Police Kill Teenage Boy: Negligence or Necessary? 1

 By Chris Simmons


On May 24th, a Purcellville [Virginia] police officer shot and killed Christian Sierra – a depressed High School student they had been summoned to help.

The 17-year old was at a neighbor’s house when he began threatening suicide. He subsequently cut himself and the police were called. Armed with a knife as he stood alone in the street, Sierra lunged at the first police officer to arrive. The officer responded by shooting and killing the boy.

Why wasn’t non-lethal force used? The police have several non-lethal tools available for use – the old-school nightstick, an ASP – a solid steel expandable baton ranging in length from 16-26 inches, tasers, pepper spray, and so forth.

In my opinion, in this encounter, the police officer CANNOT claim self-defense. The officer knew Christian Sierra was armed with a knife before exiting the safety of the police cruiser. Given the array of non-lethal weapons readily available for use, the troubled teen could have been quickly and safely subdued.

It is important to understand that by drawing his/her weapon, the officer actually raised the probability of a fatal encounter. Psychologically, aiming a gun at a knife-wielding individual often prompts the person’s “Freeze, Fight, Flight” response to favor the Fight option. In general, the escalation spiral will have already rendered the Freeze/surrender option highly unlikely. Flight is not an option as many individuals believe a police office will shoot them even if they turn and run. Thus, to survive, a person may feel they must attack.

In a gun vs. knife scenario, the psychological dynamic can be very deceptive. A knife-wielding individual might envision four possible outcomes:  the police officer could freeze and not fire, the officer might miss, the individual could be wounded, or he/she could be killed. Fueled by adrenaline, it becomes easy for an emotional individual – or in this case, a troubled teenager, to misjudge the likelihood of a favorable outcome.

Contrast that thinking against the very accurate psychological response when non-lethal force is clearly going to be used. Witnessing an officer extend a two-foot long ASP, a knife-wielding individual will likely conclude that the officer will disarm them by using the metal baton to break their hand, wrist or arm. The use of a non-lethal option is, in effect, a proportional response favoring the police as it capitalizes on the weapon’s extended range and the frailty of human bones.

Even a distraught person generally understands that a police officer will not be afraid to use their baton, nor is it likely he/she will miss. As such, the individual will commonly concludes one of three outcomes are likely: surrender immediately to avoid excruciating pain, undergo bone-breaking injuries, or risk sustaining a fatal blow to the head or a vital organ. In this situation, it’s hard to misjudge the likely outcome. More importantly, even if the individual does err in judgment, their forthcoming wounds would rarely be life-threatening.

I believe the death of Christian Sierra was probably both preventable and unnecessary. I experienced many tense situations during 24 months in war zones around the world, so I empathize with the stress under which the police operate. That said, the soldiers with whom I so proudly served never killed anyone when the means and opportunity to capture/subdue them existed. Citizens should expect the same standards from their police.

Exploiting Human Frailty: Is This Russia’s Plan For Destroying the Ukraine? Reply

Flag of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU)

Flag of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU)

By Chris Simmons

Over the last several weeks, “pro-Russian” forces – presumably including disguised Russian government personnel – have seized numerous Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) buildings.

But what is their goal?  Why would they attack Kiev’s intelligence service?  A display of strength? Perhaps. Seizing weapons? Undoubtedly, but as a lesser mission. I suspect that perhaps Moscow seeks to indirectly defeat the Ukraine by obliterating its primary spy service.

In capturing these facilities, the masked Russian personnel and their allies now presumably have the personnel and security files of SSU personnel, as well as family photos, contact information, etc. Additionally, the Russian “separatists” have already shown their propensity for anonymity (i.e., “unmarked uniforms, masks, etc). Such secrecy helps create a baseline of fear. As tensions escalate, the environment becomes ripe for terror attacks.

Students of irregular warfare (previously called “guerrilla warfare”) know insurgents maximize their strength and minimize their risks by attacking where an enemy is weak or vulnerable. Another tenet of this type of warfare is the adage, “Kill one, terrorize a thousand.”

Moscow does not want to engage the SSU directly – and now it doesn’t have to. It can incite panic by unleashing a reign of terror against the families of SSU officers. Such an effort could be as simple as kidnapping the loved ones of a few of its personnel. Russia would follow these acts with a well choreographed media campaign to convince the 4000 SSU members that their families are next. Bear in mind that to be effective, a terror threat need not be real — but merely perceived as credible.

People will always follow the 1st Rule of Human Natureself interest.  If Moscow successfully creates an environment of fear so pervasive that SSU members are forced to choose between their families and their nation – the Ukraine is doomed.

Violence Against Women — It’s a Men’s Issue 2

Jackson Katz, Phd, is an anti-sexist activist and expert on violence, media and masculinities. An author, filmmaker, educator and social theorist, Katz has worked in gender violence prevention work with diverse groups of men and boys in sports culture and the military, and has pioneered work in critical media literacy. Katz is the creator and co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, which advocates the ‘bystander approach’ to sexual and domestic violence prevention.

7 Signs a Person May be Predisposed to Violence 1

By Chris Simmons

  1. Does he/she abuse or torture animals?
  2. Does he/she engage in high-risk behavior with little or no regard for their personal safety?
  3. Does he/she bully weaker individuals?
  4. Was he/she ever physically abused?
  5. Does he/she harbor unresolved anger regarding their childhood, family/close friends, or a work situation?
  6. Has he/she already engaged in violence?
  7. Does he/she over-react to the slightest perceived slight?

The “Red Flags” listed above, while not all inclusive, are reliable indicators that an individual is inclined to react aggressively. Normally, I tell others that to accurately read people, look for patterns of behavior rather than a single act. Violent behavior is the exception to this rule.

One of the best predictors of future actions is past conduct. You should be very cautious and concerned when the aggressive or cruel behavior has escalated over time. If confronted with the above indicators, take steps to protect yourself first. Once you and those around you are safe, an intervention by a trained professional(s) may be appropriate.

Is Your Brain Wired for Violence? 1

University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Adrian Raine, the author of “The Anatomy of Violence,” believes that advances in brain imagery are helping to explain the biological roots of crime. American Enterprise Institute scholar and psychiatrist Sally Satel, a coauthor of “Brainwashed,” is wary of the seduction of brain scans. The Washington Post brought them together for a conversation about the promises and pitfalls of brain imagery. An abridged version of that conversation follows.

Outlook: Adrian, could you start us off with one of the images from your work? Tell us what we’re seeing and what some of your research suggests.

Adrian Raine: One that strikes me is Donta Page, who robbed, raped and killed a young woman in Denver in 1999. I was an expert witness in that case. Compared to normal controls, brain scans revealed he had a distinct lack of activation in the ventral prefrontal cortex: the region that helps regulate our emotions and control our impulses.

He was also brought up in a horrible environment, neglected and physically and sexually abused. He was thrown out a car window when he was just 9 months old and suffered multiple head injuries as a child. He also had a family history of mental illness. He was referred 19 times for psychological treatment, but he never once got a treatment session.

So the key conceptual point is biosocial: Combine the brain with the social environment, and you have a predisposition for violence and crime that should be taken into account. [A three-judge panel gave Page a life sentence rather than the death penalty.]

Outlook: Sally, talk about some of your concerns about brain imaging and how it’s used. You’ve written, “Naive media, slick neuroentrepreneurs, and even an occasional overzealous neuroscientist exaggerate the capacity of scans to reveal the contents of our minds, exalt brain physiology as inherently the most valuable level of explanation for understanding behavior, and rush to apply underdeveloped, if dazzling, science for commercial and forensic use.”

Sally Satel: Neurocentrism, as [my coauthor Scott Lilienfeld and I] define it, is the notion that explanations that reside at the level of the brain are inevitably the most informative, authentic, truthful explanations of complex behavior. Brain imaging can inadvertently, if it’s not interpreted correctly, or if it’s positioned in a tendentious way, feed into that [bias], because you have this stunning biological portraiture. Things appear to be lit up.

That’s really not how the brain works. It’s always on, it’s always firing — some circuits are going to be more active at any one time than another, but [neural activity] is highly distributed and not static.

Many people think that if [there is activity] in the brain, whatever behavior flows from it is involuntary. Sometimes that is the case, but you cannot draw that inference just from looking at a brain scan.

There’s also a lot of misapplication, a lot of premature application of underdeveloped science. Using [brain imaging] in the service of lie detection is one. It doesn’t mean we won’t get much better to the point where it may well be informative. But it’s not there yet, and there’s a lot of pseudo-neuroscience out there.

Outlook: The Supreme Court ruled this past week that police can take DNA samples from people arrested in connection with serious crimes. How about brain imagery? What role do you see brain scans playing in law enforcement and criminal justice, now or in the future?

Raine: Not now, but there’s potential for the future in the area of probation and parole decisions: Do we keep someone in prison, do we let them out early, are they a risk to society? Those decisions are made every day by judges, by [probation officers]. In California, it’s based on 20 indicators — social and behavioral indicators. Question is: Can these assessments be more accurate?

Two new studies have come out — one that I’m linked to and one by another group — that show brain-scan data can give added value to social and behavioral predictors of future offending. One study, this was [University of New Mexico psychologist] Kent Kiehl’s group, showed that individuals with lower levels of anterior cingulate functioning are twice as likely to reconvict after release from prison. The study I was involved in showed that individuals with reduced volumes of the amygdala were three times more likely to commit an offense in the three-year period post-release. Now, caution here, these are just two studies. But if there’s replication and extension, then there’s some potential for better decisions to be made.

Satel: I’m looking at the study you’re referring to with Kent Kiehl, and while it was a well-done study, they found what’s to me an unacceptable number of false positives and false negatives: 40 percent of people who they thought would reoffend based on reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex did not reoffend, and almost 50 percent of the people who they didn’t expect to offend based on the activity in that one area did offend. So that’s a not a lot better than chance.

Raine: I would say even if you statistically raise the prediction a little bit, that’s got to be better than nothing.

I think brain imaging and other neurobiology can also be used in mitigation in capital cases. If you’re against the death penalty, well, you’re in search of anything that can be thrown into that situation. Neuroscience has something to add in the penalty phase of capital cases. Outlook: If there is some biological basis for violence, what does that do to concepts of moral responsibility?

Raine: I would say it gives us more humanity. We need to understand behavior more. It will never be a full explanation. But just as with witches — we used to burn them. Once we find out more about the etiology and causes of behavior, it gives us a more benign and humane perspective.

I talk about the case of Michael, who was a 40-year-old man, married. And then he began to develop a sexual interest in his prepubescent stepdaughter. Michael was found guilty of child molestation and diagnosed with pedophilia. The night before his prison sentence, he went to hospital complaining of a headache. An astute neurologist brain-scanned him and found a tumor growing from the base of the orbital frontal cortex — a part of the brain very critical for emotional regulation. They resected the tumor, and Michael was completely normal. He successfully completed a [therapy] program and then went back home to live with his wife and stepdaughter. Sort of a happily ever after. But then the headaches came back. He began to develop interest in child pornography again. The tumor had grown back. They resected this tumor for the second time, and for six years after that, to our knowledge, Michael’s been quite normal. It’s as close as you can get to causality.

Satel: I’m all for humanity. But the case of the pedophile: That is an amazing case. However, one wonders how many of those there are.

Raine: Or take head injury: It changes behavior.

Satel: Yes, but anything dramatic like that I don’t think people question so much. My point about the pedophilia case is that the night he [went to the hospital], at one point he was afraid that if he were released he might rape his landlady.

Raine: Yes, knowledge and forethought.

Satel: This man’s moral sense was intact enough for him to stop it. And that’s always interested me because of so many of these cases where people claim that they couldn’t control themselves. All you know is that they didn’t control themselves. Our science is not good enough yet to tell us when they truly couldn’t control themselves.

Raine: I think there are degrees of selfcontrol. You know what Michael said? I’ll try and use his exact words. He said: “There was a little voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’ But there was a much bigger voice in the front of my head saying, ‘Go on, why not?’ ” So he did have a sense. He knew what he was doing, and he knew that what he was doing was wrong. That’s why, when I put that case to judges, 90 percent of judges will say Michael is responsible for his behavior, because he fits the legal definition as it stands.

In the future, what about partial responsibility? Not just based on brainimaging data, but on all data combined. You know, you’re either responsible or not responsible: I don’t buy into that. I think there are shades of gray. And I think that there’s a future potential for a change in the justice system in terms of bringing the concept of partial responsibility into the guilt phase of a trial.