When police defense attorney Mildred O’Linn teaches a course on Critical Legal Issues in Law Enforcement, she urges her audiences to adopt a risk-management concept she calls the Custody and Care Timeline.
It’s a method for officers to capture and document critical information when dealing with combative suspects who may be especially vulnerable to arrest-related or in-custody deaths. That includes those who are morbidly obese, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, mentally ill, in the throes of excited delirium, or subject to a high level of physical exertion while battling the police hand-to-hand.
“When a death occurs during or immediately after an arrest-related struggle with such a resistant person, there’s typically a lot of information missing,” says O’Linn, a partner with the Los Angeles law firm Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trester LLP. “Officers don’t know or can’t remember how long the fight lasted, how long the subject was down and handcuffed, when exactly the arrestee stopped breathing, and so on. This makes the officers’ actions more difficult to defend in court because they appear negligent, indifferent, or unprofessional.
“In the death cases I’ve handled I would have given my left arm–and I’m left-handed–to have an established timeline of events to use to defend my officers.”
The remedy, O’Linn believes, is to create what she calls “Motorola memory”–a recorded, time-coded thread of radio communication from the scene to dispatch that documents time markers during the contact. The transmissions may be handled by a first responder, a supervisor, or someone else designated to take responsibility for monitoring and documenting the incident.
“Using radio transmissions to create a timeline simplifies the process,” O’Linn told Force Science News. “The messages should be brief but descriptive.” Examples might include:
- “Dispatch, large, white male acting erratically and violently. Waiting for additional units.”
- “Dispatch, four officers and fire on scene. Subject in traffic and threatening motorists. Moving to contain.”
- “Dispatch, show subject code 4 in handcuffs, seated upright, breathing, paramedics attending.”
- “Dispatch, subject in apparent respiratory distress. Handcuffs off. Paramedics attending. CPR in progress.”
And so on.
“With that kind of record,” O’Linn says, “we bring greater precision to circumstances where we typically have conflict and confusion over what happened and when–in particular, things like how long the subject was proned out, how long officers were on top of the suspect, when the suspect was handcuffed, when they stopped struggling or breathing, when CPR was started, etc.
“Keying your mic and chronicling an audio ‘custody and care’ record as events unfold is much better in terms of accuracy and credibility than trying to compose a ‘guesstimated’ timeline from memory in a written report. It’s amazing what officers don’t remember afterward, and sometimes what they claim to remember is very distorted and inaccurate.”
O’Linn suggests that after a subject is controlled, he should continue to be closely monitored, and the verbal log should be continued up to the point that he is turned over to medical personnel.
And, she advises, the timeline should be used in conjunction with well-practiced tactics for containing and controlling potentially vulnerable individuals. These tactics should include multi-officer strategies and the swift integration of EMS personnel in the response.
Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, agrees that without a contemporaneous record of events, much valuable information is likely to be lost because of the impact that stress and a narrow focus will have on memory, as borne out by several Force Science studies.
Ideally, he adds, the individual responsible for communicating a timeline should be a cover officer who has “some emotional distance from the struggle at hand and is less physically involved. The more officers are physically involved in gaining control over a critical situation, the less likely they’ll be able to speak clearly to dispatch and to comprehend and convey important details as the event unfolds. The cognitive load is just too much to both fight and report effectively.
“At the least, officers should attempt to ‘bookend’ the incident. That is, call dispatch at the beginning of the incident and as deep into it as they can and then call again immediately after the event is over. That gives the incident at least some recorded time frames.”
Lewinski stresses that for the timeline concept to work well, it needs to be incorporated in simulations and scenario-based training.
For more information on Atty. O’Linn’s training on the legal aspects of using force, contact her at: MKO@manningllp.com. She is scheduled to attend the certification course in Force Science Analysis, scheduled for Dec. 9-13, 2013 in Las Vegas.