By Tom Tanner
New research into how armed police react in the highly charged seconds before pulling a trigger has exonerated many of blame in the US. Now it's being investigated by British police.
Dr Lewinski says perception is marred by fiction
Harry Stanley, Jean Charles De Menezes and Mohammed Abdul Kahar: three innocent men shot by the Metropolitan Police.
In the last 12 months the Crown Prosecution Service announced none of the officers involved in these shootings would stand trial. In fact, no officer has been convicted over any of the 24 fatal police shootings in the past 10 years. For many it smacks of a cover-up.
The day after the CPS announced its decision not to charge the two officers in the Stanley case The Independent splashed on its front page the headline: Shot dead by police: 30. Officers convicted: 0.
When armed police make mistakes, the consequences can be fatal and public confidence seriously damaged.
"As a firearms officers you're either a hero or a murderer," says former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Stevens.
Many people are left with the impression that the police are getting away with murder. But new research, instrumental in the CPS decision not to prosecute the officers in the Stanley case, paints a very different picture. It has helped many officers in the US avert conviction when they have killed an innocent civilian.
At the forefront of the research is Dr Bill Lewinski, who argues that the problem with public perception arises because the our "knowledge" comes from fiction.
"Everybody in our nation, including law enforcement, gets their training about police shootings from Hollywood," says Dr Lewinski, professor of sociology at Minnesota State University.
That ignorance extends to police, judges and juries. It wasn't until Dr Lewinski started conducting experiments in the early 1990s that anyone had looked at how quickly suspects could move and how long it took police officers to react to that movement.
Turns to run
He discovered that in the two seconds it takes an officer to draw and pull the trigger, a suspect can fire nine rounds. A person can turn and move as much as 13ft (4m) in one second.
So an officer facing an attacker may decide to shoot - and later swear they were facing them - when in reality their victim has turned to run and been shot in the back.
In the US, an astonishing 70% of victims of police shootings are shot in the back or the side.
Mr Menezes was shot on the Tube the day after failed bombings
Something like that is said to have happened when Insp Neil Sharman and PC Kevin Fagan shot and killed Harry Stanley in September 1999. Stanley was carrying a table leg and not a sawn-off shotgun, as they had been told.
The officers insisted he turned and faced them pointing the "gun" directly at PC Fagan. But the fatal bullet struck Stanley in the back of the head.
Their story did not match the evidence and they could not remember key details. It looked like they were lying.
Arrested on suspicion of murder in June 2005, the officers hired Dr Lewinksi. His theory of what happened in those fatal split seconds helped persuade the CPS not to charge the officers, although Stanley's wife, Irene, called the decision an "injustice".
By extension, Dr Lewinksi's findings raise serious questions about all police shootings.
As well as his findings about police officers' reaction times, Dr Lewinski has made some extraordinary discoveries about what happens in their brains.
His latest study aims to find the limitations of an officer's recall of a shooting. He has been hired by the Police Federation and will be conducting the experiment later this month in London with Metropolitan Police officers.
Harry Stanley was shot on the way home from the pub
In a pilot study in Minneapolis in August, the results were alarming. The officers did not know how many shots they fired and their description of the suspect was inaccurate.
"One of the things lost in the stress response is the counting. Mathematical ability is certainly suppressed. We know that people can't think and shoot simultaneously in this kind of high stress situation," says Dr Lewinski.
If police officers cannot remember key details, it raises serious concerns about the reliability of their evidence. But it does not mean they are lying.
The CPS has said it will take this into consideration in future cases.
"Operational officers will encounter stress threat danger that may not come to most members of public once in a lifetime," says Chris Newell, CPS principal legal advisor.
"It would be stupid on our part not to be alive to the fact that people under stress won't necessarily act in a wholly rational way and won't necessarily recall events with the clarity that hindsight can bring.
The world has changed since Harry Stanley was shot in 1999. In the age of the suicide bomber, the stakes have been raised and pressure on firearms officers has been further magnified.
Police critics and the police themselves accept more tragic accidents are an inevitable consequence of human frailties.
"There will be incidences," says Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, "and this is what the public has to understand, when people will be shot in the interest of safety to the community, and in the interest of safety to the officers."
Panorama: When Cops Kill was screened on BBC One on Sunday 15 October at 2215BST.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Tony Martin was jailed because he shot the intruder in the back. If what Dr Lewinski says about the victim having time to turn round before the trigger is pulled is correct, then surely this applies in his case. Therefore was his conviction correct
Marion Booth, Doncaster, England
Perhaps it would be beneficial for the public to know how many times that armed police have been used, and where "guilty" suspects have been shot. This would put everything in perspective more. Three shootings in six years are by themselves not high figures.
To suggest that policemen are murderers is totally incorrect. Murder must be intentional and pre-meditated. The officer must have intended to kill the suspect before pulling the trigger, and also not be in fear for his or anyone else's life. In all the shooting cases I've read, the police were clearly acting to arrest the individual, and only turned to their guns once they believed the individual was a threat. Even if they were wrong, it means the case for murder is non existant. The other option of manslaughter is a possibility, all you would have to prove is that the officer did not follow procedure (maybe he didn't shout enough, or wasn't wearing police identification). Firearms police must always be under scrutiny, but when they do 'get off' they shouldn't be demonised. If they are found innocent of a crime it is because they demonstrated their decision to open fire was justified in the circumstances. Retrospective thought is all well and good, but in a situation like firarms officers find themselves daily, they don't have the luxury of knowing the full facts. If most people make a mistake in their work, it means very little. For firarms police it can destroy lives - and not just the victims.
This is absurd. "in the two seconds it takes an officer to draw and pull the trigger, a suspect can fire nine rounds. A person can turn and move as much as 13ft (4m) in one second". The suggestion is that the police officer decides at the start of the process to shoot and if the person turns and runs, he/she shoots them anyway? It may be correct that an officer can't recall the number of rounds fired or the exact sequence of what happens. That is stress. But if a civilian is shot in the back, an officer pulled the trigger at the wrong time. They made a bad decision - it may still not be murder - but it certainly looks like incompetence.
Peter , Aberdeen, Scotland
But if these things about the speed of movement are true, surely they are true of all shootings? What makes it different or special if it is a policeman and not a civilian who has the gun? The problem is that it is one law for us and another law for the police. Either we should apply this to every shooting or forget about it.
If armed police are going into situations where they can't be "wholly rational", surely this means they need to improve their tactics.
Onisillos Sekkides, London, UK
So police are free to murder at will since they will never be held accountable. It is a disgusting injustice. When I was a kid police were someone we could trust. Now, they are someone to fear. Every policeman I saw on my last trip to London was hugging a gun.
Jo, Brit in the US
Just read 'Blink' and you'll never be quite so ready to condemn shootings like these again...
P Johnson, Bristol
All this proves is that Police Officers are, like the rest of us, human. They are prone to mistakes in moments of high stress. Our mistakes mean that the dinner gets burnt, theirs that a person dies. It's the nature of their job, just like a soldier. They should not be penalised for being human.
Glenn Willis, Kettering, England
So what can be done to reduce the risks of innocent people being shot? Is it better training so police officers are aware of decision making during those situations? Better intelligence and prior analysis of the situation? In the case of de Menezes, the police did not shoot him because of an instinctive reaction but because they misidentified him in the first place, after he left his building and as they followed him to the tube station. The shooting might have been avoided had the officers following him identified that he was not one of the suicide bomber suspects, or that he was not carrying any explosives.
While deploring the actions of the police in the incidents mentioned, I can understand how the need for split-second decisions led the officers concerned into the actions they carried out, and their subsequent confusion over what took place. What I have never understood (and have not seen discussed anywhere) is why clearly faulty intelligence was passed to the officers for them to take action on, without it being filtered by someone in charge far enough removed from the situation to see the big picture. All of these incidents occurred due to a failure in leadership - it's not the foot soldiers who should be in the dock but those who failed to exercise control.
Paul Robinson, Inverness Scotland