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.

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, 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.


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, 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, 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.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Tempe politicians want police to run collections for campaign reform plan

Tempe city councilors hope people of color, poor won't mind footing the bill for politicians' backbone transplants

In what must rank as one of the most boneheaded moves in Tempe government history, the Tempe city council is considering turning to a regressive fee tacked onto traffic tickets in order to pay for a public campaign system for city council and mayoral elections, all in the name of thwarting the increasing grip that developers have on the upside-down pyramid.

Citing an electoral system taken prisoner by developers, local elected officials hope that adding a fee on top of speeding tickets will raise an independent source of revenue for funding candidates not captive to wealthy real estate interests (presumably these captives include the current council).

Speaking to AzCentral, Councilman Schapira described the current workings of city government in bleak terms:
“Right now in Tempe, if you’re a pro-developer council member who always votes the way developers want you to vote, developers are going to find a way to finance your campaign and you’re basically guaranteed re-election.”
The evidence for his claim is plain to see for most anyone in Tempe with eyes. The pace of new building in Tempe is rapid and, fueled by tax breaks doled out left and right by the city, aims almost exclusively for the luxury market. 

Locals feel increasingly squeezed out. Many have seen their rents sky rocket in recent years. Rising rents are a common complaint on a downtown Tempe neighborhood group, Maple-Ash-Farmer-Wilson (MAFW), which boasts nearly 3300 members.

A recent ABC15 piece pointed out that Tempe average rents have jumped nearly $250 since 2010 with most of that almost certainly coming in the more current end of that range. 

Tempe rents rising steeply (graphs via ABC15)
Clearly there is a problem. City council is basically waving the white flag to developers and telling city residents quite clearly that they have no backbone and that they are helpless before the developer juggernaut. 

But while almost everyone who isn't receiving a massive tax break to build luxury condos can probably agree that stemming the influence of real estate profiteers is a noble cause, there's a big problem with the solution some city councilors are putting forward.

A fee placed on speeding tickets has several serious issues, not least of all questions about the group implementing it and who's going to pay for it. Since the fee is attached to speeding tickets, the task of collection falls to the Tempe Police Department. Let's address that first.

Last November, Down and Drought broke the story locally about massive disparities in Tempe PD's African-American arrest rate. Following unrest in Ferguson sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown, USA Today reviewed arrest reports nationwide. That investigation found that the disproportionate arrest of blacks was common throughout the country, but specifically it noted that many cities, including Tempe, arrested blacks at rates higher than Ferguson PD.

This information recently raised serious questions about the ability of Tempe PD to do their job without a racial bias. Downtown residents took concerns about this data to the city and officials discussed it at a February 10th meeting of the Tempe Human Relations Committee (.PDF).

Via Feb 10th Tempe Human Relations Committee Minutes
At another meeting with the city, Tempe residents were assured that in response to the data, a massive Tempe policing operation known as "Safe and Sober" would be canceled. 

The operation, highly unpopular in the party-prone neighborhoods surrounding ASU, featured over a dozen and sometimes nearly 20 police agencies flooding the area, stopping thousands of drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians over the course of several weekends, ostensibly to combat what the city called "rowdyism." Partying, essentially. Something many locals consider a birthright.

Considering the USA Today data, residents of MAFW demanded that the city account for the racial breakdown in those stops. The city replied that it had no way to track that data because police agencies from other cities took those reports with them when they left. Whether true or not, claiming incompetence is not a very inspiring defense.

Considering the scale of the program and the disparities USA Today had revealed, the city wisely canceled the program. Taking that data into account, for the two years it ran Safe and Sober may have been one of the biggest profiling operations in the country, in the same category as NYC's racist "Stop and Frisk" program.

Graphic via State Press

In February, The Republic wrote of disproportionate Black arrest rates in the Valley. The article noted that three East Valley cities, including Tempe, "arrested Black people at a rate higher than in Ferguson, Mo." in 2011 and 2012. Despite initial challenges to the data in the article, our own internal data ultimately showed the same thing.

In the same years examined in the article, our data showed that Black Tempe residents were arrested at nearly three times the rate of White residents, a proportion that is indeed worse than Ferguson.
Not long after, Tempe Police Chief Tom Ryff, the long-serving top cop in town and originator of the Safe and Sober program, resigned. Local media reported that the USA Today data had played a role in his departure.  Again, Councilman Schapira spoke out, saying "I'm excited to see what a new chief can do in terms of building morale in the department and building a culture ...that's a positive one for the city and building really strong relationships in the community."

When speaking before the city's Human Relations Commission, Chief Ryff and Director Brenda Buren justified the data by saying, essentially, that it showed that police nationwide are racist and that Tempe PD may only be targeting blacks who drive through the city. Again, not much of a defense. If you have to indict your entire profession, you've lost the argument. Tempe historically was a "sundown town," a city where after sunset African-Americans and other people of color were strongly encouraged to get out of town. Tempe PD's assertion that they target out of towners lines up with this disgraceful tradition.

This is all highly relevant to the city's proposal to fund its clean elections program with speeding tickets. After all, TPD's documented racism, acknowledged by the city, will obviously effect the way it enforces speeding tickets. The truth is, not everyone catches TPD's attention equally, and as a result, these fees, tacked onto speeding tickets, will disproportionately come from people of color, particularly Tempe's black population and any African-Americans passing through or visiting Tempe.

The city seems bent on projecting a progressive attitude lately, with its recent changes to its discrimination law. But piggy-backing your election "reforms" on the backs of the Valley's non-white population, collected through a police department with well-documented and officially acknowledged racism, hardly seems in line with this objective.

Councilwoman Kuby says it's not a tax.

Further, given the income disparities between blacks and whites, we can reasonably  extrapolate that the poor in particular will also be disproportionately affected by these fees. And it just so happens that African-Americans and the poor are also the most likely to have been deliberately excluded from the electoral system through just the kind of racially-biased policing that Tempe engages in.

And the poor are the most likely to see little value in participating in formal politics, a position city council clearly must have some sympathy for, given that they themselves are about as enfranchised as it gets and yet at the root of this reform is city councilors claims that even they are helpless before wealthy developers.

"For a city that distinguished itself recently for arresting blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, you'd think Tempe would be loathe to court another comparison to a city emblematic of systemic racism."

In a recent Twitter exchange with Down and Drought, Councilwoman Kuby seemed averse to calling this a tax, but the fact remains that it's a compulsory contribution, administered by a racist police force, taken from those least likely to protest it. It's an easy fee to assess, passing the buck onto people who can't afford it, and for whom the disruption of arrest that would come with non-payment would be the most crippling. After all, not paying a traffic ticket can land you in jail and when you're broke even a few dollars can make a big difference.

Kuby's error seems mostly centered on a desire to accomplish what she thinks is a larger good. But this still doesn't excuse ignoring the details of how it will be implemented and who will be implementing it.

Schapira's backing of the new fee is even more troubling, indicating a peculiar selectivity when it comes to TPD's racism. While he was clear in his June 9th Arizona Republic editorial about TPD's racism and its impact on Safe and Sober, he was somehow unconcerned about it just a few weeks later when defending Tempe's new ordinance banning smoking with children in the car.

In that case, he was not bothered by Tempe PD's documented racism and its impact on enforcement of the law.  Quite a reversal!
"We fashioned the ordinance to treat violations as secondary offenses. Officers will only cite those pulled over for something else.

In other words, if a cop busts you for speeding and sees a lit cigarette in the ashtray and a kid sucking fumes in the back seat, you're going to owe $50."
What's the difference? How could it be that safe and sober was a racist policing operation while somehow other enforcement measures, like the smoking law or the proposed fee-financed public campaign system, are immune from such biased policing? After all, a racist police force that is documented to target blacks will certainly likewise cite them more often for secondary offenses. You can't be cited for a secondary offense if you're not stopped in the first place, and we know who TPD likes to stop. This is carceral progressivism and should be opposed. City council needs to reverse course immediately.

In our opinion, the shocking data detailing Tempe PD's disproportionate arrests rates for African-Americans ought to have the City of Tempe pulling back on all enforcement and seriously questioning its application across the board. Instead, they seem to be charging headlong into policy territory -- public funding via criminal fees -- reminiscent of Ferguson. For a city that distinguished itself recently for arresting blacks at a higher rate than Ferguson, you'd think Tempe would be loathe to court another comparison to a city emblematic of systemic racism.

The bottom line is, it's not fair to make the city's most marginalized populations pay for the city council's lack of backbone. This fee is a regressive tax extracted at gunpoint by a racist police force. Further, it will raise money from groups most excluded from or most fed up with politics. If the city council can't find the wherewithal to stand up to developers and real estate interests seeking handouts, then maybe they don't deserve their jobs in the first place. Poor residents and African-Americans in Tempe are already paying out of proportion to their numbers, is it right to make them pay again?