Former Washtenaw judge urges more police training to avoid violent incidents

Erane Washington-Kendrick, president of Vanzetti Hamilton Bar Association, and Toi Dennis, a member at large, flank retired Judge Donald Shelton after his presentation.


by Frank Weir

Numerous recent incidents of police shootings of unarmed citizens have inflamed an already volatile situation in cities across the U.S.

Retired Washtenaw County Trial Court Judge Donald Shelton thinks that the problem includes two components: inherent underlying biases within all of us as well as traditional police training that emphasizes achieving immediate compliance by threatening lethal force.

Shelton, a former Eastern Michigan University regent, spoke at the Vanzetti Hamilton Bar Association Bias Awareness program on October 21 and began by reciting numerous studies that show a bias against minorities in the law enforcement system.  

--A University of California study found there was evidence of significant bias in the killing of black Americans versus white Americans. Unarmed black citizens were three-and-a-half times more likely to be shot versus white Americans.

--Another study found that black Americans were less likely to pose an imminent threat to officers than white Americans in situations resulting in a police shooting.

--In a study of non-consensual searches, it was found that black and Hispanic  citizens carried less contraband than whites who were searched. White citizens were found to be carrying contraband two times more often
than blacks or Hispanics.

--A Justice Department investigation after the Ferguson, Mo. encounter, found blacks were twice as likely as whites to be searched even after controlling for non-race-based variables. Yet African Americans were 26 percent less likely to be in possession of contraband than white drivers.

“We are taught to hate and fear that which is different from us. We weren’t born that way," Shelton said. "We all have it. Regardless of our color, if we are walking on a dark street and see a young African American or Arab American male, our first subconscious reaction is often fear. If we see a bearded Arab American or a woman wearing a burka at the airport, we subconsciously fear that they may want to hurt us. The result of that bias is paranoia, a fear of the rest of the world.

“Unfortunately, much of current law enforcement training feeds the fear and bias that already exists,” Shelton said.

Shelton, a former mayor of Saline, is a professor and Director of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and is also the director of the new U-M Dearborn police education program, "Alternatives to Violent Force."

The program consists of seven workshops covering the use of force, how the public views the use of force, how to use de-escalation as a first alternative. It also includes workshops on Arab American and African American culture, along with dealing with mentally ill persons. A final workshop emphasizes the “Sanctity of Life and the Policing Experience.”

“Ordinary police training can breed the fear and suspicion that everyone out there wants to hurt you and that everyone has a gun,” said Shelton, who served as chief judge of the Washtenaw County Trial Court. Guns certainly are far more plentiful now. But officers often use their gun as a first resort, not last, to attain compliance. That's how you protect yourself they are told, that you get compliance by demonstrating force, by drawing a weapon."

Once an officer draws his weapon, Shelton noted, “What's next? What's left?

“To get compliance, the only option left is to shoot the weapon. Why are officers trained to do that? The idea of course is that threatening lethal force will get compliance. You and I may well comply because that's the rational reaction for our survival. But in 70 percent of the confrontations that result in deadly force, the person the officer is confronting is not acting rationally. They are either mentally ill or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

“Even you and I don't act in a rational way when we are drunk versus when we are sober or when we might be mentally ill or emotionally distraught. Look at the many  videos of deadly encounters. How many of those people were mentally ill, how many were under the influence.”

Weapons simply “escalate a non-violent encounter to one where lethal force is used.”

One workshop of the program covers "de-escalation as a first alternative, distance, cover, time."  It involves using distance, cover, and tactical repositioning to slow down situations that do not pose an immediate threat. This approach encourages "reaction gaps" that buy time for better decision-making.

Shelton  also mentioned  the mythical knife  "21-foot rule" still often used in police training that states that in the time it takes the average officer to recognize a knife threat, draw his sidearm and fire two 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. Shelton notes this is a myth and can lead to unnecessary use of lethal force and the firing of multiple rounds, which has been seen in a number of current police shooting videos.Another workshop introduces the Critical Decision-Making Model (CDM) as an alternative to conventional training for “active decision making for appropriate responses to a range of incidents.”

One of the goals of the program, he noted, is to re-educate officers about the sanctity of human life.

“I'm not just a judge or professor, that's what I do, not who I am. People who find themselves in these circumstances are still human. Their lives must be treated as importantly as yours or mine. These are people, not just a ‘subject’ or a ‘suspect’ or an arrestee.”

Shelton hopes the program can change how officers initially respond to a street encounter.

“We base the program on 30 guiding principles related to de-escalation of a police encounter.  A group called the Police Executives Research Forum studied techniques utilized by London law enforcement and the primary technique used is talk. The police officer’s most powerful tool may often be his tongue!”

Shelton related an encounter of a probable mentally ill man who was waving a machete and screaming on a South London street. He noted that 30 officers responded all with shields, surrounding the man. While talking to him, they slowly moved closer to him until he was disarmed and taken into custody.  He said that in all likelihood, here that same scenario would result in two or three officers responding and the man would be shot.
He acknowledges the program is based on small group training and that changing underlying biases is difficult.

“My measure of success is that if we can save one human life, not just an innocent human life, but one human life, then we have a good start,” Shelton said.


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