Why you should care
Because this is the next best thing to getting inside Darren Wilson’s head.
Joel Shults remembers being in Darren Wilson’s shoes. Wilson, in case you’ve gotten away from the airwaves and newsprint alike for a day, is the police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Shults, whom you wouldn’t know, is a former chief of police for Adams State University in Colorado and founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He became addicted to police work after a nighttime ride-along as a high schooler in Rolla, Missouri, a small town 100 miles south of St. Louis. One Friday night years later, in Trinidad, Colorado, Officer Shults responded to a routine domestic disturbance call — it always starts like this, he says. The woman who’d made the 911 call out of fear of her drunken husband answered the door. The man approached from behind and suddenly lifted up his arm; Shults drew his weapon the second he saw the machete. Shults made a mental line on the floor — if the man crossed it, he’d shoot him down. “For three to five seconds, I was sure it was going to happen.” It didn’t. Backup arrived. A Taser proved sufficient.
If Shults had pulled the trigger, someone like Laurence Miller would have been one of the first on scene. A clinical and forensic psychologist, Miller began his career by treating crime victims before eventually transitioning to working with police officers. A sergeant once beeped him after an officer was involved in a shooting. Could Miller get there ASAP? “Don’t you have someone for this?” asked Miller. “Yeah, you,” came the reply, and an unofficial promotion. That was 15 years ago.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What don’t civilians understand about Officer Wilson’s mind in the moments before he killed Michael Brown?
They don’t understand that a deadly force encounter does not have to involve a firearm. It can include any weapon, even the attacker’s own hands. Headlines that say Brown was unarmed, as in didn’t have a firearm, are misleading; you can kill somebody with a flowerpot. It doesn’t matter that Brown didn’t have a gun; he was using attitude, adrenaline and his body as a weapon.
Police officers don’t have to be right, they just have to be reasonable. In this particular case, where Wilson encountered Brown is important. Patrol cars can easily become a coffin for an officer. Not much training happens there because it’s so rare, but with such little room, it’s not defensible. So a scuffle in the car often becomes a deadly force situation because if the officer is disabled, stunned or loses his/her weapon, he/she is at an immediate disadvantage. Once the cascade of aggression starts — which is indicated by microsignals like clenching of fists — officers have to choose the level of force that is most likely to be most effective most immediately.
What role does training play in that decision?
Officers understand that when people are extremely agitated they are not likely to be restrained by normal means. They also know it takes a half-second for a peaceful situation to turn violent, so they are often on red alert. Although the basic training is to use lethal force as an absolute last resort, most officers have the philosophy that their job is to go home at the end of a shift. They’d rather be tried by 12 than be carried out by six.
First of all, police officers are humans. The natural reaction to a life-threatening situation is an adrenaline rush that precludes cognitive function, causing a flight-or-fight freeze. Your brain is saying, “Just live now!” Officers can’t out-train their own biology, but we try and implant pre-established decisions so the brain will default to that rather than panic. In Brown’s case, Wilson’s default reactions would be to protect his weapon and to protect vital areas like the face, so it appears Wilson acted correctly.
“It may be unpopular, but I’d label Wilson as heroic. … Most police officers would agree with me, too.”
Joel Shults, former police chief
Is it part of training protocol to shoot someone a half-dozen times?
When you decide to use lethal force, you make sure it is lethal. Problem is, you can shoot someone and it make take them three seconds to die. But in those three seconds, they could kill you. Officers use deadly force not to kill someone, but to stop them — they’ll use everything short of a bazooka. It seems like an all-or-nothing response, but it’s not.
Many excessive-force cases are a result of officers using less force than is appropriate. It sounds counterintuitive, but when we previously used a continuum — so if someone acts with A, you respond with B — we found that officers move more quickly up the ladder of force and end up using more than necessary. To act more efficiently, officers have to use sufficient force to stop the attack as quickly as possible. It may appear excessive, but it’s not. It took six shots in this case.
What’s next for Wilson?
He’ll go through his own private hell, even if the shooting was justified. He’s not going to have a normal life unless he leaves. His professional career in the area is essentially over no matter what the outcome. He’s probably going to have to lie low for his name to fade away and get a job in another city.
It may be unpopular, but I’d label Wilson as heroic. Think of the courage and persistence that Wilson needed to survive the first attack, then continue to pursue a dangerous fleeing felon [sic] — it’s very remarkable. Most people would have thought of self-preservation and locked themselves up in the car. But he hadn’t completed his mission to catch a felon. Most police officers would agree with me, too. I hope Darren finds a nice cabin in Idaho where nobody can find him, because his career is ruined. He’ll carry the weight of this to his grave.