Bill Lewinski defends cops accused of excessive force

Minnesota State University-Mankato professor serves as expert witness in police shootings

With his balding head, spectacled eyes, and agreeable manner, Bill Lewinski doesn't seem like the kind of person who spends his days thinking about gunfights. But from his office at the Minnesota State University at Mankato, this tenured professor of police psychology has built a small empire writing and testifying about what happens when police officers use force. Lewinski's newsletter is distributed to law enforcement departments around the country, and he runs seminars and training workshops from Los Angeles to London. He also consults regularly on legal cases involving police use of force, serving as a paid expert witness in more than a dozen trials per year.

POLICE LOVE LEWINSKI. He has been named to the National Commission on Law Enforcement Integrity and was the keynote speaker last month at the Trexpo Law Enforcement Exposition in Long Beach.

That should come as no surprise; as an expert witness in nearly 100 cases, Lewinski always supports the use of force and always defends police when they are accused of overstepping their bounds. After Minneapolis police shot fellow officer Duy Ngo half a dozen times with a machine gun in 2003, Lewinski testified that the shooting may have been justified. The city ended up settling for $4.5 million.

Bill Lewinski:  Mild-mannered professor by day
courtesy of Bill Lewinski
Bill Lewinski: Mild-mannered professor by day
"It was incredible," says attorney Robert Bennett. "You had a social scientist on the stand who was offering a false medical diagnosis."
Nick Vlcek
"It was incredible," says attorney Robert Bennett. "You had a social scientist on the stand who was offering a false medical diagnosis."

"This is a guy who's firmly in the category of junk science," says Paul Wright, the founder and editor of Prison Legal News, who has tracked Lewinski's career.

In most cases, Lewinski is called upon to present a scientific-sounding justification for what looks on its face unjustifiable. He tells juries that police have to make split-second decisions if they want to survive, that just because the victim was shot in the back doesn't mean he wasn't a threat. And he does it all with the mantle of authority granted by a tenured professorship at one of Minnesota's public universities.

"Lewinski has found a niche, and it's a lucrative one," says Roger Clark, a former police officer who also serves as an expert witness in police use-of-force cases. "The problem is that his work encourages bad police practices and makes it harder to hold anyone accountable when they go wrong."

"WHY IS THE SUSPECT SHOT IN THE BACK?" It was a provocative title for Lewinski's landmark article that ran in Police Marksman in 2000. The article laid out the results of Lewinski's research into action and reaction time—how long it takes a suspect to draw a gun and for the officer to recognize the threat and react by pulling the trigger.

Lewinski timed some of his students while they drew a revolver and aimed it. He concluded that a suspect could pull a gun and fire on police in less than a 10th of a second. Police, the article argued, take much longer to react.

"The average officer, with his finger on the trigger, and being psychologically set, is able to 'react' to a shot timer and pull the trigger of his weapon in about a quarter to a third of a second," Lewinski wrote.

The conclusion Lewinski drew from the research was that cops on the street have to assume they're facing an Old West quick-draw artist.

"The only way an officer can ensure his survival is to prepare for, and react as if he's facing the fastest person out there," he wrote.

In some of the experiments, Lewinski photographed subjects shooting while turning or running. He concluded that an officer returning fire at someone running away would likely end up shooting him in the back, creating wounds that would look suspicious even though the officers were responding to a real threat.

The article was a big hit in the law enforcement community, and kicked Lewinski's career into high gear. He was soon being hired as an expert witness in high-profile cases across the country. Lewinski now charges $475 an hour for his work as an expert witness. By his own estimate, he bills upward of $100,000 a year in expert testimony fees alone.

Lewinski took an odd path into law enforcement studies. He never wore a uniform himself—he began his career as a teacher and therapist working with mentally disabled children in Ontario, and only shifted into his current focus during his graduate work. His doctorate degree in police psychology is the first such degree in the country. Police psychology isn't a field recognized by the American Psychological Association, and although Lewinski calls himself a psychologist, he isn't licensed to practice as one. Union Institute and University, which gave Lewinski his Ph.D., is mostly a distance learning institution, and Lewinski didn't attend any classes on campus during his three-year program. Union Institute doesn't even have an accredited psychology program.

Lewinski's rising profile has made him a star among his colleagues at the Minnesota State University at Mankato. In 2004, Lewinski convinced MSU-Mankato to help him set up a center for his work. Initially called the Center for the Study of Performance in Extreme Encounters, it was eventually renamed the Force Science Research Center. At Lewinski's request, the university approved more than $10,000 to renovate a space for the center to use.

"He's increased the respect and the credentials of our program a great deal," says Tami Wilkins, director of the university's law enforcement program. "He's doing cutting-edge research, and people all over the world want to hear what he has to say."

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