A Clash of Tactical Experts Over Whose Life Matters

There is little doubt that the insertion of a law enforcement “tactical” expert in the trial process will have an overwhelming impact on the jury’s “understanding” of what they see on video.  The word “understanding” is in scare quotes because it is, in this usage, scary: there is nothing remotely resembling understanding coming out of the clash of experts informing the jury what they’re seeing.

Rarely is it as flagrant as in the Dallas case of Jason Harrison, a mentally ill man killed by the two officer who came to help.

Harrison’s mother had called 911 the morning of June 14 to request that officers come to her Red Bird home to help bring Harrison, who his family said was bipolar and schizophrenic and off his medication, to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

She had called police frequently for help with her son, who often stopped taking his medicine, Sean Harrison said.

Officers Andrew Hutchins and John Rogers, who both have training dealing with the mentally ill, shot Harrison five times after he disobeyed their commands to drop the screwdriver. They were protecting themselves after Harrison lunged at them and moved the screwdriver in a “stabbing motion,” said their attorney, Chris Livingston.

But what does the video show?

In case it’s not apparent, what Harrison is holding in his hand is a screwdriver, shades of Bernie Goetz and the mythical “sharpened screwdriver” days.  Harrison’s family is suing for his killing, and offered the view of its expert:

“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Cecile Tebo, the former commander of the New Orleans Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team. “That was handled very poorly.”

Notably, the shooters, Andrew Hutchins and John Rogers, both had training in dealing with the mentally ill, and were well aware that Harrison had issues.
Harrison’s mother had called 911 the morning of June 14 to request that officers come to her Red Bird home to help bring Harrison, who his family said was bipolar and schizophrenic and off his medication, to Parkland Memorial Hospital.

She had called police frequently for help with her son, who often stopped taking his medicine, Sean Harrison said.

If you’re keeping count, put this encounter squarely into the “never call the cops unless you want your loved one dead” category. The defense, of course, had a training officer expert of its own:

“They did an absolutely perfect job,” said Keith Wenzel, a retired Dallas Police Department trainer, adding he would show students the video of the shooting as an example of good tactics.

Not just good. Not even just perfect. Absolutely perfect. After all, the officers completed the call without a scratch. It doesn’t get better than that.

The family wants the video to prompt changes in the way Dallas police handle such situations. Sean Harrison argued that his younger brother would still be alive if the officer had calmly negotiated with him to drop the screwdriver, instead of shouting at him with their guns drawn.

The difference in the tactical vision of how this killing occurred isn’t as far apart as it might at first appear.  The core question is perspective, was the goal to protect the cops from any possibility of harm or to not kill Harrison without reason.

The point raised by the family, that had the officers, knowing that Harrison suffered from mental illness, stepped back, spoken calmly, not raised their weapons, there would likely never have been a reason to kill.  But then, stepping back alone seems to have been a skill too difficult for these cops.

Wenzel said the officers essentially had no choice but to shoot Harrison, citing the fast-unfolding, life-threatening situation in a tightly enclosed space.

Wenzel said the officers couldn’t speak calmly with Harrison because he was holding a weapon and was within 3 feet of them.

“There’s a lot of danger,” Wenzel said. “He could take the screwdriver and put it right into the officer’s eye in less than a second.”

Wenzel said the officers couldn’t back away because they could have tripped, which would compromise their safety. He argued that the car parked in the driveway trapped the officers.

Tebo noted that they weren’t exactly “trapped,” as the cops were outside, and had the whole, big outdoors thing going for them.  In contrast to Wenzel’s raising every cop trope in the book, had they put training to use, there would have been no need to shoot.

“The art of crisis intervention is to be able to establish a trusting relationship pretty quickly,” Tebo said. “You want to be partnering up with the person.”

Tebo criticized the officers’ shouting and pointing guns and hands at Harrison. She said because they were aware that he was schizophrenic they should have known that he would likely be fearful of their presence, hearing voices and possibly hallucinating. Shouting agitates such patients, she said.

Ultimately, the experts clashed on whose life comes first, except for one deeply flawed argument on behalf of the Dallas officers.  They had it within their control to avoid escalating their confrontation with a schizophrenic guy holding a screwdriver into a killing by engaging in a way that would both be safe for them and not necessitate killing the person they were there to help.

They chose not to do so. They chose to shoot instead.  And the former Dallas training officer expert, Keith Wenzel, says it was “absolutely perfect.” What’s a jury to do?

27 thoughts on “A Clash of Tactical Experts Over Whose Life Matters

  1. Jeff Gamso

    Which gets to the point Balko was making yesterday about how we keep asking the wrong question. We ask if what they did legal or justifiable according to their training. We should ask whether it was acceptable, whether that’s the sort of outcome we want.

    1. SHG Post author

      Well then, at least I now know that the only reason to post here is to get to the point that Radley was making yesterday. After all, it’s not like the point exists independently, even if Radley is now behind the WaPo paywall and no longer available by RSS feed, or that the point has been made here and elsewhere before yesterday.

  2. Scott Morrell

    Without knowing all the evidence, and simply by looking at what the video shows before me, it seems that the police were either severely untrained in de-escalation tactics or had a racial bias.

    The man was known to be mentally disturbed. Having said that , the obvious thing to do would have been to immediately walk backwards (they had all the room in the world) while still having their guns out. Also, one police officer could have taken out a taser while the other have his gun drawn. These incremental steps would almost definitely have resulted in a different outcome.

    A case can also be made that there was racial bias as well. It was hard to see in the video if Jason was attacking the officers. It looked to me that he was just dangling a screwdriver. He wasn’t holding it like an attack knife. If the call came in and they said it was a Caucasian male accountant named Joe Miller, and then he walked out with the same screwdriver, do we really believe he would have been shot?

  3. jill mcmahon

    Political correctness aside, and acknowledging retreat and negotiation should generally be the rule, maybe someone should ask if these policemen are wusses because two of them couldn’t take a guy with a small screwdriver to the ground. Obviously, one of them left his Taser holstered. Why? Why always actively confront and escalate. Remember the cop responses to that Slate article, Scott? I get the feeling the old-school guy would’ve cracked this guy with a baton or whatever. He might be hurt, but he wouldn’t be dead. And Scott Morel makes a good point about context.

    1. SHG Post author

      Better to be called a wuss by 12 than carried as a wuss by 6. And while I tend to agree with Scott, that’s a problematic place to go without substantially more information. While non-lawyers tend not to mind taking blind leaps of dangerous ledges, lawyers tend to want evidence.

        1. SHG Post author

          We all get exasperated, and if I wasn’t so bound up by the need for evidence before drawing a conclusion, I would certainly agree with you.

          1. Scott Morrell

            I agree 100% that we need to hear all the evidence which I wrote at the end of my post. Too often we convict with just one chapter of a story revealed.

            However, at this early juncture with just the video to view, it seems that there was a lot more options to the police than a number of bullets shot rapid fire at close range.

            It will be fascinating to follow this one though.

            1. SHG Post author

              The difference is not to ascribe a motive, such as racial animus, without having more evidence than the video. I realize you were speculating in advance of the evidence, but that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do as we then look for evidence to confirm our bias. Evidence first, conclusion afterward.

              Is it possible that there was racial motivation? Sure. But it’s also possible that there was no racial motive involved. Until there’s a basis to suggest motive, I am reluctant to suggest they deserve condemnation.

  4. Marc R

    Barely perfect versus absolute perfect is like hitting every free throw but it rolls around the rim versus even swishes through the net. Here the absolute is perhaps no shots missed center mass.

    Too bad they can’t parse a 911 call to “just a bus with psych trained EMTs with Valium IVs.”

  5. DaveL

    It’s a truism of police tactics that an assailant armed with a knife can cover a distance of 21 feet and attack you in the time it would take to unholster your firearm and bring it to bear. This figure of 21 feet is often cited as justification for why police had to shoot a suspect standing well out of arm’s reach. It seems to me there’s a flipside to that figure, though: at a distance of a mere three feet, doesn’t it indicate something about the suspect’s (or victim’s) intentions that he failed to advance on officers by more than a few inches in the time it took for them to draw and fire?

    1. SHG Post author

      The Tueller 21 foot rule as to “edged weapons” is interesting:

      Originating from research by Salt Lake City trainer Dennis Tueller and popularized by the Street Survival Seminar and the seminal instructional video “Surviving Edged Weapons,” the “rule” states that in the time it takes the average officer to recognize a threat, draw his sidearm and fire 2 rounds at center mass, an average subject charging at the officer with a knife or other cutting or stabbing weapon can cover a distance of 21 feet.

      The implication, therefore, is that when dealing with an edged-weapon wielder at anything less than 21 feet an officer had better have his gun out and ready to shoot before the offender starts rushing him or else he risks being set upon and injured or killed before he can draw his sidearm and effectively defeat the attack.

      In other words, gun drawn and ready, but that’s as far as it goes unless the “offender starts rushing him.” Once gun is drawn and ready, the officer has prepared as well as necessary to deal with the threat. In the PoliceOne article, it specifically notes that the Tueller rules has been “misinterpreted:


      “Unfortunately, some officers and apparently some trainers as well have ‘streamlined’ the 21-Foot Rule in a way that gravely distorts its meaning and exposes them to highly undesirable legal consequences,” Lewinski says. Namely, they have come to believe that the Rule means that a subject brandishing an edged weapon when positioned at any distance less than 21 feet from an officer can justifiably be shot.

      What remains a question is whether a screwdriver is an “edged weapon” or just a tool. Maybe it depends on whether it’s Phillips or flat?

      1. Patrick Maupin

        The tools are the officers who, despite expensive and theoretically comprehensive training, can usually only find sidearms when they open their toolboxes. (I say “usually” because sometimes they locate a Taser in there, too.)

  6. ExCop-LawStudent

    It was a justifiable shooting.

    Exactly how were the officer’s supposed to retreat? Climb over the cars that basically blocked any rearward movement? Was one officer supposed to wait until the screwdriver was inserted handle-deep in his partner’s head? He was, according to the post, “within 3 feet,” and according to my view of the video no more than about 5 feet away.

    You know, the real problem wasn’t the police, it was that Harrison’s family did nothing to ensure that he stayed on his meds. Instead, they called the police each and every time he went off his meds. Police are not social workers, nor are they medical personnel. Nor, when confronted at that range with no viable retreat option, are they supposed to become a pincushion.

    It’s tragic, but this is not an error by the police.

    1. SHG Post author

      You picked a side here. But blaming the family for being foolish to call the cops as a justification for killing? I can’t recall you’re ever being so flagrant in picking a side.

    2. David M.

      1) The police responded, didn’t they? As I recall, they have no obligation to respond.

      2) The real problem isn’t that the officers murdered him, but that the officers who murdered him shouldn’t have been expected to take him to the hospital instead of murdering him because that would go beyond their job description?

      3) I think you misunderstand the nature of the “don’t call the cops unless you want your loved one dead” argument. It’s a pragmatic response to the terrible reality of cases like this, a solution designed to keep the body count low. It’s not that we endorse the police brutality status quo and think this is a great paradigm for police/non-police relations.

      1. ExCop-LawStudent

        First, it wasn’t murder, it was self-defense.

        Second, the real problem is that the public expects police to be mental health workers. Why has she repeatedly called the police? Because he wouldn’t take his meds? Police are not there to make sure that your adult child takes his meds.

        Third, if it is a problem, then maybe the public should come up with a way to commit those individuals, and not keep putting them back on the street.

        1. SHG Post author

          …the real problem is that the public expects police to be…

          This could be the start of a meme. We have many expectations of police, just as we have expectations of many others in society. Police promote themselves as being there to “serve and protect,” a lie as we know, but then they can’t complain that some people are too stupid to realize this is just marketing puffery. And certainly we all realize that the public spans geniuses and idiots, so don’t blame the public for being who they are.

          But what “the real problem is that the public expects police to be” in less of a rush to kill.

          This was not self defense. No one attacked a cop. Had he attacked, no one would question the cops defending themselves. But this was anticipatory self-defense, fear of the potential for attack. That’s very different.

    3. RB

      No, it was a series of errors by at least one of the officers: failure to plan, failure to keep a situation from escalating, and a failure to use force appropriately.

      When I watch the video, the officer with the camera has a pretty obvious rearward path down the driveway along the blue car. The side mirror could be an obstruction, but I think I could otherwise walk backwards along a a large smooth object without difficulty. He should be able to do the same.
      The other officer was clearly able to retreat behind Mrs. Harrison once his partner started firing.

      Even if we (incorrectly) assume no retreat was available, why would both officers put themselves in that situation? I’d be very surprised if their training didn’t cover being aware of their environment, and planning egress in the interests of their safety. The first aid training I’ve had through the Boy Scouts/Red Cross covered it.

      Most importantly, the entire escalation appears to be done by the shooting officer. When Mrs. Harrison comes trundling out of the house, it’s pretty difficult to see any reason to feel threatened. Was she worried about getting stabbed in the back? Clearly not.
      The officers start out with a conversational tone, but only two seconds elapse between an agitated “Can you drop that for me?” at 0:21 and the shooting officer yelling at 0:23. During the same time, his partner only escalated to a fairly calm, ‘Drop it.’ Mrs. Harrison’s agitation probably didn’t help, but it’s hard to imagine she had any real skills for dealing with someone pointing a gun at her son.

      I’m glad my wife isn’t in the habit of making split-second decisions, or carrying a sidearm. I’d be long dead for the delay between a question and my blank faced response of, “Huh?”, or the second delay while my brain caught up so I could give a proper answer.
      I wouldn’t stand a chance if my mother was visiting and repeated the question from a different part of the room.
      I’d bet money I’m not in the minority there.

      1. SHG Post author

        I’d be long dead for the delay between a question and my blank faced response of, “Huh?”, or the second delay while my brain caught up so I could give a proper answer.

        You and me both. Probably ECLS too.

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