The agency that investigates Chicago police shootings is beginning a week of training led by a controversial psychologist who often testifies in support of officers who have shot civilians, WBEZ has learned.
Independent Police Review Authority investigators and supervisors on Monday will begin a five-day course led by Bill Lewinski, founder and leader of the Minnesota-based Force Science Institute, according to internal IPRA records.
“This training is extraordinarily important and was very difficult to make possible,” IPRA Supervising Investigator Joshua T. Hunt wrote in email to the agency’s staff.
But some civil-rights attorneys say IPRA could hardly find a worse instructor. “Neutrality goes out the window when you deal with Bill Lewinski,” said Melvin Brooks, a Chicago lawyer who has faced the psychologist in court. “His opinions are so skewed toward police, it’s a disservice to the citizens of Chicago.”
Lewinski has testified about at least seven shootings by Chicago officers, a WBEZ review of his consulting work has found. Each time, the psychologist invoked science to help justify the lethal force.
Those cases are among dozens of police shootings across North America in which Lewinski has defended the officers as an expert witness. But that work faces more challenges as scientists raise flags about his research.
This week’s course is the second time Lewinski has trained IPRA’s staff. The first was a two-day session last year, according to the records, obtained by WBEZ through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is defending its link to Lewinski. Training for investigating police shootings is “highly specialized and very difficult to find,” a written statement from IPRA Chief Administrator Scott M. Ando says.
“We are constantly looking for high-quality training for our investigators through universities and other models,” Ando’s statement says. “Our hope is that more training opportunities relative to [police shootings] will become available.”
But Lewinski’s role raises new questions about the city’s ability to hold officers accountable when they use deadly force without justification.
Of about 400 civilian shootings by police that IPRA has investigated since 2007, the agency has found the officers at fault in only two, both off-duty incidents. IPRA has never concluded that an on-duty shooting was unjustified.
WBEZ has revealed that former sworn law-enforcement personnel now manage IPRA and that the agency dismissed a supervising investigator who had refused orders to change findings that officers were at fault in several shootings.
Myths and cold facts
Lewinski’s institute claims to have “destroyed myths and discovered cold facts” about why cops shoot people. Much of the science consists of his own experiments, including studies measuring how quickly civilians can attack officers and how fast the cops can react.
He concludes that it may be lawful and valid for officers to use deadly force when it seems inappropriate — to shoot someone in the back, shoot someone who is falling down or keep firing rounds after a threat has ended.
That message has proved popular with officers. Lewinski has trained thousands of them across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. He also trains people responsible for finding out whether police shootings were excessive.
“We believe it’s necessary for civilian investigators to have access to the same level of high-standard, scientifically validated base training that many law-enforcement professionals have,” Lewinski told WBEZ. “If they’re going to be judging an officer’s behavior, they need that.”
Brooks, the attorney, battled Lewinski while representing the mother of Darryl Hamilton, 18, who was fatally shot in the back of the head by Chicago police officer David Garza in 2003.
Garza’s version of events did not seem to square with some physical evidence and witness accounts. But the mother lost her suit, partly because of Lewinski’s testimony.
“He gives credibility to that officer’s story by suggesting that there is this phenomenon that these officers are going through, especially when lethal force is used,” Brooks said.
That phenomenon is what psychologists call inattentional blindness. “Under high stress, officers focus intently on particular elements,” Lewinski said. “If you pay attention to something, you’re inattentionally blind to other things.”
Officers do not see them, in other words, even when they are looking right at them.
“We have done research in which we have put eye scans on elite and regularly trained officers,” Lewinski said. “We have looked at exactly what they’re looking at in the middle of a rapidly unfolding gunfight.”
Apart from gunfights, Lewinski has suggested inattentional blindness to help justify countless police shootings of people who are unarmed.
His institute touts a 2003 case in Hartford, Connecticut, where an officer shot at a car, hit the driver and later claimed that the car had sped right at him and knocked him to the ground.
Then a police dashboard video showed that the car was not coming at the officer and did not hit him. It showed that the cop opened fire as the car was passing him by.
So the defense brought in Lewinski, who said such discrepancies often stem from inattentional blindness.
The officer would have filled in the gaps caused by that blindness, according to Lewinski. The cop would have constructed a logical story and believed it. Parts of the story turned out to be inaccurate but, Lewinski says, that is not unusual after a traumatic event.
The Connecticut jury, like the one in Chicago, sided with the officer.
Science or pseudoscience?
Daniel Simons, a University of Illinois psychology professor, said inattentional blindness does not clarify much about any particular police shooting.
“It’s really impossible to say, in any given case, whether somebody failed to see something — and they’re telling the truth that they just didn’t see it — or whether they’re lying,” Simons said.
Lewinski’s use of inattentional blindness also bothers a researcher who helped coin that phrase two decades ago. “To go in and say, ‘This is what happened and it’s because of inattentional blindness,’ I just think is completely inappropriate,” said Arien Mack, a psychology professor at the New School in New York.
Mack’s research subjects had no reason to twist the truth about what was happening in her experiments, she said, “whereas a policeman who has fired a gun and hurt somebody has a great deal of motivation to misrepresent what he actually experienced.”
Lewinski, asked whether he had ever testified he believed a cop was lying about a shooting, said that is a task for judges, investigators and administrators. “I have never been qualified,” he said.
“But we certainly know that all human beings, once they begin to focus, lose the ability to report on other things,” Lewinski said. “That is well-documented. All you gotta do is look at the research on cell-phone use and driving. And, so, does it have application in the police world? It sure does.”
Lewinski’s own studies have also come under fire. In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department asked for a review of them by Lisa Fournier, an associate psychology professor at Washington State University. She looked at his doctoral dissertation and eight other samples. She was not impressed.
“Either he failed to use statistics to evaluate the timing measures that he has, or he has not had sufficient control groups,” Fournier told WBEZ. “Often times, too, he overgeneralizes his results or what he is claiming to occur.”
Lewinski’s work, Fournier said, “seemed to ignore basic concepts in research design, hypothesis testing, internal validity and reliability, which are basically concepts covered in an undergraduate research-design course.”
Fournier went as far as to label his work “pseudoscience.”
Lewinski responded that Fournier focused too much on his magazine articles and not enough on his journal publications. “Either she is naïve or her ethics are seriously compromised,” he said.
In recent months Lewinski has been getting a lot of bad press, including a front-page report in the New York Times. The attention convinced a North Carolina police department to cancel a training from Lewinski’s institute scheduled for this month.
Lewinski’s course this week will cost Chicago $50,000, including $25,000 paid in advance, according to city records. The session will take place at a facility run by Lewinski’s institute in Des Plaines, a northwestern suburb.
David W. Rivers, who teaches police-shooting investigators for the Indianapolis-based Public Agency Training Council, said Lewinski’s training will help IPRA do its job. “I think it’s a very good idea,” he said.
“When you’ve got people doing these types of investigations, you expose them to anything new, from a science side, to help them understand the dynamics of what’s going on in these shootings,” said Rivers, a retired detective sergeant in Florida who earned a “force science certification” by attending a weeklong Lewinski-led course.
Other leaders in the police-oversight field say a reason to bring in Lewinski for training is to keep tabs on what he is telling cops.
“That group trains so many police officers and police executives,” said consultant Julie Ruhlin, who has reviewed hundreds of police shootings in Los Angeles County. “There just needs to be an appropriate amount of skepticism about how this is being portrayed as a science.”
It’s not clear that IPRA is providing its investigators the tools to be skeptical. Apart from the sessions led by Lewinski, the agency has held no other training about police shootings since 2012, according to the statement from Ando, who did not grant a WBEZ request to interview him about the Lewinski training.
After IPRA’s first session with Lewinski, held in August 2014 at the FBI’s Chicago office, a few of the city investigators told WBEZ they found him too pro-cop.
Others were apparently satisfied. Through an open-records request, WBEZ obtained 11 IPRA staff evaluations of the training. Most of those reviews were glowing.
IPRA Supervising Investigator Alexis Serio called Lewinski’s training “extremely beneficial.” He showed that “body movements and time lapsed between shots is a mere fraction of a second,” she wrote. “The officers have fractions of a second to make the decision to shoot or not.”
The course material, Serio added, “gave me a better way to articulate why the shootings are almost always justified.”