Two New Case Histories: Force Science And The Aftermath Of Violent Encounters

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How do principles of human behavior and memory stimulation studied in Force Science certification classes get applied in real-world policing?

Consider the recent experiences of 2 police trainers and Force Science graduates who played pivotal roles in significant use-of-force investigations, 1,700 miles and an international border apart.

In one, an officer ended up cleared of wrongdoing in a controversial Tasering. In the other, an officer’s frayed emotions were calmed after a lethal confrontation and his department is now on its way to modernizing its post-shooting policies.

Says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, which to date has conferred the title of Force Science Analyst on some 400 certification graduates: “These are excellent examples of how psychological and physiological research findings can be brought to the investigative arena—not in any way to excuse or obscure egregious police behavior but to help officers get fair, informed, and scientifically based treatment in use-of-force reviews.”

TASER TO THE BACK

In the first case, in Canada, a complaint of malicious Tasering had been made against a constable on the Calgary (Alberta) Police Service, and S/Sgt. Darren Leggatt, a designated force expert and training overseer for the agency, was asked to review and assess the matter for the Alberta Crown Prosecutor’s Office, which was considering criminal charges against the officer. Leggatt was in the first North American class of officers certified in Force Science Analysis, in San Jose, CA.

The case had begun with an unremarkable call for service: 8 teenagers were reported to be drinking beer and smoking dope in an alley in southwest Calgary. When a rookie constable patrolling alone arrived, he found the group in the middle of a busy intersection, blocking traffic. When he ordered them to put up their hands, they split.

He caught up with one of them, a 16-year-old boy, in a nearby backyard, about to scale a fence. The youth, significantly larger than the officer, turned and faced him, but refused repeated orders to lie on the ground. The subject’s right hand was “clenched in a fist” and his left hand was “up near his own neck, with a shiny metal object appearing through his fingers,” the officer said later. The constable thought the suspect was grasping an edged weapon.

The officer drew his Taser and ordered the subject to drop what he was holding. The teenager ignored him, responding only with “an emotionless blank stare.” When the subject made a move in his direction, the constable discharged his Taser. The darts struck the defiant subject, knocking him to the ground face-down and immobilizing him long enough for the constable to handcuff him.

What the officer had perceived as an edged weapon turned out to be dog tags that the subject wore around his neck and was still clutching in his left hand. No weapon of any kind was found in a search of the area. The Taser probes, rather than striking the kid’s chest as the constable intended, ended up embedded in his back.

Once the subject was given a summons for intoxication in a public place and taken home, the constable figured the incident was over. But 3 months later, the subject’s mother filed a formal complaint with the department’s Professional Standards Section, alleging that the officer had used excessive force in discharging the Taser. The suspect claimed that he was “purposely Tasered in the back…maliciously and without provocation.” And the constable was additionally accused of falsifying his report of the incident by stating that he fired the device at the suspect’s chest.

“Potentially,” Leggatt told Force Science News, “the officer could have been charged with assault with a weapon and could have gone to prison. The Crown [provincial prosecutor] was very concerned about the apparent discrepancy in his statement, given the physical evidence.”

After a lengthy investigation by Calgary detectives and a thorough review of the evidence, Leggatt submitted an 11-page report to the prosecutor’s office. To justify the Taser deployment, he pointed out the suspect’s superior size, itemized various pre-attack indicators, and explained, given the glint of the afternoon sun on metal, how the dog tags could have been misperceived as a deadly weapon.

To explain how the Taser barbs struck the suspect’s back, he cited an article co-authored by Dr. Lewinski, titled “An Examination of Police Officer Mental Chronometry—I don’t know why I shot him in the back,” printed in the Journal of the Assn. for Crime Scene Reconstruction (July 2006).

As detailed in the certification course, Lewinski has conducted meticulous action/reaction studies of the speed with which suspects facing officers can turn away from them in an attempt to flee. He has solidly documented that it is possible for the average subject to complete a full 180-degree turn in about half a second—less time than it takes for an officer to pull the trigger on a Taser or a firearm once he makes the irreversible decision to shoot. A 90-degree turn can be executed in less than a third of a second.

Thus projectiles intended for a suspect’s chest can inescapably end up in his back through no malicious intent by the officer. The deciding factor is the suspect’s turning at a critical moment.

Leggatt suggested this as a probable explanation in the case at hand, and concluded in his report that the constable’s use of force “was appropriate and reasonable” under the circumstances.

It took nearly 6 months for him to get a reply. But earlier this year, the prosecutor’s office reported its recommendation: “that criminal prosecution not be instituted” against the constable.

Next the case went before a departmental Disciplinary Review Board for consideration of possible “policy-and-proceedings” violations. Late last month [11/09], after more months of considering “all available evidence,” the Board ruled that the constable had acted “within the parameters of the Police Service’s regulations.” Board members were said to have “relied heavily” on Leggatt’s analysis of the case, in which he employed Force Science information as “an impartial friend of the proceeding.”

Today, the constable involved is “working happily and effectively in his district,” Leggatt says, where he is being considered for acting sergeant and for “various training and leadership-development opportunities.”

Leggatt finds significance in the fact that the case involved something other than an officer’s use of a firearm. “Most complaints against officers are going to concern non-shooting uses of force,” he says. “We need to be aware that the science of human behavior applies to these everyday acts, just as it does to the lightning-strike cases where subjects or officers are seriously injured or killed.”

CLOSING MEMORY GAPS

For Cpl. Bob Higginbotham, who became a Force Science Analyst earlier this year, the first lesson from the certification class kicked in at the scene of an officer-involved shooting last September in his community, Joplin, MO.

Another police department corporal, normally assigned to internal affairs but working overtime on nighttime roaming patrol in search of DWIs, had initiated a brief pursuit of an erratic driver. The chase skidded to a halt in a dead-end street in a residential area. The driver bailed and the corporal ran after him on foot, between houses, over a fence, and into an open field that was pitch dark except for the officer’s flashlight.

In a blur of action, the suspect unexpectedly dropped to one knee and, as the officer neared, suddenly spun around with a canister in his hand and squeezed off a blast of pepper spray…the officer fired his Glock 23…the suspect lunged for the gun…the officer discharged more rounds…and the assailant toppled into the grass and weeds. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

As the PD’s training coordinator and reviewer of all use-of-force reports, Higginbotham responded to the site soon after the shooting. It’s customary in Joplin for OISs to be investigated by an outside agency, in the interest of assuring impartiality. “The agency assuming responsibility in this case typically pulls the involved officer in immediately and interviews him right off the bat,” Higginbotham told Force Science News. “Based on what I’d learned in the certification class, I felt comfortable voicing objections to that with scientific authority and credibility behind me.”

The department’s chief and assistant chief were at the scene, and Higginbotham pointed out to them that the corporal, still absorbing the reality of his first shooting, was “not emotionally ready” to provide a coherent and comprehensive account of what happened.

Sleep and a chance to calm down in a low-stress environment would help consolidate his memory of the deadly encounter, the trainer explained. Demanding any more that night than a bare-bones “public safety statement” of what happened, Higginbotham said, “would not be in the best interests of the department, the city, or the officer himself.”

Based on his arguments, the brass firmly insisted that the formal interview be delayed. “We wanted 3 sleep cycles,” Higginbotham says. “We got 3 days, across which the officer was able to sleep 3 times.” It is believed to be the first time that the investigating agency ever departed from its normal procedures.

On the afternoon of the day before the formal interview was to take place, the corporal was at the police station, trying to compose notes on the shooting’s chronology to assure that his responses were as accurate and comprehensive as possible. “But there were gaps in his memory where he couldn’t recall precisely what happened,” Higginbotham says.

A patrol lieutenant asked the trainer if there was anything he might do to help.

As the corporal tried to recount what had taken place in the darkened field, Higginbotham stopped him. He applied a tactic Lewinski had explained during the certification course. “Don’t tell me what happened, show me,” he told the officer.

In effect, he had the corporal pantomime the confrontation, first acting out what he could remember of the suspect’s actions; then Higginbotham reprised the suspect’s role, with the corporal recreating his own responses. Every time the officer attempted to verbally describe some element of the action, Higginbotham interrupted: “Don’t talk…just show me.”

“It was very effective,” Higginbotham says. The process stimulated the corporal to remember previously elusive details, such as target glances the suspect had taken back at him as they ran and what hand the assailant held the pepper spray in…to blurt out commands he’d forgotten he’d issued…to now recall with clarity that some of the OC hit his right eye and made him flinch as he fired his first round…and so on.

Employing techniques of cognitive interviewing learned in the course, Higginbotham also helped the corporal resurface thoughts and emotions he had experienced at each stage of the encounter.

The trainer would not allow him to lapse into “police speak,” the stilted and sterile jargon of ordinary street reports; his expressions of his feelings had to be real and raw. Among other things, he recalled that at one point his mind had flashed back to a local foot pursuit several years ago in which 2 officers were nearly killed by a violent suspect.

“It wasn’t the kind of information and language [the investigating agency] was used to hearing,” Higginbotham says, “but it was authentic to the moment. He didn’t include anything he wasn’t sure of.”

In all, the corporal and the trainer spent about 3 hours together. “In the end, the officer was visibly relieved, because his ability to remember eased his anxiety and frustration,” Higginbotham says. “The outside agency agreed it was a good shooting, so we weren’t trying to explain controversial circumstances. The greatest benefit was to the officer’s emotional well-being.”

But in fact the benefits didn’t stop there.

“This was a pivotal event that opened up an opportunity to change our departmental policies,” Higginbotham says. With a mandate from the chief and assistant chief to update procedures for OIS investigations, Higginbotham at this writing is in the final stage of drafting recommendations for major changes to be submitted to the PD’s command staff.

He is making the case for the department to conduct its own shooting investigations in the future and is suggesting that its new procedures essentially mirror those explained in previous transmissions of Force Science News, particularly the 2-part series “How to Assure Fair, Neutral, and Fact-Finding OIS Investigations,” based on the views of Lewinski and Force Science advisor Dr. Alexis Artwohl. [Click here for Part 1]

Higginbotham expects his efforts to impact other departments as well. “A lot of smaller agencies in our area look to Joplin for guidance,” he says. “I’m going to offer to review their policies and try to get them to reflect Force Science principles, too. This will be good for everybody—the officers, their departments, and the communities they serve.”

In commending Higginbotham for his efforts, Lewinski points out that the Joplin incident can serve as an important warning to other departments. “If your protocol is to have an outside agency investigate your officer-involved shootings, it is wise to make sure before an incident that you are in agreement with their policies regarding the handling of your officers.

“In the Joplin shooting, Higginbotham’s articulation of good procedures fortunately was accepted. But in the midst of an investigation, this is rare indeed, in my experience. It’s best to surface any differences or concerns ahead of time and work them out before you’re embroiled in a high-profile, high-stakes event.”

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