Cutting down on police shootings through better training

LAS VEGAS -- In a deescalation drill, veteran Las Vegas police officers Ken Lerud and Gordie Bush are responding to a burglary.

"Why didn't you Tase him?" the instructor asks.

"Too close. Too much spread," Lerud responds.

"He wasn't harming anyone," Bush adds. "He just wanted to get away."

"Perfect," the instructor says. "We used the appropriate level of force."

The appropriate level of force at a department where police-citizen encounters frequently turned deadly.

Assistant Sheriff Kirk Primas says the reality check came in 2011, with the shooting death of Stanley Gibson, an unarmed, mentally-ill vet who was mistaken for a burglary suspect.

"We were shooting a high number of unarmed citizens, high numbers of minorities," Primas explains. "Taking a human life is a big deal. It's a BIG deal."

The Justice Department thought so, too -- recommending 75 changes to police department policy, including restrictions on when officers may shoot into a vehicle.

"We had to re-create those scenarios where we were shooting unarmed people, and put officers through this in training," Primas says. "So when they are faced with that situation in real life, they're in a better position to not make that mistake."

"If your intent is to go out there and prove what a tough guy you are, this is not the right place for you anymore," says officer Marla Stevens, who trains veteran cops using real life examples.

In one case, the man on the video is doing exactly what the officer has asked, until he reaches in the car for his ID, and the officer shoots him.

"With deescalation it is slowing everything down," Stevens explains. "Let's get more people there, let's try and keep this thing from spinning to a place it shouldn't."

She tells her class of officers, "Make an attempt to get her to come out on her own. Have that conversation that we are here to help you. Not that big a deal."

Officers are taught to speak in lower tone, and a less threatening manner, to calm a suspect down.

But Stevens says the hardest lesson is how to eliminate bias: assumptions based on race, ethnicity, even gender.

"The first step in fighting a bias is recognizing that you have it," she says.

Part of the solution is to bridge the gap within the community.

"If you you show the community that hey, we wanna change, and we wanna do the right thing, I think its extremely important," Bush says.

The new approach appears to be paying off in Las Vegas. With nearly all reforms in place, officer involved shootings have dropped from 25 in 2010 to just six so far this year.