NY Times looks at role of paid experts in exonerating police officers
A new investigation by the New York times published earlier this week, took a closer look at the growing network of paid experts, doctors and researchers used to defend police departments. Whenever a person dies in police custody and the cause of death. Isn't clear investigative reporter, Jennifer Valentina, Dre, and her colleagues scoured over 25,000 pages of court documents and conducted over 30 interviews to make sense of why time and time again, the same experts, including a San Diego emergency doctor, Dr. Gary VI kept popping up and providing testimony that absolved police officers of guilt, what they found is what they're calling a cottage industry of exoneration. Jennifer Valentina Dre, the investigations lead reporter joins me now for more on what they found. Welcome, Jennifer,
Speaker 2: (00:53)
Thanks so much for having me, as I
Speaker 1: (00:55)
Mentioned, you poured through documents after you kept seeing certain names like Dr. Gary V routinely show up in court proceedings. How exactly do these medical experts exonerate police officers when people die in custody? Sure. Well,
Speaker 2: (01:10)
A lot of, um, what they do is conduct research that they say supports the idea that certain police techniques, um, such as face down restraint, where you're pushing someone into the ground or multiple shocks with an electrical weapon, like a taser that these don't present a risk and they conduct this research on volunteers. And it's a very different situation from what you might find out on the street when these arrests or detainments are actually really happening. And then they use that research to say that they have scientifically demonstrated that these techniques are safe and are not going to kill people. Um, and so they say it must have been something else, um, that was responsible for the person's death.
Speaker 1: (01:58)
Your report mentions that a lot of medical doctors say that this line of the is somewhat of a bias science. What did you hear from expert interviews about the science behind these type of testimonies that alleged that neck holds don't kill people,
Speaker 2: (02:14)
Right? When we spoke with not just other medical doctors, but actually medical doctors who have also conducted similar or research in other countries, particularly the United Kingdom, what they found was that these restraint techniques increase the risk of death by a slight amount. So, you know, we're not arguing that if you put somebody face down, you know, they're going to, but the other researchers will look at the, the data on this and see that, well, it increases the, the risk. And so what they do is they train officers in the United Kingdom not to do these things. And, you know, they just have a different way of looking at it. The research here is really focused on defending the officers, um, when a death does occur and, um, elsewhere, it's, it's focused on limiting risk for people who might be interacting with the police.
Speaker 1: (03:17)
Were you able to reach out to, to Dr. Gary V or other paid experts? And what did they say about your findings and that differentiation you're making between, you know, what UK doctors are saying and the science that you're seeing being presented here in the United States? Well,
Speaker 2: (03:31)
They did not engage a lot with our questions. They said they disagreed when we of them are findings indicating that they had worked on behalf of the, the police frequently. They stuck to their guns really and said that, well, their research showed that this wasn't dangerous and they just disagreed with the research, um, indicating that their was a risk. Um, it's funny, like what they will say. So they conduct these studies and we'll just use face down restraint. As an example, their research does show that there is an effect on breathing even on normal people. Um, but what they say is that this wouldn't be enough effect on breathing in a normal person would not be enough to, you know, get you, um, looked at in the hospital, but what the other researchers say is that, yeah, that's true. But if you add onto it, you know, sort of panic situation or other things that might be occurring during the arrest, you can pretty quickly add up to this, having an effect
Speaker 1: (04:42)
Beyond the courtroom. Your investigation found that this network of paid experts is really part of a greater police ecosystem made up of law enforcement agencies, companies, and organizations like axon, which makes tasers and LOL that helps write policies for police departments, as well as those experts in researchers. Can you break how this larger kind of network or an ecosystem works?
Speaker 2: (05:05)
These researchers are just a, a small part of, um, an ecosystem that, um, involves training and, um, equipment for law enforcement. And the very large ecosystem is quite lucrative. You know, the, this little corner that we're looking at, um, the, the fees are, are quite a lot. I mean, they're making like 500 a thousand dollars an hour. So for these individuals, it's considerable really, there are a number of, of companies that, um, provide products to law enforcement, all sorts of, of systems and trainings and policy writing. And that can become quite lucrative. You know, millions of dollars, obviously, you know, axon is a, a large company. Um, that's providing tasers as well as body cameras and, and so forth. And this industry they're trying to sell things to police officers. And I, you know, I think it's tough to sell to a group of, of people if you're gonna be telling them that, well, what you're doing might be harming people. It all becomes part of a, a sort of echo chamber. What do you
Speaker 1: (06:12)
Want readers and listeners to take away from your investigation? So knowing that this network and how it's working, how can we use this information to better understand future investigations or even just the news? When we do hear about deaths in police custody,
Speaker 2: (06:30)
You know, I think these deaths are really complicated. And, um, for me, the takeaway was really in speaking with experts elsewhere and even police representatives, um, elsewhere kind of their attitude toward policing just seemed different in that they were really focused on limiting risk, not just cuz they were scared of liability, but because they were not, they were very for focused on not having people die. You know, even if those people are on drugs or having some sort of episode of mental illness, you know, they weren't really putting the blame as much on those other people. They were concerned about limiting risk to them. I would be really interested in seeing additional research in the us that takes a closer look at what is causing, um, these deaths, not with an eye toward finding something besides, you know, the, the police actions, you know, in looking to what is actually happening when people are restrained face down after a struggle and have their body put in a certain position so that we don't do that.
Speaker 1: (07:44)
I've been speaking with Jennifer Valentina, Dre, investigative reporter at the New York times. Thank you so much and more reporting to come I'm sure. Thank you.
An investigation by the New York Times took a closer look at the growing network of paid experts, doctors and researchers, used to defend police departments whenever a person dies in police custody.
Investigative Reporter Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and her colleagues scoured over 25,000 pages of court documents and conducted over 30 interviews — to make sense of why the same experts, including a San Diego emergency doctor, Dr. Gary Vilke, were routinely sought out to provide testimony that absolved police officers of guilt.
They found, what they're calling a “cottage industry of exoneration.”
Valentino-Devries joined Midday Edition on Wednesday to discuss the findings of the investigation.