Have you ever been confronted by another officer who mistook you for a suspect when you were out of uniform?
Have you ever been the challenging officer in such a situation?
Do you have ideas for tactics or training that might prevent tragic consequences in these dicey, life-threatening circumstances?
If so, a governor’s task force in New York state wants to hear from you.
To access a personal, first-of-its-kind survey in which you can register your comments and experiences, you can paste this address into your browser:
What you submit could help save your life or that of a fellow LEO in the future.
The task force will also be receiving expert scientific insights into the so-called “friendly fire” phenomenon from Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute and the Force Science Research Center.
“A confrontation in which one officer is mistakenly shot by another is the ultimate tragedy in law enforcement,” Lewinski told Force Science News. “In the emotional turmoil that follows, the powerful sociological and psychological influences that were involved are often ignored or misunderstood.
“Fortunately, fatalities from police-on-police shootings are relatively rare, but chances of them occurring are omnipresent in today’s world of complex, rapidly evolving street encounters. If the important work of this task force can save even one officer’s life, the effort will have been well worth it.”
Research by the New York State Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force officially got underway last September at the direction of Gov. David Paterson, after the slayings of 2 officers as a result of mistaken identity.
Last May, an off-duty NYPD officer, Omar Edwards, was shot dead by a fellow officer as he chased a suspect who had broken into Edwards’ car. In 2008, another off-duty LEO, Christopher Ridley of Mt. Vernon (NY) PD, was shot and killed by officers from another agency as he was effecting an arrest after witnessing a street brawl.
Each victim officer, dressed in civilian clothing, had his gun out at the time of the shooting and, according to witnesses, did not obey commands to release the weapon. Because both officers were black and shooting officers were white, intense community speculation regarding “racial stereotyping” ensued.
In an effort to unemotionally “examine the issues and implications arising” from “friendly fire” encounters, Paterson appointed the 10-member task force to:
- determine the “frequency and characteristics of police-on-police confrontations”;
- plumb the knowledge of law enforcement professionals and researchers about “ways police officers can mitigate the risks involved”;
- examine “published research on the psychology of split-second decision-making,” including any “impact of unconscious or ‘implicit’ racial bias”; and
- identify any “technological innovations that can help to reduce” such incidents.
The inquiry was to “focus on mistaken identity confrontations,” both fatal and nonfatal, “with an emphasis on incidents between on-duty and off-duty officers, between uniformed and undercover officers, and between officers of different races, nationalities, and ethnicities.”
The task force is chaired by Christopher Stone, a CJ professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Among its members, professional law enforcement experience is the most heavily represented background. Members include the public safety commissioner for Westchester County (NY), the chief of San Francisco PD, a former U.S. attorney, a deputy commissioner for NYPD, a former SAC for the NY DEA office, and the former chief of Detroit PD. Representatives of the urban ministry and civil rights organizations are also included.
According to the force’s executive director Damon Hewitt and research director Jim Gilmer, the group so far has documented details of 26 fatal police-on-police mistaken-identity shootings in the U.S. in the last 29 years. “Nonfatal confrontations, including incidents where weapons are drawn but no shots are fired, happen with far greater frequency,” Hewitt believes, “but most go unreported because there is no mechanism for recording them.”
“It is not uncommon for an officer to have had a gunpoint encounter with another officer,” Gilmer says. “Some have been on both sides of the fence. The risk is very much there, especially for off-duty officers, it seems. In fact, fatal shootings of off-duty officers seem to have been occurring with increasing frequency during the latter half of the time period we’ve been looking at.”
In hopes of turning up additional examples of encounters, both fatal and “near miss,” as well as fresh thinking on what might be done about the problem, the task force has been surveying a number of law enforcement constituencies. Now it is inviting readers of Force Science News and of our strategic partner PoliceOne.com to participate in its personal-experience survey to further enhance its database.
In the survey, accessed through the link noted earlier, you will be asked to describe in your own words details of what you experienced in up to 3 police-on-police confrontations if you have been an involved officer. “Your observations are vital information,” the task force notes, “so that we can gain a better understanding of how confrontations occur.”
Among information sought is: What was the situation immediately before the confrontation? What was the visibility and lighting? In what type of location or premises did the encounter occur? Did you notice the race or ethnicity of other officers involved? What did you and other involved officers say or do? Did any of these actions help to defuse the situation? Did this confrontation result in a lawsuit or in disciplinary action? And so on.
In addition, you will be asked to identify specific strategies you or your agency have developed—or that you think should be developed—to address confrontation situations. Plus you’ll be asked about any training you have received on this subject during your career, as well as questions about your law enforcement background and personal demographics.
Your participation in the survey is strictly anonymous, and you are asked not to include names of involved officers and agencies.
Researchers hope to cut off survey responses at the end of January, so your prompt attention to this will be appreciated, Gilmer says.
By sometime in February, the task force hopes to make public the verified information it has compiled on all known mistaken-identity fatalities since 1981, including narratives of precisely what happened in each case. Then in early March, it expects to publish a final report that highlights its conclusions and recommendations.
Papers from experts and others who have analyzed the subject from various perspectives and who have been asked to serve as advisors to the task force will be included in the final report. As one of about a dozen such advisors, Lewinski’s observations will be among those incorporated.
His participation in the task force’s work was recommended by Mark Fettinger, supervisor of public safety programs in the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, who heard him speak about Force Science research at an IALEFI conference a few years ago.
“We want to include an understanding of the science behind these incidents—the sociological and psychological factors that affect assessment of risk and split-second decision-making, for example,” Hewitt explains.
“Dr. Lewinski is an internationally recognized leader in the field,” Gilmer says. “The work he has done will be of tremendous value in helping us interpret and articulate our findings and prioritize our recommendations for training and policy.”
Force Science News will report on further developments as they occur. Meanwhile, please share your knowledge in the survey.
“More must be done to protect our law enforcement officers,” Gov. Paterson says. “I am confident that the work of the task force will gain not only considerable insight into this issue, but also meaningful direction on how to move forward.”