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Government & Politics

Controversial police training course being held in Westlake this week

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Matt Gush
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Shutterstock

Updated: 9:44 a.m., Tuesday, April 26, 2022

A police training company that’s come under scrutiny for what’s viewed by some as biased in favor of officers accused of misconduct is leading a training for officer use-of-force investigators in Westlake this week.

The training by the Minnesota-based Force Science Institute (FSI) is called Force Science Certification. It runs for five days this week and is intended for police officials who investigate after use-of-force incidents, including deadly ones, and decide for departments whether officers used excessive or unnecessary force.

In a video posted online, Executive Director William Lewinski described their work as a science-based way to improve police officer performance.

“The community is asking for change in the police world,” Lewinski says in the video. “Administrators want to do the best they can. Trainers want to do the best they can. And at this point in time we think the path forward is to use science for what we teach, why we teach and how we teach it.”

The course description includes topics such as why allowing officers to review video before giving their version of a use of force incident is the best policy. According to FSI, it’s because stress and exhaustion can impair an officer’s memory.

FSI also widely shares its research on how quickly a shooter can raise a gun and fire, much more quickly, according to their tests, than an officer with a raised gun can pull the trigger in response.

“I defend police officers,” defense attorney Lance LoRusso said during the same video. “I can tell a jury that a suspect with their hand down at their side holding a gun can shoot a law enforcement officer three times before they can get a single shot off. I can tell them that all day long. But thanks to Force Science, I can show them.”

The short video online also includes footage from FSI’s tests on how long it takes to draw and fire a gun. In one clip of test footage, a driver pulls out their gun and shoots at an officer during a traffic stop. In another, a test subject is face down on the ground with their hands underneath them. They roll over and quickly fire three shots at the camera.

These training techniques have come under increased criticism ever since a 2015 article from The New York Times titled “Training Officers to Shoot First, and He Will Answer Questions Later” and other reporting on the overblown hazards of traffic stops.

A 2019 article in the Michigan Law Review found that just one in every 6.5 million stops results in the killing of a police officer. Just one in every 361,111 involves an assault of an officer leading to serious injury, while a recent Times investigation found that 400 unarmed motorists were killed by police in the past five years.

The authors of the Times article on FSI questioned Lewinski’s practice of both training officers on when to use force and also frequently testifying on officers’ behalf in court.

In an emailed response to questions, a spokesman for FSI defended their work, saying their research debunked several misconceptions about violent encounters. It’s unclear what scientific methods FSI uses to reach its conclusions, but its website lists articles published in peer-reviewed journals.

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Matthew Richmond
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Ideastream Public Media
The training in Westlake is being held at the West Side suburb's recreation center. On Monday afternoon, there were several vehicles in the lot that appeared to be unmarked police cars. The only marked vehicles were from the Lorain and Westlake police departments and one vehicle from Indiana with a sheriff's department license plate, but there was no indication of which department.

Community opposition led to the cancellation of recent training sessions organized by police at the Ohio State University and in Rochester, New York.

According to Lauren Bonds, legal director for the National Police Accountability Project, the training recommends treating officers under investigation in ways that seem meant to give them the benefit of the doubt.

“Police officers in theory are trained to be able to deal with stressful situations or at least know that’s going to be part of their day when they go out into the world,” Bonds said.

That is not the case for a civilian on the other side of the incident who “doesn’t know that they’re going to encounter a police officer, doesn’t know that that police officer is going to use force against them and take an aggressive posture towards them,” Bonds said.

“So in a lot of ways I think they’re less equipped and prepared to deal with the stress of a situation like that,” Bonds added.

Bonds said this kind of training makes it difficult during a civil or criminal trial after a controversial incident. Officers can more easily show they were following their training and were threatened during a traffic stop or when a suspect was face down on the ground.

According to former Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy Executive Director Jeffrey Scott, FSI's work is unique and useful because of the studies on stress, memory and reaction times they’ve based it on.

“If the science is telling us an action was appropriate or not appropriate, which would we rather have? Would we rather have science that is peer tested and proven? Or do we just want to kind of wing it?” Scott said.

Scott has never taken one of their trainings but is familiar with FSI’s work, much of which is posted on their website.

It’s unclear how many local departments are taking part in this week’s training session in Westlake. The Westlake Police Department did not respond to a request for comment, and FSI did not answer a question about how many officers and from which departments would be there.