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Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Laurence Miller’s expert witness role raises key questions on police, community values

Miller, adjunct professor at FAU and clinical psychologist, works as an expert witness for several high-profile police brutality cases, serving as a testament to the conversation being had on police and community today.
Laurence Miller speaking in court.
Courtesy of Laurence Miller
Laurence Miller speaking in court.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on January 22nd with details about Vaughn Crichlow.

For the last 10 years, FAU adjunct professor and clinical psychologist Laurence Miller has worked as an expert witness on deadly force cases that require explanations based on his research within the field of neuroscience.

In 2018, Miller testified on behalf of Jason Van Dyke, a then-Chicago police officer who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Although Van Dyke was given a sentence of 81 months in state prison, he only served about half that time.

“I cannot prove that Jason Van Dyke did not jump out of his car and say ‘I am going to jump out of this car and kill this guy because I do not like him,’ but at least if the facts of the case are consistent with what we know about the psychology of perception under life and death circumstances,” said Miller.

Then in 2021, Miller testified on behalf of Kim Potter, a former Brooklyn Center Police Department officer who said she mistook a handgun for a taser and fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old man. Potter ended up serving 16 months.

Miller believes both cases required different lines of reasoning and psychological explanations.

“Kim Potter’s case was especially interesting because it relies on more of a memory issue; the idea of how one can mistake a taser, which only weighs a few ounces and is bright yellow, with a handgun?” Miller said. 

“…She had been training with a firearm for over 20 years and with a taser for only about six years; under that circumstance, stress made her default to her most certain response instead of her intended response. So when she reached for that gun, under these circumstances, she believed for certain she was reaching for her taser.” 

Miller works with the West Palm Beach Police Department as a police psychologist and mental health expert for Troop L of the Florida Highway Patrol. Representatives from neither agency responded to requests for comment.

Attorneys routinely use faculty members as expert witnesses — Miller’s fee is $30,000 for his services, he said in his cross-examination for the Kim Potter case.

Expert witness testimony allows professors from various fields to demonstrate their academic knowledge and input it to influence the jury’s perspective on these cases.

Miller won’t accept every case that comes across his desk, either. If they don’t meet certain criteria, he will decline for that reason.

“When I take a case, I take it in stages,” he said. “The first stage is having a conversation with the attorney, and they explain the case to me, but if there is no basis that I can think of, I will tell the attorney that I do not think I can justify their case.”

Annie Rios is a human rights attorney and founder of the Uprise Theatre in San Diego, California, where she uses theater to promote social justice in her local community. She believes in the importance of educating citizens on their rights, specifically to law enforcement. 

“Any expert witness that an attorney brings on behalf of their client, they are bringing forward because they think it will benefit the case; this is not somebody who is typically unbiased; [the expert testimony] can sway the mind of somebody who is listening to this because of the influence that solely being a police officer has is being substantiated by a professor,” Rios said.

Geoffrey Alpert is a professor and researcher at the University of South Carolina who works on cases of police excessive force, having served as a consultant for the George Floyd case in 2020.

“I don’t think [universities] should be against professor testification. I think it’s an enormous capability, I think it’s what we should do,” Alpert said. “I do not know about Miller or what he does, but if he is basing his testimony on his research, if he’s basing his testimony on evidence, then why would anyone care; the universities want us to publish. They want us to advance, they want us to make the university look good.”

For many academics, providing this kind of testimony is a large step in sharing their research and an opportunity for the universities to showcase their staff.  

Daniel Maxwell, a retired police officer and lecturer at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven, said, “I think that these expert witnesses are a testimony to the University’s discipline; if a court is interested enough in one of their faculty members to call them into a court of law, I would think that would be a feather in the cap of a university.”

For many, it is not Miller’s work as a professor and educator that brings controversy; it is the cases in which he is involved. What makes Miller’s work specifically stand out in the realm of testimony is its tie to police brutality cases.

Police brutality cases: Their place in the media

Courtesy of dole777 via Unsplash

In 2023, over 1,000 individuals were shot and killed by the police and about 250,000 people are injured by law enforcement annually.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, over half of the U.S. population gets their news from social media. With the rise of technology comes the ability of people to react to events occurring outside of their communities.

Miller explains how the short clips people tend to see and react to online often do not cover the full extent of cases dealing with violence.

“If I videotape 15 minutes and I post a 15-second clip of the most violent looking aspect of that on Tiktok or YouTube, then that is what everyone is going to see, and in fact, the regular media does this often; when you watch the news, what they give you is the part that is going to provoke your appetite to get you hungry, not everything else,” he said.

Through social media, people can develop opinions on cases and law enforcement, allowing them to see these events through a perspective they otherwise would not have had.

Vaughn Crichlow, Director of Research for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at the University of Connecticut shares, “Although one may not have had a direct experience with police in one’s neighborhood, seeing it online or seeing a video of it on your phone or computer can spark certain types of emotions and feelings that maybe you would not have had if you had read about it in a newspaper.”

“Although one may not have had a direct experience with police in one’s neighborhood, seeing it online or seeing a video of it on your phone or computer can spark certain types of emotions and feelings that maybe you would not have had if you had read about it in a newspaper,” Crichlow said.

Miller noted that police have to move quickly and make these extremely detrimental decisions in a matter of seconds.

“The problem is that sometimes you don’t know if a citizen encounter is going to turn out to be a deadly force,” Miller said. “Literally within a split second, an officer has to decide if they’re justified to take the person’s life, and the fact of having to make that split second decision is probably one of the most challenging aspects of being a police officer and it is rare.”

Crichlow believes that media, in the form of videos and national news, may affect communities’ perceptions of police more than their own encounters with law enforcement.

“Often when people respond to police or policing, it is connected to how they’re affected by how they perceive the police are treating, not just them, but people in other places. So regardless of how professional or humane the police in one’s neighborhood may be, might spark outrage that leads to or maybe accentuates whatever suspicions one might have about police in the first place, one responds to policing as opposed to the police in one’s neighborhood,” said Crichlow.

The public’s response to these cases of police brutality, according to Crichlow, are often based on how they have viewed police not only through firsthand experiences, but also the interactions they view online through short clips and personal anecdotes shared on social media. 

Public perception of police

Courtesy of Logan Weaver via Unsplash

According to a 2023 Gallup poll, 7 in 10 adults in the U.S. felt confident in their local law enforcement. Crichlow further says that the general public tends to view law enforcement more favorably, a trend that has held relatively steady for a good period of time.

“From the time we started looking at perceptions of police in terms of the public, which would have been from the 1960s to today, those types of extensive studies — looking at community perceptions, we have seen a pattern over many decades — that pattern is perhaps that approximately 50% of the population tends to have a favorable view of the police, and that has remained pretty stable going forward,” Crichlow said.

For Rios, her community in southeast San Diego has allowed her to see law enforcement differently than most other individuals around the country due to what she views as the lack of service and protection they provide for her community. 

Rios recalls going out with her son to eat at a local restaurant and finding a sign that states, “Don’t call the police on your neighbors; we protect us,’ and my son asked ‘where else would you see this but in Southeast [San Diego]?’ because here we do not call the police; the police are not here to protect us, more often than not, they are here to harass us and to incarcerate us.”

Crichlow said when people feel that law enforcement is not there to help them, their community is often less likely to respond in a way that allows police to respond adequately.

“Illegitimacy comes in when we have doubts that they are operating in our best interests and not serving our community,” said Crichlow. “Where trust is absent or where trust decreases, legitimacy also decreases and that leads to problems, which leads to the inability of the police to conduct their investigations successfully, or lower closure rates, which are already low.”

Miller believes many Americans end up disadvantaged by law enforcement, partly because of a distinct polarization between communities and law enforcement.

“This is part of the problem; the polarization often consists between the police and the minority community, as if these were two monolithic enemies like a cobra and a mongoose, of course, that should not be the case,” Miller said. “The most tragic thing in the world is that the two classes of people in society that we most depend upon to provide safety and security within society are the two that […] not only when they fail but also seem to abuse their authority, we come down very hard on them; they fall into the class that I like to call ‘the failed protectors,’ and the best of these people are doctors and police officers.”

According to a data analysis of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program done by Jeff Asher for Vox News, only about 36% of violent crimes are closed. 

Rios says, “If police are to argue that a community’s ability to cooperate makes their work more difficult, I would argue that it doesn’t because it is still their job at the end of the day to police people; their job isn’t to be our friends, it is to protect and serve; so if what they are doing is that they are trying to arrest criminals, to prevent crime;  that can be a hostile relationship, that doesn’t have to be friendly.”

Miller believes that even if a police’s actions are justified in these cases of violence, the community involved may not see that the same way and may disagree.

“Many officers will refrain from using deadly force even in situations where it would be justified, precisely because they are not sure and they do not want to take somebody’s life. It is important to understand that most cases of deadly force encounters are justified, at least from the perspective of the police agencies, but the community may not necessarily agree,” Miller said. “So if you live in a community where you believe that you are targeted, maybe not deliberately, but the actions used disproportionately on your group than on another group, you do not care what the police agencies say.”

Gabriela Quintero is a staff writer for the University Press. For more information on this story or others, contact her at [email protected].

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    KaylaJan 18, 2024 at 2:07 am

    This is thought-provoking and thorough!