The Phantom Waistband Maneuver: When Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men

At nearly midnight on Thanksgiving Day 1976, a group of curious black teenage boys ambled up to two white New York cops who’d been called to a Brooklyn housing project on a report of an armed prowler. One of the boys, Randolph Evans, 15, asked Officer Robert Torsney whether his building there at the Cyprus Houses in East New York would be searched.


Suddenly and without provocation, Torsney unholstered his revolver and fired a shot from two feet away that hit Evans in the head, killing him. Amid screams and chaos, Torsney turned and calmly walked back to his patrol car, where he sat down and refilled the empty chamber in his pistol.

Later that night, his precinct commander asked Torsney, 32, a six-year police veteran, to explain why he shot the kid.

“What difference does it make?” Torsney replied. “You’re guilty anyway.”

But after consulting a police union attorney, Torsney began to craft a narrative that led down a well-trodden path: He said Evans had reached toward the waistband of his trousers, as if he were going for a gun.

There was no gun.

For decades, the phantom firearm grab has served as a virtually unimpeachable excuse when cops shoot unarmed citizens, a companion to the “furtive movement” in the police-shooting playbook. How often has the waistband reach been cited? It’s impossible to say. U.S. law enforcers don’t even count their shootings, let alone tabulate circumstances. 

But anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that most victims of phantom-reach shootings are black men or boys. And new research that builds on the venerable scientific concept of “affective realism” suggests an explanation that springs from a stereotype: Cops may “see” guns that don’t exist because their experiences convince them that an African American male they perceive to be an adversary is likely to be armed.

As psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett and her associate Jolie Wormwood put it recently in a New York Times op-ed, “If you are in a part of town with a high crime rate, your brain may well predict a weapon.”

Gun Imagined in Ferguson

In a headline example, Officer Darren Wilson cited a waistband-reach to explain his shooting of the unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Wilson described the interaction to a grand jury, which declined to indict him:

“... I tell him to get on the ground! Get on the ground!' He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound, and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me. His first step is coming towards me. He kind of does like a stutter step to start running. When he does that, his left hand goes in a fist and goes to his side, his right one goes under his shirt in his waistband and he starts running at me.”

Wilson fired 12 shots. He insisted he feared for his life. But some see his waistband explanation as another dubious example of cop-splaining.

“I’ve been hearing about these waistband incidents since my first months on the job,” Timothy T. Williams Jr., a retired detective who spent 29 years with the Los Angeles Police Department and the past 12 as a private investigator and police use-of-force expert, told me. “I’m skeptical. ‘Reaching for the waistband’ often is boilerplate language used to justify what an officer has done.”

“It’s a fallback explanation they give all the time,” adds Kenneth Williams, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston. “It’s just hard to believe that this scenario occurs so frequently.”

But it does, if you trust the police accounts that crop up with regularity. Most recently:

  • On Sept. 23, police in Wilmington, Del., shot and killed a wheelchair-bound man, Jeremy McDole, 28, after they said he “reached for his waistband.” Police say McDole was armed and suicidal, though his kin dispute that. Video of the shooting has prompted sharp criticism of the police actions. Some have called for a federal investigation.
  • On Sept. 12, police in Huntsville, Ala., said officers shot a suspected car thief in the shoulder, as “it appeared” the man “was attempting to pull a weapon from his waistband as he ran towards the officers.” No gun was found. The victim of the shooting was treated at a hospital for his injury and sent to jail. More than two weeks after the shooting, Huntsville authorities refused to release anything but cursory details, citing an ongoing administrative review.
  • On Aug. 17, police in San Jose, Calif., used the waistband-reach explanation after officers shot and killed a man, a suspect in an earlier homicide who was said to be armed. A day later, after “we interviewed all the witnesses,” police admitted that the dead man had not been armed and was shot in the back while running away.

Questionable police shootings with waistband citations have occurred so regularly in the past five years that journalists have begun aggregating them. The growing list includes three waistband-reach police shootings in an 11-month period in San Diego in 2013-14, as well as disturbing recent cases in Los Angeles and Houston.

Among them, the San Jose case six weeks ago seems to stand out as a glaring gotcha moment in the long history of waistband cases.

Samuel Walker, the veteran Nebraska-based criminologist and police accountability watchdog, told the San Jose Mercury News that it seemed clear that police had prematurely seized upon the “easiest” explanation—the waistband reach—in a questionable shooting.

After police admitted to a fabricated explanation, Walker said, “It makes everything else they say suspect."

"In communities of color, this is the concern, that the standard response is that 'he made a furtive movement and went for something in the waist,'" LaDoris Cordell, the recently retired director of San Jose's Office of the Independent Police Auditor, told the paper. "We've heard it a million times. Now we hear it again in this one. I can tell you, I'm getting emails from people in San Jose saying, 'How are we going to trust the police department?'"

The Torsney Outcome

Cordell might reasonably expect that the phantom waistband reach would be invalidated as a police-shooting justification once and for all, now that the San Jose police lie had been exposed. (The official police version is that a “mistake” had been “rectified.”)

But the vexing waistband storyline has endured even the controversial Torsney shooting in Brooklyn nearly 40 years ago.

A prosecutor called that slaying “totally unprovoked, unjustifiable and intentional.” The loved ones of the slain teenager were encouraged when Torsney became just the fifth cop in NYPD history to face murder charges. (For his part, Torsney said his arrest was “the biggest shock of my life ... Obviously, I didn’t do anything wrong.”)

At the officer’s trial in 1977, police union attorneys employed a hired-gun shrink whose imaginative psycho-babble explanations deflected attention from the brutality of the point-blank shooting by the cop.

Dr. Daniel Schwartz, chief of forensic psychiatry at Kings County Medical Center, testified that Torsney had been afflicted with “organically caused amnesia” and a rare form of epilepsy in which sufferers experience false sights and sensation.

Archival newspaper clippings also reveal that Schwartz said the officer “had acted automatically” based upon “false memory” when he believed that the teen was reaching for a gun.

“The weapon was only a delusion,” Schwartz said. “But that’s not nothing. That’s pretty important.”

Schwartz quoted Torsney concerning the stress he felt working in the East New York ghetto: “I can’t say that I like black people, but I don’t let that affect me. There is lots of violence down there ... My life is in danger.”

On Nov. 30, 1977, an all-white jury found Torsney not guilty by reason of insanity. A cousin of the victim told reporters, “It’s a racist system and society, and this trial was a subterfuge from beginning to end.”

Torsney was briefly confined to a state hospital. Declared cured, he tried but failed to get his police job back.

If the NYPD drew lessons from the Torsney case, they have not been apparent. The waistband reach has been cited regularly in New York police shootings since 1977.

Notably, a man “reaching for something in his waistband” was used as justification on Nov. 25, 2006, when five police officers fired 51 shots into a car parked outside a Queens nightclub, killing Sean Bell and wounding two others.

There was no gun in the car. Three of the officers faced criminal charges; they were acquitted, including one who reloaded and fired a total of 31 shots. The three lost their jobs, and the city paid $7 million in damages to the victims and Bell’s survivors.

The Reality of Racism

Timothy Williams, the ex-LAPD detective, said officers are rarely held criminally responsible in phantom waistband-reach shootings because an entrenched internal affairs investigatory structure in law enforcement gives officers the benefit of the doubt.

“Just because the cop says it’s so doesn’t make it so,” Williams told me. “It’s just like a witness who says he watched this person or that person rob a bank. Well, as a detective it’s your job to corroborate that statement. You’re not simply going to take that witness’s word for it without doing an investigation. Yet that is what I see in many cases of police investigating themselves. I often find that internal affairs investigators do not—I underscore do not—have the investigative background to do a thorough, scientific job of analyzing these cases.”

Kenneth Williams, the Houston law professor, sees a “major flaw” in a template provision in police contracts that allows officers as many as 10 days of “recovery time” before they are required to make a statement after a shooting incident.

“This makes no sense,” Williams told me. “Research tells us that the most reliable statements from crime witnesses are those made immediately after an incident happens, when the details are fresh and before they have an opportunity to hear what other people have to say. ... It’s not three days later or five days later, after you’ve had the opportunity to think about it, ponder it and tailor your statement to the evidence.”

He said the ongoing expansion of police body cameras may help identify and ultimately diminish false reports of waistband reaches. He said contract reforms to allow timely debriefing of officers after violent episodes could help legitimize the investigatory process.

But the “affective realism” that apparently prompts cops to predetermine that black men and boys are threats may be a more intractable problem.

“There is a different type of policing going on in the white community versus the minority community, and if anyone tells you there isn’t, they’re lying,” said Timothy Williams, who, like Williams, is African American. “And certainly there may be a stereotype that the officer has that a black individual must have a gun—must be a dangerous person.”

Kenneth Williams added, “I think it tells us that racism is deeply ingrained and that we have a lot of subconscious racism that we really as a society haven’t dealt with very well. For a cop to just assume, based on a stereotype, that someone is armed because of their race speaks to a very deep problem in our society—and not just for the cops.”

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