What Three High-Profile Shootings Tell Us About Police Leadership

Photo by Fred Moon | Unsplash


Photo by Fred Moon | Unsplash

Three tragic incidents involving the police have dominated the news over the past couple of months. The first was the highly publicized trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, convicted of murdering George Floyd outside of a convenience store on May 25, 2020. The remaining two police shootings occurred during the Chauvin trial – one in Brooklyn Center only miles away from the trial, and another in Columbus, Ohio. While many are drawing parallels between the three cases and critiquing the involved officers’ actions, not many seem to grasp what these cases tell us about police leadership.


As a retired police officer turned attorney now representing officers, I want to offer my insights into how police leaders failed in each of these three cases.



First is the trial of Derek Chauvin, arguably the highest-profile police misconduct lawsuit since the trial of four officers accused of crimes against Rodney King in 1992. Pundits applauded the conviction of a rogue officer for the murder of George Floyd while praising Police Chief Medaria Arradondo for taking the witness stand and breaking the “blue wall of silence.”


Contrary to this narrative, police management across the country broke the blue wall of silence decades ago, beginning when Sergeant Mark Conta of the Los Angeles Police Department testified against his fellow officers accused of violating Rodney King’s civil rights. Police command staff have testified against the bad apples in their own departments in numerous arbitration hearings and civil litigation cases involving the discipline and termination of these officers.  (Privacy laws, protective orders, and confidentiality agreements preclude reliable statistics but departments do terminate officers when warranted.)  These chiefs responded to the minor problems before they became major ones, ridding their departments of problematic officers long before they committed heinous acts like murder.  And yes, these chiefs contended and complied with due process safeguards arising from collective bargaining agreements.


Police departments claim to be paramilitary and nearly all of them follow a chain-of-command management structure.  Such organizations hold the individual at the head of the chain responsible for everything the unit does and fails to do.  Since Chief Arradondo stood at the helm of the department when Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, he too should be held responsible for failing to do his job.


Chief Arradondo did not discipline Chauvin and likely many others in his department, including the three other officers on scene with Floyd.  Prior to his interaction with Floyd, Chauvin had eighteen complaints against him, at least one of which occurred in 2017 and was serious enough to now warrant federal charges.


This raises many questions: Why did no one order Chauvin to remedial training? Why did supervisors not watch him more closely? Why did internal affairs detectives not recommend discipline or termination?  Why did Arradondo fail to act on any of the eighteen red flags screaming for his attention?  Reform advocates call for officers on scene to intervene in excessive force cases but what about intervention efforts from police chiefs to prevent excessive force from occurring in the first place?


As head of the department, the Chief should be held to answer each of these questions. Blaming the union, as he did on 60 Minutes, should be deemed as non-responsive.


Just before becoming chief, Arradondo received a forewarning of troubles plaguing the ranks when Officer Mahommed Noor shot and killed Justine` Damond in 2017, a horrific incident causing the prior chief to resign.  Upon his swearing-in, Chief Arradondo needed to rapidly assess the situation before him and immediately take measures to reform the department he now oversaw.  Evidently, he failed to set the tone and implement effective changes holding officers accountable and preventing the kind of terrible outcome we saw between Chauvin and Floyd.


Chief Arradondo botched his duty to take reasonable measures to prevent George Floyd’s death.  The buck stops with you, Chief.


Brooklyn Center

The second incident involves Officer Kim Potter, a 26-year veteran officer with the Brooklyn Center, Minnesota Police Department who confused her firearm for her taser, killing Duante Wright when she meant to tase him.


Most don’t realize the bulkiness of the original tasers issued when Potter went through academy training decades ago required storage in the trunks of squad cars rather than on a duty belt.  This changed in the mid-2000s when tasers became less unwieldy and could be worn on their belts.


Given this history, I suspect the Brooklyn Center Police Department issued its officers the new compact taser and suggested they wear it on their non-dominant side.  That kind of lackadaisical training fails to account for the impact of muscle memory in stressful situations such as the incident with Wright.


An officer-involved shooting in Newhall, California in 1970 highlights the power of muscle memory.  In that incident, suspects shot and killed four officers with the California Highway Patrol.  When investigators later examined the scene, they could not locate brass bullet casings from the officers’ firearms despite knowing they had fired multiple rounds at the suspects.


Eventually, they did find brass inside the officers’ trouser pockets.  Apparently, the officers shot six rounds from their firearms but rather than reloading their guns—as one would expect during a lethal encounter—they inexplicably bent down to pick up their brass and placed them into their pockets.


Why? Muscle memory.  Throughout the academy, these officers picked up the brass on the shooting range after emptying their pistol cylinders.  When faced with a lethal force incident, their muscles reverted to their training, picking up the brass and putting them into their pockets as they had done years before in the academy.  Police instructors immediately reformed range procedures at the academies and now train recruits to pick up brass at the end of the day after training ends.


Officers engaged in stressful incidents have confused their pistol for their taser in multiple incidents.  In light of the Newhall shooting, this learned behavior is not outrageous but perfectly compatible with human responses to high-pressure situations.


Proper training requires officers to build muscle memory by drawing their taser one thousand times – making the motion automatic when faced with an actual incident.  Before authorizing his officers to carry a taser on their gun belts, Police Chief Tim Gannon had a duty to train his officers.  As head of the department, the responsibility to ensure proper training ultimately rests with him.  He failed.


Columbus, Ohio

The third incident comes from Columbus, Ohio where Officer Nicholas Reardon shot and killed Ma’Khia Bryant as she lunged with a knife towards another girl.  Here, Officer Reardon did exactly as a reasonable officer would have done in similar circumstances.  Presented with an immediate defense of life situation, he used his firearm to stop the threat.


Nonetheless, the public has questioned the officer’s tactics:  “Why didn’t he use a taser? Why didn’t he fire a warning shot? Why didn’t he tackle her? Why didn’t he shoot her in the leg?”


Police use-of-force experts agree none of these options were viable.  A taser dart might not attach, rendering it useless.  Warning shots go up but also come down—and on the way down might strike and kill an innocent bystander.  They also do not stop someone in the act of stabbing another.  Tackling someone with a knife would likely cause great bodily injury or death to the officer and fail to stop the threat to the other girl in imminent danger of being stabbed.


Marksmanship is exceptionally difficult, and departments rightly train officers to aim for center mass.  Attempting to shoot an extremity substantially raises the likelihood the officer misses.  Moreover, shooting someone in the arms or legs indicates the suspect did not truly pose a lethal threat and should not have been shot in the first place.  Shooting someone in the leg is just as deadly as shooting in the chest since a wound to the Femoral artery would prove lethal.


Columbus Police Chief Michael Woods had a duty to manage public expectations prior to this shooting, as do other police chiefs throughout the United States.  They can do this through citizen academies where the public can learn what the science tells us regarding use-of-force situations, especially those involving lethal force.  Citizen students can learn why a taser is not always effective; why warning shots are generally prohibited; why it is unrealistic to shoot someone in the leg; and why an officer may be justified when shooting a suspect who “only had a knife”; along with a plethora of other issues in modern policing.


In this educational setting, police can restore citizens’ confidence in their officers.  Many untrained citizens see shootings such as that of Ma’Khia Bryant as immoral, unethical, and illegal, whereas highly trained officers see these same shootings as the best option morally, ethically, and legally.


An academy can bridge this gap, teaching citizens the objective reasonableness standard outlined in the US Supreme Court’s Graham v. Conner decision and then have real-world application in shoot-don’t shoot firearms simulators, so they appreciate the tremendous difficulty officers face in lethal force situations.


When the police association in Baltimore invited grand jurors to the simulator, participants walked away with a new appreciation for the superhuman demands of lethal force situations.  We need to make this eye-opening experience universal and perhaps even a high school graduation requirement.  Graduates of a citizens’ academy will understand why shootings appearing awful might be lawful.  Chiefs need to be proactive and educate the citizenry so they have realistic expectations of rank-and-file officers, especially in lethal force situations.


Police chiefs can no longer be reactive, nor can they deflect blame on bad apples or police associations.  Command responsibility demands they take charge of their departments, providing the training, supervision, and discipline necessary to ensure officers do their jobs professionally and lawfully.  The head of the organization is responsible for whether a subordinate acted intentionally like Chauvin or unintentionally like Potter.  Chiefs also have a duty to educate the public so that, as citizens, they can make fair and reasonable judgments regarding the propriety of officers’ responses to deadly encounters.  Managing expectations in lethal force incidents must occur well before a tragic incident.


Napoleon declared, “there are no bad soldiers, only bad generals.”  Similarly, there are no bad officers, only bad police chiefs.  For meaningful police reform to occur, the public must demand municipalities issue four stars only to exceptional men and women and hold them responsible for everything their department does and fails to do.


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