Monday, August 24, 2015

The Scottsdale police officer who killed six is now training cops when to shoot to kill

Disgraced Scottsdale police officer James Peters works as a pitch man for Tempe based police shooting simulator VirTra Systems, selling the simulator to police and military alike


James Peters selling the V-300 to foreign militaries at the 2015 International Defense Exhibition in Abu Dhabi

Down and Drought has learned that VirTra Systems, Inc., a Tempe company that produces a shooting simulator used for law enforcement and military training, employs former Scottsdale police officer James Peters who resigned from the department amid controversy in 2012 following revelations that he had tallied six fatal shootings during his twelve year career. 

James Peters was cleared in his final fatal shooting, that of John Loxas, an unarmed man carrying his grandchild when Peters shot and killed him. The incident ignited anti-police protests and debate around this officer who had killed so many, and resulted in the city paying out a $4.25 million dollar settlement to the Loxas family.  In the summer of 2012, Peters took an early retirement from the city, and effectively dropped out of sight. But while he was no longer a police officer he continued to work alongside law enforcement in the private sector.

VirTra Systems was a perfect place for the former officer to put his unique skills to use. The company offers some of the most realistic simulations for small arms training by police and military.  VirTra's top product is their V-300 shooting simulator, an immersive experience in which trainees are nearly surrounded by five screens displaying a 300-degree scenario in which the trainee must choose when and how to use deadly force.  The V-300 blasts sound at the trainee as well. Describing the experience, VirTra's website says the "audio system provides over 2,000 watts of audio, and transducers mean simulated sounds feel real and adrenal is felt during training."

Some of VirTra's scenarios include "You're fired" and "Hooker OD"

And if the adrenaline isn't pumping from the simulation alone, the V-300 has an added factor to direct officers to fire on the virtual suspects in the scenario: electrodes from the "Threat-Fire" device are also connected to the trainee to shock them, or as the company explains "to simulate them being injured" during a virtual gun battle. Another explanation for the electrodes is that they are behavior forming, providing a shock when the officer is virtually "shot" during the exercise, an outcome that results when the trainee does not fire at the simulation first.
  
VIRTRA AND LEWINSKI: DOUBLING DOWN IN DEFENSE OF COPS

In KJZZ's article on the VirTra simulator and Threat-Fire, journalist Jimmy Jenkins interviewed neuroscientist Beau Cronin on the impact that virtual reality simulators have on the brain. Cronin explained that his research has identified simulators as having the same effect on comprehension as real experiences, even causing the brain to form new connections between neurons as they would after a real shooting.  In essence, the effect of the V-300's immersive virtual world and the negative reinforcement shocks from Threat-Fire should not be underestimated for the conditioning effect they have on trainees' behavior.

VirTra's pain compliance training operates on the theory that officers who hesitate to take action, die. The pain conditioning kicks in when the officer fails to react quickly enough, with the goal of reinforcing training. In essence, it recreates being shot, an outcome that VirTra's officer-safety-first-and-foremost training strongly implies is the losing outcome.

Describing their system in a press release, VirTra said this about the role of pain in their system: “The trainee knows they could experience pain during training, so they take the training far more seriously, leading to more effective training. In addition, the extra stress and pressure during training helps better prepare the trainee for a real life or death situation where a mistake could have dire consequences.”

Former Minnesota State professor Dr. William J. Lewinski and founder of the Force Science Institute, agrees. A staunch defender of cops who shoot and kill, and controversial researcher on police use of force, Lewinski has been cited in at least one VirTra press release and is an enthusiastic supporter of VirTra's training technology. Lewinski singled out VirTra systems as the best trainer available: "VirTra Systems’ has the greatest potential to save officer’s lives by actually shaping and conditioning their judgments and responses in a realistic format that is unparalleled in its ability to replicate the reality of lethal force street encounters."

In an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Lewinski gave a thumbs up: "Simulations are an excellent way to move into and begin to approximate the training required for real-life encounters.” But he went even further. Speaking of VirTra, he was adamant,"They're sure filling a niche. They need to get out and market themselves now."

Incidentally, Lewinski's connections to Tempe, VirTra's current home base, go at least as far back as a 2003 reaction study done in cooperation with the Tempe Police Department. This research was published in the September/October 2003 issue of Police Marksman magazine. That study states its purpose quite directly: “The concepts addressed in this study are critical for officers to understand, especially those who are consulted by prosecuting attorneys or go before grand juries as firearms experts.”

Interviewed for an August 2015 New York Times article, Lewinski went further, saying that officers cannot afford to wait to act. “We’re telling officers, ‘Look for cover and then read the threat.’ Sorry, too damn late.” Lewinski's theory basically comes down to the idea that if police wait to see a gun, they're too late. Act first and aggressively is his advice.

The failure of Lewinski to publish his research in scientific journals has invited criticism from other experts. Quoted in that same New York Times article, Washington State University professor Lisa Fournier called his research “invalid and unreliable.” For his part, Lewinski says he likes to publish for popular police publications rather than scholarly journals because he wants police to see his research. There is little doubt that Lewinski sees himself as a partisan in the battle over police shootings, and his objectives jibe quite well with VirTra's mission.

But there's one more kicker with Lewinski. If you're an officer who's facing a review of your use of force, he's also available for hire. According to the New York Times, Lewinski has testified on behalf of police in everything from grand juries to trials. At a price of nearly $1000 an hour, he'll bring his aggressive police philosophy and police-friendly research to court.

According to Lewinski's CV, he has a history of supporting police involved in shootings locally. He testified in support of the Mesa police officers who shot and killed Mario Madrigal, and as a witness in the defense of former Chandler officer Dan Lovelace on trial for murder in the on duty shooting of Dawn Rae Nelson. In both cases the cops were kept out of a prison cell, and the cities paid out large settlements, Mesa paying $3 million to the Madrigal family, and Chandler paying $1.9 million to the Nelson family. The City of Scottsdale was forced to raise its primary-property tax in large part to pay for the payout to the Loxas family, raising serious doubts about whether VirTra's grants and confiscation payment plan makes sense financially in the long run.

In a real sense, VirTra and Lewinski are a pro-police double team. VirTra operates on Lewinskian theories and then, if a cop gets in trouble, Lewinski is on hire to bail them out. In fact, in an odd coincidence, Lewinski's Force Science Institute wrote an article for its June 23rd, 2006 issue of its newsletter about one of Peters' previous shootings (it was his third). The article was republished at PoliceOne.com, a top police website. According to the piece, investigators contacted Lewinski about the case and he referred them to another expert from Lewinski's Force Science Research Center, then based at Minnesota University, who provided materials that supported Peters' side. The investigation into Peters third shooting exonerated him. Within a week of being cleared, Peters had shot and killed again.

PETERS' CONTROVERSIAL CAREER IN SCOTTSDALE AND HIS WORK IN VIRTRA

VirTra Systems hired Peters shortly after he was approved for disability retirement in July of 2012. He has since worked for the company as a director of the company's international efforts, as a product trainer to law enforcement and military customers, and assisting in product development. According to Peters' LinkedIn page, he holds the position of "Regional Director of International Business Development and Law Enforcement SME/Trainer," (SME is Subject Matter Expert) and is responsible for VirTra product demonstrations, sales, training, coordinating distribution to Europe and Africa, obtaining weapons for VirTra customers through the Federal Firearms License (FFL), and working with software and hardware engineers to develop VirTra products.

James Peters speaks to the AP at 2014 France Defense Expo, far away from anyone who might recognize him

VirTra has been on a local PR blitz of late with segments dedicated to the product on KTAR, ABC 15, 12 News, and KJZZ this week, but don't expect to see any mention of James Peters (Peters' former co-worker at Scottsdale PD, Scott DiIullo is the local face of VirTra). In fact, Peters name can only be found twice on the VirTra website, once in an acknowledgment in a product manual, and the other in a repost of a round table discussion on simulators in which he is identified as "a retired officer from an Arizona Law Enforcement Agency." It also notes "[h]e had a distinguished career in Patrol, Street Crimes, SWAT, and holds numerous training certifications." Peters can also be found on simunitionvssimulation.com, a site registered to Bob Ferris the CEO of VirTra Systems, Inc., where he has written a defense of the VirTra style simulation as opposed to their Simunition competitor.  On this second website he is identified as "a subject matter expert in the simulation industry," and VirTra Systems is not identified as his employer.

While Peters is kept away from regional media, he has traveled representing VirTra at military and police conferences around the world.  He was at the France Defense Expo in 2014 and this year's International Defence Exhibition in Abu Dhabi,  and his position as "Regional Director of International Business Development" might have a lot to do with keeping a cop known for his six deadly shootings out of sight from an American public increasingly polarized by police violence. 

During his career as a Scottsdale police officer, Peters was never charged with a criminal offense in any of the seven shootings, six fatal, during his twelve year career, his reputation was akin to a modern Dirty Harry. He was a physical fitness instructor and a firearms instructor; he worked in patrol and SWAT; and as a Field, SWAT, and Recuit Training officer. Peters personnel file cites seven civilian complaints against the officer, and 376 recorded use of force incidents, in short James Peters doesn't seem to have been an officer known to de-escalate a situation.

He also was disciplined for his participation in violent episodes, for his attitude towards civilians, and, in December 2002, he was reprimanded for a violent incident involving the transportation of a handcuffed inmate.  In this incident, Scottsdale Police Chief Douglas Bartosh suspended Peters for his role in the use of excessive force against a restrained detainee in a department patrol car. Peters antagonized the prisoner while a Scottsdale police trainee would hit the brakes of the vehicle while traveling on the freeway, causing the prisoner to violently hit the cage separating the front from the back of the car. This is disturbing on many levels, not least of all because Officer Peters, certified as a training officer, was with a trainee, but also because of the incident's resemblance to the rough "nickle rides" Baltimore cops made infamous, most recently in the death of Freddie Gray.


Also on his record was an incident from 2005 in which he was reprimanded for unsafe use of a gun while on duty.  Peters was reprimanded by Deputy Chief of Police John Cocca for "unsafe performance, by mishandling your firearm."  Peters was witnessed removing his firearm from the holster, then pointing it at his face during a department briefing.  When asked why he was operating his firearm in such an unsafe manner, Peters replied that it rained hard the night before and he "wanted to check to ensure the gun was clean."  As Peters is tasked with obtaining weapons for VirTra customers through the company's FFL such a glaring misuse of a firearm would presumably cause concern for a company looking to hire a trainer who shows sound judgement when using a firearm. 


Peters, like many Arizona police officers who avoid discipline by retiring, receives a monthly pension from the City of Scottsdale since he resigned in June of 2012.  Peters "accidental disability retirement application"was approved by the Scottsdale Public Safety Personnel Retirement System Board, allowing him to retire and collect a monthly pension of $4500 in addition to his salary from VirTra. On the VirTra backed simunitionvssimulation.com, Peters works the hard sell to encourage police departments to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars on one of the company's products. The cost of a V-300 is up to $300,000, but Peters let's interested buyers know that the hefty cost can be partially or completely offset by "[g]rants and/or asset forfeiture funds."

 VirTra offered a training demo this week for valley police departments

Even with Peters' endorsement, and the claim by VirTra that over 200 law enforcement agencies use their line of simulators, no Valley police departments have purchased one of the company's products and it's not because they're not advocates.  Lyle Mann, executive director of Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training, told the Arizona Republic last year that it's the price of the simulator which keeps police departments from making the purchase, even if they were to rely on grants or seized assets.  In short: "They are very, very expensive."

And yet, profits are up for VirTra this year, and with the latest PR push the company recently hosted departments from across the Valley at a simulator training demo in Mesa.   Dr. William Lewinski is also profiting from police departments fear of an officer landing in legal trouble, he's hosted two Force Science Certification courses sponsored by the Scottsdale Police Department since officer James Peters gunned down John Loxas in his south Scottsdale driveway.  Lewinski's Force Science Certification courses are also expensive, he charges $1500 per student, just $500 more than his fee for an hour of professional testimony.

It's clear that a lot of people have their eyes on police reform, and some are looking for ways to profit from it. In addition to VirTra and the Force Science Institute, companies like Taser International have made a killing on the demand for their Axon body cameras, another product of dubious effect with regard to protecting the public from police violence, but substantial effect in terms of protecting police from the public, including public recourse for their violent actions. It's unlikely, for instance, that either VirTra simulators or cop cams would have ended Peters' career in law enforcement any sooner.

If companies like VirTra and Taser have their way, the outcome may look something like this: officers are taught to shoot first from negative reinforcement in VirTra simulators, officers are captured shooting and killing a person on their Taser body camera, and a professional such as Dr. Lewinski will appear in court to explain away the inconsistencies between the video and what the officer stated had happened.  And the cops will walk, just like James Peters did seven times in Scottsdale.

25 comments:

  1. This is excellent work you're doing. Especially intrigued by the docs Scottsdale raising its property tax rate to pay for the Loxas settlement.

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  2. Fantastic work. Punching out of your weight class.

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  3. Good law enforcement will rarely have to use their service weapon in the course of their career..... Just what is their total payout for these killings..... New York City paid out nearly a quarter billion dollars because of NYPD.....

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  4. I complained to the Scottsdale PD about Peters before he killed anybody (no response) because he had stated to me "Where does it say a police officer is not allowed to lie?"

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