Chesterfield Police hired company accused of 'pseudoscience' to analyze deadly shooting of Charles Byers

Posted at 2:36 PM, Jul 02, 2024

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — The Chesterfield County Police Department hired an outside company, which provides consulting to law enforcement agencies on use of force, to review and analyze the deadly 2023 police shooting of Charles Byers. But the decision to hire Force Science drew concern from the Byers family, as the company has previously been criticized for perceived bias toward police.

Peggy and Michael Byers are about to mark one year without their adult son Charles.

On July 8, 2023, a Chesterfield Police Officer shot and killed Charles Byers after two officers responded to reports of a breaking and entering and found Byers carrying a hatchet.

"Every time the seasons change, it makes me so sad that time is passing and he's not here with us," Peggy Byers said.

It's now known that Byers was in the midst of a mental health crisis. At the time of his death, he was under an active court order to be involuntarily held at a psychiatric facility because he lacked the capacity to care for himself.

"We're not dealing with a criminal here. We're dealing with somebody who is in distress, and we should take a little more time and a little more care to try to de-escalate the situation," Michael Byers said.

CBS 6 was first to obtain the body camera footage, almost a year after the shooting occurred.

Watch: CBS 6 obtains body camera footage

Charles Byers body cam footage

The video showed Byers retreating from officers, while holding a hatchet down by his side, and not complying with numerous orders to drop it.

After 45 seconds and as Byers backed away from police, an officer shot at him five times.

Byers then turned around, and the officer shot two more times at his back.

Commonwealth's Attorney Erin Barr justified the officers' actions. She found they had a reasonable fear for their safety and for neighbors who could have encountered Byers.

In her case review, Barr considered the opinions and findings from an outside company as part of the files she was provided by the police department.

CBS 6 confirmed through a public records request that Chesterfield Police paid Force Science at least $12,500, and Force Science provided an 82-page analysis and report on the Byers shooting. The department sent a $10,000 payment to Force Science in November 2023 and another $2,500 payment in January 2024.

But the police department chose to withhold that report, and it also won't release its contracts with the company, citing those records as criminal investigative files. The Virginia Freedom of Information Act allows law enforcement agencies discretion to withhold records that are part of a closed investigation.

Force Science was founded by Dr. Bill Lewinski.

According to its website, the company provides research, training, and consulting on human performance and force encounters involving police.

Lewinski has testified as an expert in trials across the country and has been interviewed by numerous media outlets over the years, including CBS and the Associated Press.

"We do so little and expect so much, and if the officer fails, it’s on the officer. We need to change what we're doing to match the expectations that society has of that officer," Lewinski told the Associated Press in 2020.

Watch: Police backtrack offer to allow access to video of officer shooting, killing Charles Byers

Chesterfield Police backtracks offer to allow access to video of officer shooting, killing Charles Byers

Some of Lewinski's research can be found on the FBI's website, including a 2010 article about the risks of rescuing a downed officer.

But Force Science has its critics.

"It's just a way to find a reason to justify the police officer's actions," Peggy Byers said.

Some experts take a similar position.

"Force Science seems to exist solely on the premise of no matter what the officer did, it was the right thing to do," said Dr. Will Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University who has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice on use of force policies.

Pelfrey reviewed Force Science's research including an article by Lewinski, which was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, about why officers can reasonably shoot suspects in the back. The study measured how quickly subjects completed instructed motions in 11 different scenarios.

"I think a lot of what they do is pseudoscience," Pelfrey said. "They take things that look scientific, and then predicate training or expert witness work on those things."

Pelfrey said the company does base its research off real science: reaction time, visual acuity, and human perception for example. However, critics argue the way Force Science applies those concepts in policing goes too far.

"The degree to which Lewinski and others make very, very firm claims about what that officer definitely saw or could not do, or did for 'X' reasons, simply is not supported by the research, even the stuff that is published in peer-reviewed journals," said Dr. Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Danger Imperative.

In court cases, some judges across the country have excluded testimony from Lewinski and Force Science instructors.

One federal judge in California wrote in 2023 that Force Science "is widely regarded as a purveyor of unreliable pseudoscientific analysis engineered to justify officers’ use of force, and its studies… enjoy little or no acceptance within the relevant scientific community."

Lewinski defends his credibility.

Responding to an interview request from CBS 6, Lewinski wrote in an email, "I am a Ph.D. from a fully accredited university or I could never have been a fully tenured university professor for 28 years at a major university in Minnesota. I was also head of a fully integrated, law enforcement program, the largest in the central mid-west. I was also a chairperson of the Department of Government."

Watch: Chesterfield's top prosecutor explains reasoning for justifying deadly shooting of Charles Byers

Chesterfield's top prosecutor explains reasoning for justifying deadly shooting of Charles Byers

He added that Force Science has produced more than 30 peer-reviewed scientific studies and his research associates combined have written over 1,000 publications.

Still, Lewinski faces accusations of bias toward police.

"He is an industry-created expert that no matter what you do, is going to come in and say, 'it was just fine,'" said attorney Randi McGinn.

McGinn was a special prosecutor in a police shooting case in New Mexico. She cross-examined Lewinski in 2015 when he testified on behalf of the defense.

She convinced the judge to throw out most of Lewinski's testimony.

Here's an excerpt from the cross-examination:

"Since 2003, you have only testified on the side of police officers in criminal cases at secret grand juries and in civil cases," McGinn said.

"We've been asked to present our research for police officers, yes that's correct," Lewinski responded.

"You have never testified on behalf of a citizen who was shot, killed, or injured by the police since 2003, have you?" McGinn asked.

"We've never been asked, so the answer is no," Lewinski said.

CBS 6 asked Lewinski if he could name an example in which Force Science concluded an officer's use of force was improper. He did not directly answer the question but said, "attorneys will do what they can to influence current and future cases, even distort factual information if it suits their purpose."

The Byers family said they doubt the publicly shielded opinions Force Science gave about the shooting of their son.

"I have no confidence in this company, and I'm really disappointed in Chesterfield County in wasting our taxpayer dollars on their services," Michael Byers said.

Chesterfield Police declined an interview to discuss its decision to hire Force Science.

CBS 6 confirmed through a public records request that the department continued working with the organization after the conclusion of the Byers investigation.

In April, Chesterfield Police hosted the company for a training on force encounters and how human factors can affect a critical incident.

An agreement, signed in September 2023, showed the department paid $7,900 for at least 20 people to attend.

CBS 6 checked with other local law enforcement agencies to ask if they've ever worked with Force Science.

Richmond Police, Henrico Police, and the Hanover Sheriff's Office said at least some of their officers have attended a Force Science training in recent years.

However, none have hired the company for an analysis of an officer's force or for witness expert work in a court case.

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