How to Assure “Fair, Neutral & Fact-Finding” Officer-Involved Shooting Investigations (Part 1)

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Part 1 of a 2-part series

Amid the myriad pressures that inevitably arise after an officer-involved shooting, how does a law enforcement agency assure that its investigation of the event is fair, neutral and fact-finding in nature?

One protocol for reaching that goal was offered recently by a well-known National Advisory Board member of the Force Science Research Center, Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a retired clinical and police psychologist who was an independent provider of services to the Portland (OR) Police Bureau and other LE agencies in the Pacific Northwest.

Artwohl, now a trainer/consultant living in Tucson, distributed a checklist of considerations for investigating officer-involved shootings at the first annual seminar on Lethal and Less-Lethal Force, sponsored by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement last month [2/06] in Las Vegas.

In her list, she purposely steers clear of administrative and legal components of an investigation, which can vary by jurisdiction. Essential as those are, she believes that certain procedures that have their foundation in human psychology are more likely to be overlooked or under-appreciated and thus need explanation and reinforcement before investigators embark on their difficult job.

“Investigative techniques and psychological issues are inevitably intertwined and cannot be separated,” Artwohl states. “Unless a reasonable and reliable investigative process that takes psychological factors into account has been carefully negotiated and set up ahead of time, officers may be subjected to unnecessary additional stress and may understandably be suspicious of having their legal rights violated by what ensues after the shooting is over.”

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the FSRC at Minnesota State University-Mankato, agrees. “Officer-involved shooting investigations are always challenging, generally complex and must answer the needs of many interests. But if they fail to be protective of the mental health of the involved officer or officers or fail to adequately mine the memories of those most intimately involved, then they fail to meet the standard of excellence these investigations deserve.”

In this 2-part series, Force Science News explores the procedures Artwohl recommends, with some steps supplemented by the observations of other professionals experienced in OIS investigation and/or human dynamics. This protocol, when combined with proper legal and administrative considerations, will “maximize the swiftness, accuracy, and thoroughness” of an investigation, “minimize traumatization of officers, their families, and other personnel,” and offer the “best hope possible of recovering accurate memories” of what happened during the deadly force encounter, Artwohl believes.

We start with procedures for investigators at the scene:

1. When you arrive at the shooting scene as an investigator, first introduce yourself to the shooter(s) and any witness officers and give them your card so they know how to contact you. “This will help get your investigation off on the right foot with your most important witnesses,” Artwohl explains. “You can safely assume they are experiencing high levels of anxiety and they will appreciate this basic courtesy.” Also get phone numbers for the officers and their attorneys to facilitate future contact.

2. The involved officer(s) can give you certain immediate information without compromising personal legal protection.

Jeff Chudwin, chief of Olympia Fields (IL) PD and a former prosecutor, says an involved officer should communicate these essentials: the status and location of the offender(s), if known; evidence that needs to be protected; witnesses who need to be isolated and questioned; and any injuries requiring immediate medical intervention. “Everyone at the scene should be carefully checked to see if they need medical care,” Artwohl cautions. “In their heightened state of arousal they may not notice personal injuries.”

In the absence of other reliable eye witnesses who can explain what happened, the involved officer should privately give his supervisor a “very brief, barebones description” of the event–the least amount of information needed to convey the nature of what happened, Lewinski says.

According to John Hoag, a National Advisory Board member of the Force Science Research Center who has responded to more than 40 shootings as a police union attorney, this information can be as sparse as: “He pulled a gun while I was patting him down, I thought he was going to kill me, so I shot him to defend myself.”

It’s important also, Hoag says, that the involved officer(s) delineate the scope of the scene. If a chase preceded the shooting, for example, the “scene” might technically extend over a considerable distance.

“All this information should be given orally and should not be detailed-just enough to get the investigation pointed in the right direction,” Lewinski says. “Officers who may have been peripherally present at the shooting or arrived soon after can provide what they know in more detail, assuming they are not so emotionally affected that their memories may be impaired.”

However, the shooter(s) should not discuss details of the shooting with you or anyone else until they’ve had an opportunity to discuss it with their association attorney and/or their personal defense attorney. “In many agencies it has now become routine for officers to have their own personal defense attorney to represent their interests after any deadly force encounter,” Artwohl says.

3. During your introductory contact, tell the officers what will be happening from that point on. A prepared handout of the basic post-shooting procedures that they can share with their family can be helpful. Keep them informed and updated throughout the process. “Not knowing what to expect can provoke unnecessary anxiety,” Artwohl says.

Lewinski notes that being uninformed about procedures they’ll be facing “can compound the sense of lacking control that officers often feel regarding a shooting, and this can aggravate or even initiate a traumatic reaction. Officers should not be given the ‘mushroom’ treatment, where they’re kept in the dark with manure shoveled on them.”

4. The weapons of ALL officers at the scene should be examined whether or not they think they fired rounds. Because of the effect of stress on cognitive perceptions, “it’s possible for an officer to discharge a weapon during a critical incident and not be aware of it,” Artwohl explains.

5. Do not confiscate officers’ weapons at the scene unless absolutely necessary and/or required by agency policy. “If this must be done, make sure they get an exact replacement immediately, if possible,” Artwohl advises. “If an officer winds up without his or her weapon or a replacement, an uninvolved armed officer whom the involved officer feels comfortable with should be assigned as a ‘personal bodyguard’ until the officer arrives at home. It is never a good idea to have an officer unarmed on the street at any time.”

“What protects an officer on the street,” Lewinski points out, “is the police brotherhood and his sidearm. If he is stripped of both after he has just come face to face with the possibility of his own death, the negative emotional consequence of feeling left ‘all alone’ can be profound.”

6. Facilitate contacting the officers’ families and/or close friends as well as officer and family peer-support teams if that has not been done. “Support teams and chaplains can be helpful to you at the scene, handling tasks such as checking for injuries, meeting the personal needs of officers and families, transportation, running errands and so forth,” Artwohl says.

7. Involved officers should not be isolated. Each should have a peer-support person or friend of their choice who was not involved in the shooting available to them, beginning as quickly as possible after the incident. “If this person is another officer, he or she should not be given any duties beyond providing companionship and support,” Artwohl recommends. “Since peer-support conversations may not be legally privileged, details of the shooting should not be discussed. In fact, involved officers should be ordered not to discuss details of the event with other involved officers, peers or support personnel until after they have given their official statements.”

Remember that non-shooter officers involved in the incident may be just as emotionally affected as the shooters. Supervisors and command staff who might have been present during the shooting are not necessarily immune either. “Be prepared for a wide range of emotional reactions in on-scene personnel,” Artwohl warns. “All should be observed for signs of emotional distress and given assistance as needed.”

And don’t forget dispatchers involved in communications related to the shooting, Lewinski adds. “They can sometimes be the most traumatized because of their inability to affect what they knew was happening.

“In general, most officers and other involved personnel survive well, but we need to be sensitive to the minority who, for whatever reason, are more vulnerable.”

8. Consider double-taping the shooting scene as a means of controlling the large number of non-involved but concerned personnel who are likely to show up and who may unintentionally interfere with scene preservation and evidence collection. An inner-perimeter tape can enclose the actual shooting scene that only detectives, criminalists and those under their direction are allowed into. An outer-perimeter tape can delineate a staging area just outside the actual scene where non-involved personnel can be accommodated.

9. Involved officers should have a private “quiet area” they can retreat to if necessary to gain respite from the general commotion and from the media and onlookers. “The sheer number of people converging on the scene may be overwhelming to some involved officers,” Artwohl notes. “Their reactions should be sensitively monitored and they should be granted reasonable leeway as to whom they want to have access to them at any point.”

10. The involved officers’ basic needs should be met. Artwohl explains: “These might include access to a bathroom, beverages, shelter from inclement weather, food, change of clothing, access to showers and exercise. The longer officers are kept at the scene, the more important these become.”

11. The officers should not have to drive themselves to their next destination when they leave the scene. “They’re probably be in a poor condition to attend to the demands of driving,” Lewinski says, “as their minds will likely be racing with thoughts of what’s happened what’s going to happen and what the impact on their lives will be. These distractions are likely to so preoccupy them that they could be a hazard on the road.” A driver should be provided to transport them and family members, too, if they need assistance.

Chudwin, like some other LE professionals experienced in officer-involved shootings, recommends that the involved officer(s) be promptly transported from the scene to a hospital after giving the basic on-scene information. “This provides a safe refuge in the immediate aftermath and ensures they will get a checkup before going home or giving a statement. It may also help detect unnoticed injuries or other health problems caused by stress, such as perilously high blood pressure,” Artwohl says.

“The extreme rise and continued presence of high blood pressure is very real in OIS situations,” says Chudwin. “It takes only seconds to increase blood pressure but many hours to decompress. I’ve assisted officers at the hospital over 90 minutes after a shooting who still registered 60 points above normal.

“No statement that an officer’s life and career rests upon should be made in an impaired state, and I believe very high blood pressure along with the residual adrenaline reaction creates such a condition.”

If the officer consents to a blood draw, this can be done at the hospital. “In about half the shootings I respond to these days, agencies require that the officer’s clothing be seized, so that signs of a fight, powder burns, and other indicators of the event can be preserved as evidence,” Hoag says. When this is done, the officer can get dressed in civilian clothes at the hospital, too.

12. In most circumstances, it is best for the officers to go home, get some quality sleep, and wait for 24-48 hours after the shooting to give a statement. “You will not be doing yourself, the DA, the community, your agency or the involved officer any favors by insisting on interviewing the officer right away if he or she is too physically wound up, fatigued or upset to provide a coherent, thorough and accurate statement,” Artwohl says.

“If you have already spent stressful hours at the scene as an investigator, you yourself may need a break before starting extended interviews. These interviews are demanding and difficult. You can work only so many straight hours and do so many back-to-back interviews before you will start to malfunction from sheer fatigue.”

Ideally, the involved officer should be free to choose whether to give a statement soon after the incident and after conferring with legal counsel or to wait until he feels more fully settled. If he decides to wait, he should be formally ordered not to discuss the incident with any other officers in the interim.

[The length of time that’s appropriate to wait before formally interviewing the involved officer(s) is a current controversy in the LE community. Some agencies and outside observers believe delay only encourages illicit collusion and memory confusion, while other authorities argue that a reasonable passage of time will enhance a shooting survivor’s accurate recall. For more details on these points of view, see FSN Transmission, “Are Controversial Recommendations About Officers in Shootings Really Valid?”, sent 1/20/06.]

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