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To shoot or not to shoot? Researchers test how police react to danger

by Jeff Rossen and Josh Davis / / Source: TODAY

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It was in the wee hours of the morning of Jan. 3 when Lou Golson, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, police officer, approached an SUV he had pulled over, suspecting its speeding driver was drunk because he had come to a screeching halt at a green light.

Golson's body camera captured what happened after he ordered the suspect to turn off his vehicle: The door opened and five shots rang out, four of them hitting the 31-year-old officer and knocking him to the ground.

Fearing the suspect would restart the SUV and run him over, Golson returned fire. None of his shots hit the suspect, 36-year-old Christopher Cook, who was unable to restart the vehicle (which turned out to be stolen) and fled on foot.

Golson radioed for help and fellow officers arrived within minutes and rushed him to the hospital. The married father of five is currently in a wheelchair, recuperating after several surgeries. Cook, meanwhile, was captured within days. He has pleaded not guilty to attempted first-degree murder as well as alleged theft of a car and a motorcycle.

Last Sept. 4, State Trooper Sean Groubert stopped motorist Levar Jones at a gas station near Columbia, South Carolina, for a seat belt violation, asking him to show his license. When Jones reached into his vehicle for it, dash-cam video shows, Groubert opened fire, yelling "Get out of the car! Get out of the car!"

"Why did you shoot me?" Jones asked, struck in the hip. He was treated in the hospital. Groubert was fired, arrested and charged with aggravated assault and reportedly could face up to 20 years behind bars if convicted.

Groubert has pleaded not guilty, his lawyer arguing that the shooting was justified because he feared for his life and the safety of others. A verdict in his trial may not be reached until July. Jones has received a $285,000 settlement through South Carolina's state insurance reserve fund.

Across the country, police officers make split-second decisions in such situations. And in the wake of the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, the issue of race complicates their challenge.

Data from a recent study shows that white and African-American officers alike hold a stronger subconscious bias against African-American suspects — and that they are now overcompensating for that bias, becoming more hesitant to shoot minority suspects. Researchers believe that's because those officers fear backlash.

Such research is underway at Washington State University Spokane, where officers are trained to handle potentially deadly encounters in a state-of-the-art simulator.

TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen observed on monitors as one officer walked through a realistic scenario, during which a simulated suspect fired on him and the officer returned fire. Within 1.1 seconds, the suspect fired twice and the officer fired four times.

Washington State University researcher Steve James, one of the country's leading experts on police shootings, helps run the program. "What we're trying to understand here is what makes these situations difficult for officers, what's going through their mind, how their bodies are reacting," he told Rossen.

Rossen tried the simulator himself, in a scenario about a suspicious person who might be wanted in connection with an assault. Rossen was instructed to use deadly force only if his or someone else's life was threatened.

In the blink of an eye, a simulated suspect appeared and pulled out his hand, and Rossen reacted by opening fire. "Was that a beer bottle?" Rossen said afterward. "Oh God, he had a beer bottle. It looked like a gun, it was so dark."

"You can't sit there and wait to get shot to say, 'Oh, he had a gun,'" said Shawn Kendall, an officer who teaches defensive tactics at the Spokane Police Department's training center. "You can't do that. If you do, you may be dead. You have to react to the threat that's there."

To suggest a topic for an upcoming edition of Rossen Reports, email us.

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