Lewinski, The First Rule’s Best Friend

In the New York Times, Matt Apuzzo profiles one of the most dangerous men in law enforcement. And he’s not even a cop.  His name is William J. Lewinski, and for $1000 an hour, he will explain why every person killed by a cop was a righteous shoot.

Dr. Lewinski said he was not trying to explain away every shooting. But when he testifies, it is almost always in defense of police shootings. Officers are his target audience — he publishes a newsletter on police use of force that he says has nearly one million subscribers — and his research was devised for them. “The science is based on trying to keep officers safe,” he said.

This, of course, is just as much bullshit as his doctorate and his science.  To his credit, Lewinksi manufactured his credentials the old fashioned way, building a resume out of publishing pandering stories in police magazines, getting hired to train cops in how to shoot first and make it home for dinner, and ‘splaining why they can do no wrong in trial after trial.  The guy is an apology machine.

Raising a Gun and Running Away

A video, taken as part of one of William J. Lewinski’s studies, shows how quickly suspects can raise a gun and turn to run. Dr. Lewinski uses videos like this to explain why police officers shoot suspects in the back.


See? No, the person didn’t aim. No, there is nothing to suggest that this could actually pose a threat under real world circumstances. But it’s video like this that is used to show how cops shoot people in the back and, more importantly, why cops have to shoot before they know that a person is a threat. By the time they see a gun, it’s too late, according to Lewinski.

And really, isn’t the point of law enforcement to assure that it’s the cop who lives? So what if unarmed people are killed. That’s the price we have to pay to keep our cops alive.

A Gun in the Car

This video simulates a driver with a gun stashed in the center console. It is used to help demonstrate how officers cannot always wait to see a gun before reacting.


He summarized his findings in 1999 in The Police Marksman, a popular magazine for officers. The next year, it published an expanded study, in which Dr. Lewinski timed students as they fired while turning, running or sitting with a gun at their side, as if stashed in a car’s console.

Suspects, he concluded, could reach, fire and move remarkably fast. But faster than an officer could react? In 2002, a third study concluded that it takes the average officer about a second and a half to draw from a holster, aim and fire.

Together, the studies appeared to support the idea that officers were at a serious disadvantage.

Not only can Lewinski explain away any cop shooting, but he does it well.

Dr. Lewinski, 70, is affable and confident in his research, but not so polished as to sound like a salesman. In testimony on the stand, for which he charges nearly $1,000 an hour, he offers winding answers to questions and seldom appears flustered. He sprinkles scientific explanations with sports analogies.

“A batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at,” he told the Los Angeles deputy sheriffs. “Make sense? Officers have to make a prediction based on cues.”

Of course, it follows that batters will sometimes swing at bad pitches, and that officers will sometimes shoot unarmed people.

But what about those instances where a police officer’s claims of what caused him to kill are proven to be utterly false?  No problemo. Lewinski to the rescue.

Such gaps in observation and memory, he says, can be explained by a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, in which the brain is so focused on one task that it blocks out everything else. When an officer’s version of events is disproved by video or forensic evidence, Dr. Lewinski says, inattentional blindness may be to blame. It is human nature, he says, to try to fill in the blanks.

“Whenever the cop says something that’s helpful, it’s as good as gold,” said Mr. Burton, the California lawyer. “But when a cop says something that’s inconvenient, it’s a result of this memory loss.”

For those who wonder how cops get acquitted of murder when the evidence is overwhelming, look for Lewinski. There is a good chance he was there, or at least his methods.

While Lewinski’s scientific chops may be laughable, there is one thing that cannot be denied: the guy is a master apologist, and has been accepted as an expert over and over.  So what if the resume is manufactured. So what if no court would allow the other side the latitude to call an expert to refute him. Lewinski is, if nothing else, special.

But there is one foundational assumption upon which his testimony is based, and it strikes a chord with people who don’t believe they will ever be on the wrong end of a gun, or people we call “jurors.”  Matt Apuzzo quotes a comment to his article on twitter:


If somebody is going to die, it shouldn’t be a cop.  And when a cop kills an unarmed person, it’s because the person didn’t conduct himself the way he should have to assure that he wouldn’t be killed.  Don’t blame the cop, because his life comes first.

The First Rule of Policing. Somebody is going to make it home for dinner, and if there is any question at all, it won’t be you. Courtesy of Bill Lewinski.

25 thoughts on “Lewinski, The First Rule’s Best Friend

  1. Turk

    There have always been people in this world who, for a price, will do what you want. We have names for them, some of which are quite colorful.

  2. Jeff Gamso

    I question the quality of Lewinski’s training. If he was really good at it, then nobody would ever survive any encounter with a cop because, after all, the person could, if so inclined, try to kill the cop. And since it’s all about the cop’s fear rather than whether there’s a legitimate basis for the fear, killin’ should be the norm. It’s actually not, so you gotta figure Lewinski’s incompetent. (Except, of course, on the stand.)

  3. LJS

    I’m not sure the NYT article, or this blog post, is entirely fair. Lewinski is trying to put some research behind police training — that’s a good thing. He doesn’t seem well versed with other perception research — particularly the stuff we use in eyewitness ID — that’s concerning. I’d like to see the eyewitness ID folks look at this research and, if it is valid, integrate it into the field.

    The reaction time stuff is standard driver’s ed — why the 4 second rule for following someone exists. And the implications for police are readily demonstrated — which is why it is so persuasive to trainers. Search for “OODA loop” or “reaction time” and you’ll find lots of materials. Gist is that a fight takes place in 10ths of seconds. If you take the time to observe in detail what your opponent is doing, and then make a decision, you get shot — your adversary has already gone thru that decision process when he/she starts an action. If you are just trying to hit someone in the center of mass (the torso) at close range, you don’t need to use the sights — “point shooting” works well enough.

    Problem is that rapid decision making does tend to involve stereotypes, which is likely leading to bad use of force incidents. I don’t know how much can be done to fix that — part of it is just how the brain works when it has to act on inadequate data.

    The memory/perception stuff is less about change blindness/inattention blindness and much more about the research underlying eyewitness ID reforms — effects of stress, weapon focus, after-acquired information, and how our brains turn scattered perceptions into narrative memory. Yes, there may be reasons for officers to lie, just as there are reasons for eyewitnesses to lie, but there’s also a lot of room for good-faith error. I’m nervous about the NY Times article because it implicitly conflicts with the idea of good-faith witness error. Lewinski has some studies of officers in high-stress training (paintball or low power sim-munitions) where the officers make characteristic errors about what they did and saw — and there’s no motive in those studies for them to lie about it. I’d love to see this research reviewed and re-done with proper controls, sample sizes, etc. by Drs. Penrod, Wells, Dysart or one of the other ID researchers.

    1. SHG Post author

      You make some curious assertions here.

      Lewinski is trying to put some research behind police training — that’s a good thing.

      On what basis to you say this? His history suggest that opposite, that he’s trying to create faux research to support his bias. Real research is fine, but he’s never subjected himself to peer review. You choose to ascribe good intentions to his efforts, and yet nothing in his background suggests anything other than flagrant bias.

      If you take the time to observe in detail what your opponent is doing, and then make a decision, you get shot — your adversary has already gone thru that decision process when he/she starts an action.

      This is a facile and naïve statement. If a police officer sees cues of trouble, he can draw and aim his weapon. The reaction time isn’t whether to unholster, draw, aim and shoot, but pull the trigger between the time he sees evidence of an actual threat and the threat occurring. By offering this, it suggests you are either clueless or trying to shill Lewinski’s and the cop’s position.

      As for the memory issues, another facile excuse. Tails they win, heads you lose. If they get the facts right, their memory is perfect. If they get the facts completely wrong, the suffer from inattention blindness. Of course, police are supposedly trained, as opposed to random non-cops, so that excuse is revealed as bullshit or the police are too untrustworthy to be given weapons. You can’t have both.

      And you, like Lewinksi, seem to have no issue with the fact that random police errors will happen and they will kill innocent, unarmed people for no reason other than fear and incompetence. Yep, a police shill. Nice first comment.

      1. LJS

        I don’t see any indication that Lewinski is not trying to research this issue in good faith. I have long had concerns that his materials are mostly published in the police trade press rather than in psychological journals — the same might be said of much forensics research, done in good faith and published mostly in trade journals like AFTE Journal or JFI. The National Academy of Science was critical of the research in its 2004 report, but did not assert that the researchers were not trying in good faith to understand their disciplines.

        One of the fundamental rules of firearms safety is that one does not point the muzzle of a gun at someone prematurely. More importantly, one does not put one’s finger on the trigger until one has made the decision to fire. Changing that — having the officer aiming the muzzle at someone, with a finger on the trigger, too early risks even more accidental deaths.

        It is a fundamental part of memory research that the eye is not a camera, memory is not like a video recording. The National Academy of Science talks about this in its 2014 report on eyewitness identification. Training doesn’t help much with some very basic mechanisms in the brain. What it means is that the witness (cops or bystanders) can be wrong in good-faith. Accuracy and credibility are not the same things.

        Errors will happen. They happen in every field, no matter how much we try to prevent them. Can we try to understand them and reduce them, of course. Which means better research into how and why they happen.

        1. SHG Post author

          You don’t see it? Well, that’s important, because what you see matters deeply. But wait!

          One of the fundamental rules of firearms safety is that one does not point the muzzle of a gun at someone prematurely.

          I can’t remember anyone writing something so absurdly asinine as this. First, it’s not premature if an officer has reason to aim his weapon, and if he doesn’t have reason to point his weapon, he surely doesn’t have reason to kill.

          But second, it’s okay with you to kill some unarmed innocent guy by mistake, but you’re so terribly concerned with pointing the weapon prematurely, not the killing? Come on. Even for a shill, you can do better than this.

          Cut the shit about memory. We’re fully aware of its failings, and yet how only a lying cop gets the benefit of inattention blindness. And amazingly, the only error in their memory is how they recall their life being threatened when the video says they murdered some poor guy. Got a memory word for that? I do. Lying.

          1. RAFIV

            “Errors will happen.”

            No shit.

            The problem is, however, is that LEO’s are not held responsible for those mistakes. If an otherwise lawful civilian is in an armed confrontation with another civilian and he makes a mistake. Say, for example, shoots someone whom he believed was “raising a gun and running away”, chances are he will be charged with a rather serious felony. Simply put, LEO’s have no more right to go home at night than me, my family, some schmoo whom I will never meet, or even unarmed criminals. They are entrusted with a firearm to protect the life and property of the population they serve. It did not, however, come with a License to Kill.

    2. PK

      Everything you need to know about Lewinski’s bias and his lack of any interest in putting “legitimate research behind police training” is right there in the article:

      “Dr. Lewinski said he chose to publish his findings in the magazine because it reached so many officers who would never read a scientific journal. If he were doing it over, he said in an interview, he would have published his early studies in academic journals and summarized them elsewhere for officers. But he said it was unfair for Dr. Fournier to criticize his research based on summaries written for a general audience.”

      Curious that “[i]f he were doing it over” he claims he would publish in academic journals instead of publishing his “research” in “The Police Marksman” (!?), but yet has never done so in the ensuing 16 years. Instead, he aggressively attacks anyone who questions the validity of his “science.”

      The man clearly saw a business opportunity using pseudo-science to serve a clientele, and has been capitalizing on it ever since. If you’re convinced that he doesn’t have a predetermined agenda or an obvious bias, he has you (and jurors) exactly where he wants you.

    3. DaveL

      It’s not his research that’s troubling, it’s his conclusions.

      Let’s imagine an alternative use-of-force policy for police that we’ll call “Just Kill Anybody”. Under JKA, police are always allowed to kill anybody, any time, under any circumstances.

      Now let’s see how Lewinski’s list of justifications for the use of deadly force are distinguishable from JKA… actually, it’s pretty hard to see any way to distinguish them. Can’t wait to see a weapon, that gives the advantage to the attacker. Can’t wait for an attack, for the same reason. Using “subtle cues” to detect aggressive intent isn’t distinguishable from JKA if those cues are so vague, subjective, prone to post-hoc identification, and subject to high error rates that we forgive under the rubric of stress, change blindness or whatever, that they can in practice be applied under any circumstances imaginable.

      So the question is not whether waiting to perceive an actual threat puts a police officer at a disadvantage – I readily grant that point. The question is whether the public can accept to have police officers walking around with what amounts to a mandate to Just Kill Anybody, and for me the answer is no. I can, however, accept that police be subject to the same rules as civilians concerning lethal self-defense, even if that means a few more police are killed on duty than would happen if they were allowed to JKA.

  4. John Barleycorn

    “So what if the resume is manufactured. So what if no court would allow the other side the latitude to call an expert to refute him.”

    Are you saying judges sometimes, if not always, deny expert witnesses for the prosecution that could refute the “expert testimony” of this “psychologist” or others like him steeped in the school of “Kill, or no chicken pot pie for you officer.”?

    I can almost roll with police chiefs not knowing what their officers were and are taught in academies and their sponsored and private field training sessions. But judges being even more differential than prosecutors to the all the quick draw bad guys lurking out there, in the alleyways and on the highways, that potentially stand in the way of officers and their chicken pot pies…really?

    P.S. If a grand juror spotted some fresh mustard on William’s tie as he was wrapping up his testimony and non verbally offered him a handkerchief, while pointing at his tie awkwardly, do you figure William would shoot him or reach out and take the handkerchief?

  5. dm

    Do you suppose that some, many (all?) prosecutors are glad to have a Lewinski available to help keep their police partners out of jail when forced to prosecute a bad shoot.

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  7. Hal

    I think that “His history suggest that opposite, that he’s trying to create faux research to support his bias” should probably read “His history suggests the opposite…”.

    Inspector I.M. Persnickety
    Inter-Galactic Grammar Police

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