travel an appreciable distance during the time it takes.
What Lewinski demonstrated was that under pretty ideal circumstances (there was no danger of the officers engaged in the experiment being shot and they were primed to fire their own weapon), it took time for the brains of officers to perform a similar function to a car driver. The decision to fire their own weapon was taken at one instant, but the bullet struck the ‘assailant’ at another instant, when the ‘assailant’ was doing something quite different to firing a weapon, that is, running away.
If, instead of running away, the ‘assailant’ depicted in the video had thrown the gun away, the decision to open fire would still have been taken and acted on.
P.A.J. Waddington is Professor of Social Policy, Hon. Director, Central Institute for the Study of Public Protection, The University of Wolverhampton. He is the co-editor of Professional Police Practice: Scenarios and Dilemmas with John Kleinig and Martin Wright, and a general editor for Policing. Read his previous blog posts.
A leading policy and practice publication aimed at senior police officers, policy makers, and academics, Policing contains in-depth comment and critical analysis on a wide range of topics including current ACPO policy, police reform, political and legal developments, training and education, specialist operations, accountability, and human rights.
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Image credit: Police Lantern In England Outside The Station. © stuartmiles99 via iStockphoto.