Former Portland Assistant Chief Discusses Book On Police Shootings

Dec 19, 2017

Joe Loughlin didn’t grow up wanting to be a cop. He says he kind of fell into it and then made it a career, rising the ranks to become commander of the special reaction team of the Portland Police Department, and later to assistant chief of police.

Now a consultant, Loughlin and writing partner Kate Clark Flora have just published a book, “Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions and Myths about Police Shootings.”

Maine Public News Director Keith Shortall spoke with them recently about the project, which Loughlin says was shaped by the riots that erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown.

Loughlin: I started off with another book called “No Reason,” which is a rhetorical title, because you can’t make any reason about what you see on a daily basis. And also the misconceptions that people have about police. When Ferguson happened and I was watching that evolve, and the convulsed nation, and the results that happened afterward, I felt strongly. I had sections in the book about deadly force and what really happens to the police officers and the trauma that they face in the aftermath, and all of the protracted investigation by multiple organizations — People have no information about deadly force and the reality of that. So I focused on that. And to the audience, I know this is a tough topic. It’s hard, but it’s important, so we can create an emotional conduit between police and the public to say, ‘Hey wait a second, these are human beings, they’re people just like you and I.’

Shortall: But on some level, does the public want police not to be human, to somehow be able to have some sort of special training that allows them to not respond emotionally and do better at that than the rest of us?

Loughlin: Of course, police are held to a higher standard than they should be. But the human dynamic is there. I think we have to develop a veneer or some cynicism to negotiate the world we live in, but we’re just people, just like you.

Shortall: Kate, I assume you talked about the fact that you knew that when this would be published, some people would look at it without even reading it and say, ‘Oh, here they come, the apologist books from the police.’

Flora: I guess that I’m still a dreamer. I still think that it’s important to give a voice to this part of the conversation. And you write the book hoping that people will pick it up open minded and have the reaction that people do when they actually read it, which is to say, ‘I had no idea.’ So that if I have a law school classmate who says to me after describing an incident where a knife-wielding mentally disturbed person charges a police officer and gets shot, ‘Why didn’t the police just shoot the knife out of his hand like they used to?’ I know that even what I would think of as the best informed and relatively sophisticated people don’t even have a basic understanding of what’s going into those incidents. This is a piece of the conversation and this book helps to inform.

Shortall: And you do that through these accounts, which are very detailed and as you say, rather than lecturing people about ballistics or the properties of particular guns and all of that, you allow the participants to describe what happened moment by moment.

Flora: I think giving people an authentic voice, actually talking to them about what it’s like to be clinging to the side of a speeding car and afraid that at 60 mph you can’t let go, or what it’s like to be in that dark stairwell and your partner is being stabbed and you can’t see anything and you are trying to save his life. These are very immediate, very intense, and that’s what we want people to see. We wanted people to see the reality. We wanted to give these officers a voice.

Shortall: Let’s get directly here into some of these misconceptions. So Kate was just mentioning people saying, ‘Hey, why didn’t you just shoot the guy in the leg or shoot the gun out of his hand?’

Loughlin: Even in a sterile environment if we’re in a range and I’m trying to shoot your hand, moving, it’s pretty impossible to do. It doesn’t happen like TV, the movies in Hollywood, it doesn’t happen like that.

Shortall: Another idea is that one shot will drop a suspect.

Loughlin: That’s a good one, yeah, and we illustrate that many times in the book, especially with the Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers. One brother was shot nine times, ran over twice and still fighting with the police. Bullets don’t knock people down. The energy of a bullet in wound ballistics is equivalent to a major league fastball pitch. So people who are on crack, heroin or whatever, or enraged with anger, adrenaline — bullets do not stop people. People can still function for three or four minutes and kill others or harm others with multiple deadly wounds in their body. It’s not the movies, people don’t get blown off their feet and fall down and stop, it doesn’t happen like that. On occasion it does, but not in real life.

Shortall: And another common one, ‘Why don’t you just tase him?’

Loughlin: Right. Actually we do. This is another misconception people have, ‘Why didn’t they use less lethal?’ We use less lethal all day long. Every two minutes a taser is used in this country and in Canada. Pepper mace, beanbag rounds, batons. That is common. That’s all day long. There are 34,000 arrests everyday in this country, most of which go pretty smoothly. But there are a lot of violent situations where police save people, and in these engagements, through less lethal rounds.

Shortall: But not everyone is trained in it?

Loughlin: Not everyone is trained and so not everyone carries a taser or not everyone has access to a beanbag round. But the last thing you want to do is deadly force. Any officer that I’ve talked to — in fact, during these interviews I had to stop the tape all the time because they were getting emotional, they were getting upset. Many of them got up and walked away because they couldn’t continue. But less than 5 percent of police officers ever use their weapon during their entire career, self included. I’ve had mine out, obviously I spent many years on the SRT team, but thank God I never had to use it. Because you watch what other people go through when they go through these events — it’s horrible. It has a profound, painful impact on their life, their community, their families. There’s no good outcomes in these things.

This interview has been edited for clarity. To hear the full version, click here.

This story was originally published Dec. 18, 2017 at 5:21 p.m. ET.