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Bad Apps and Liability

If bad training is partly to blame for fatally bad performance, can the trainers be sued?

A commenter on my last post points me to this article, from July, 2016, about Jeronimo Yanez’s training:

The seminar was called “The Bulletproof Warrior,” and the instructors urged the law enforcement officers in the hotel conference room to make the decision to shoot if they ever feel their lives are threatened.

Videos of bloody shootouts between police and civilians emphasized a key point: Hesitation can kill you.

In the audience at the May 2014 seminar was a young St. Anthony police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, city records show. He’s now known around the world as the officer who killed Philando Castile minutes after making a traffic stop in Falcon Heights last week.

Amid intensifying demands for changes in police training in the wake of the shooting deaths of Castile and others, such “survival” courses for officers are flourishing nationally. But some in law enforcement are distancing themselves from the approach.

The Houston Police Department, for example, won’t pay for its officers to attend the Bulletproof Warrior seminar, which is put on by an Illinois for-profit company called Calibre Press.

And the leader of an international police training association said he thinks some seminars like those offered by Calibre and other firms foster a sense of paranoia among officers.

“Police training became very militaristic and it caused a lot of the problems that are going on in the nation,” said Michael Becar, executive director of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, with offices in Idaho and Washington, D.C.

Calibre recently changed the name of its Bulletproof Warrior course after complaints from police departments about the implication of the word “warrior.”

But owners of the company accuse the media of routinely distorting its message, twisting it to say the company’s programs train officers to kill.

“Our mission is to save everyone’s lives,” said Calibre CEO Lisa Gitchell. “We go to bed every night knowing that we did the right thing. We train officers to treat people with dignity and respect.”

Jim Glennon, a co-owner of Calibre who co-taught the seminar Yanez attended, said it’s wrong to link the course to the officer’s actions last week. “Everybody’s going after this kid,” Glennon said Wednesday. “Nobody should be judging what he did yet without the evidence.”

The Bulletproof Warrior is one of 15 sessions offered by Calibre and its parent company, LifeLine Training. The courses are well-known and popular in law enforcement circles. Facebook photos show conference rooms and auditoriums filled with officers to hear the Bulletproof Warrior message.

Fans say it provides a valuable “wake-up call” in police safety tactics for the street: how to read the body language of someone preparing to attack, for instance. Training professionals note that Calibre was a pioneer decades ago in teaching basic police safety.

Yanez took the 20-hour seminar on May 21-22, 2014, according to a summary of Yanez’s training that the city of St. Anthony provided after a public records request. A year earlier he attended “Street Survival,” another of the company’s seminars, records show.

Yanez also took 20 hours of training in 2012 in “Officer Survival” from a different organization. In May of this year, he took two hours of training titled “de-escalation,” the only instruction in his four years with the department that appears to focus on that approach, the records show.

So it’s not just a matter of what’s in the cultural air. The specific training Yanez received might have contributed to his panicky response, rather than helping him keep his cool.

That’s a huge problem, and I doubt it will be solved merely by bad press and handwringing. I’m thinking about the incentives here. Police departments have an incentive to contract training out to private entities, if only because plug-and-play is undoubtedly a whole lot more feasible — particularly for small departments — than building a program in-house, and I would guess there are state-imposed bureaucratic requirements for such training for officers to advance in the ranks. But private entities have every incentive to design such programs to appeal to their customers — that is to say: to the officers themselves. And those individuals are not necessarily the best judges of either the quality or the orientation of the programs in question. If you’re a bit green and nervous, “bulletproof warrior” training might sound like exactly what you feel you need, even if what you actually need is precisely the opposite.

You might say the solution is for the departments themselves to police the program selection — but this, again, depends on those departments’ ability to make an adequate assessment, something which is surely more difficult for smaller departments, even assuming a good faith interest in doing so.

My instinctive response is to say that there ought to be a tort liability applicable to the private entities providing training in instances where a clear link can be drawn between that training and fatal errors in policing. It’s well and good to say the municipality is liable — as they should be — because someone they hired caused a wrongful death. But it’s not clear to me that a small municipality is going to be in a position to do very much in response, if only because of limited resources. If you want private entities to follow a best-practices approach, you need to make it expensive for them to follow a crappy-practices approach.

I don’t know enough about tort law to know if there are precedents that make my suggestion plausible. But I return to my robot analogy: if robo-Yanez’s programming were at fault for a malfunction, the manufacturer would clearly be liable.



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