When and how to interview an involved officer after a shooting and when and how to conduct a walk-through of the incident are sources of controversy among OIS investigators.
But by advocating that the two events be combined into a single occurrence, a graduate of the Force Science Certification Course has brought a new protocol to his agency that satisfies administrators, prosecutors, investigators, and officers alike and seems to preclude some vexing legal problems that often arise under a more traditional approach.
Lt. Todd Larson, persons crimes section commander with the Scottsdale (AZ) PD, explained the system he spearheaded to a recent Force Science Certification Class hosted by his department. Since then, he says, he has been “bombarded” by inquiries from investigators with other agencies seeking more details.
Here’s how the Scottsdale plan came about and how, after various refinements, it works today:
A 21-year police veteran and a candidate for a candidate for Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership, Larson currently oversees all his department’s crimes-against-persons units: gang investigations, violent offenses, domestic violence, and the Special Victims (sex crimes) Unit. These are housed in the same building that contains Scottsdale’s Family Advocacy Center (FAC), where, among other things, victims’ services are provided.
“It was watching the Center’s operations that first got me thinking about how we were treating officers who survived a shooting,” Larson says.
Prior to the Center’s establishment more than a decade ago, rape victims, for example, “were typically taken to a hospital where they were seen by a nurse, seen by a doctor, seen by a patrol officer, seen by a detective, seen by a social worker–and interviewed separately by each of them,” Larson explains. “As the case progressed, they were interviewed multiple times by differing personnel before they got to court, adding to their stress and compounding the trauma of the crime itself.”
As more was learned about a more progressive treatment of victims, that procedure got changed. “Now,” says Larson, “victims of rape, child abuse, or other violent crimes go directly to the FAC instead of a hospital, where they are medically tended to by a forensically trained nurse, they are interviewed by a single investigator one time and one time only, and they have access to crisis intervention services. It’s a model that minimizes trauma to the victim.”
As Larson observed this approach in operation, he wondered why the same protocol wasn’t applied to police officers who’d been in life-threatening critical incidents. “Cops who are forced to defend their lives are victims of a violent crime against person, too,” Larson says. “They’ve been shot at, run over, beaten with a pipe–some kind of a traumatic event. But we were treating them as callously as we used to treat rape victims.”
In addition to the sensitivity issue, there were potential courtroom problems, Larson says. Because of the vagaries of memory, officers’ recollections probed in multiple interviews during shooting investigations inevitably led to inconsistencies across their various statements. “Even minor discrepancies gave opposition attorneys in civil and criminal cases ammunition with which to hammer an officer’s credibility,” Larson says.
Spurred by these concerns, Larson two years ago instituted a streamlined, victim-centered post-shooting protocol for his section, and this approach was supported by the Scottsdale PD command staff.
Under the approach now in place, compassionate care for the involved officer begins at the crime scene.
Assuming there’s no injury that requires immediate transport to an ER, the shooter remains in the general vicinity of the incident briefly, “sometimes just 15 minutes or less,” Larson says. The officer gives a barebones public safety statement and is photographed 360-degrees, with supplementary photos taken to scale if appropriate.
Then the officer is whisked to a hotel room or the Family Advocacy Center. “An officer experiences the same psychological and physiological stress reactions as any other victim of a violent crime,” Larson says, “and we want to get him or her away from the hustle and bustle of the scene where the traumatic event occurred as fast as possible.”
Off-site in a “relaxing area,” the officer can change into casual clothes, call family members, contact the police association, meet with a legal representative, and “just calm down a bit,” Larson says. At this secondary location, any weapon that has been fired is replaced with an identical, brand new model.
If a single officer is involved in the shooting, a “case agent” who’s responsible for investigating the use of deadly force is assigned to the officer. If multiple officers are involved, an investigator is assigned to each one and the case agent oversees and coordinates their activities from that point forward. A crime scene investigator is also appointed to manage the analysis of evidence from the shooting site and assist the case agent in conducting any needed investigative follow up.
A “MOVING STATEMENT”
The signal component of the Scottsdale protocol is the combination walk-through/interview with the involved officer(s), the taking of a “moving statement,” as Larson terms it.
If the officer’s condition permits, he voluntarily returns to the shooting scene usually after about an hour or two of off-site recuperation. “Lighting can be an important factor in shootings,” Larson explains, “and we like the walk-through to take place under conditions as close to the original as possible. We may wait until the next day at the same time as the shooting, if there’s been a significant change.”
Accompanied by the crime scene investigator, the case agent, a personal attorney, and a liaison from the county attorney’s office, the involved officer narrates a walk-and-talk of what happened from his perspective, from his initial call to service and arrival at the scene up to and including the shooting and its immediate aftermath.
What the officer says is captured on a digital audio recording by the case agent. No video is taken.
If more than one officer is involved in the shooting, a separate walk-through is conducted with each, one at a time.
“The county attorney requires that we ‘record an interview’ with any officer involved in a shooting, but what that interview consists of is not defined,” Larson says. So “making the walk-through the interview” not only fulfills the requirement but offers some distinct benefits besides, he believes:
- Being at the actual scene stimulates the officer’s memory better than trying to recall what happened in a neutral setting, leading to more complete and accurate descriptions;
- The format readily lends itself to the cognitive interviewing technique, where a free-flowing narrative is encouraged by relatively few open-ended questions and follow-up inquiries to clarify any confusion;
- By being able to point or step to relevant locations, the officer is spared having to estimate distances or try to describe environmental details from memory, which often leads to inadvertent discrepancies or inaccuracies that a hostile attorney can exploit;
- And, of course, the process is both efficient and humane: one primary recounting of what happened rather than repeated interviews with their attendant problems.
“In short,” says Larson, “we’re able to apply Force Science principles in line with the requirements of the county attorney. Within three to four hours on average after the trigger pull, the officer is done.”
The case agent takes “meticulous” handwritten notes throughout the walk-through, Larson says. From these, the investigator can add any important supplementary material to a transcript of the audio recording in writing an official summary of the case. The investigator’s observations pertaining to the walk-through can be reviewed for accuracy with the involved officer(s) before they are finalized. This occurs after the officer has had sufficient sleep cycles to be well rested.
“Only if there are specific investigative needs, such as a reason to believe an officer is lying or hiding evidence, would we go to a formal sit-down interview later,” Larson says.
Once the walk-through is completed, the involved officer is placed on automatic administrative leave until he is cleared to return to work by a police psychologist of his choosing. “Usually,” Larson says, “officers are back on the job in three to seven days, but they can have longer if they feel they need it.”
At this writing, this protocol has been followed in the last eight Scottsdale OISs, some with as many as five officers as shooters. Six of the shootings occurred within the last 10 months. “Not once have we had to sit down with a traditional, formal interview,” Larson says.
“Officers like the process, attorneys representing them appear happy with it and say it makes their job easier in court, and our administrators are very supportive of it.” Other agencies in the area have adopted the model, and more are expected to follow.
“We’ve trained every officer in our department on the protocol, so they know what to expect if they get in a shooting,” Larson says.
Speaking on behalf of the Force Science Institute, executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski told Force Science News:
“The Scottsdale protocol is a nice compromise, rich with features that we consider significant reflections of Force Science principles for working with an officer after a life-threatening incident. By treating the officer compassionately, by not subjecting him to multiple interviews, by soliciting primarily the essentials of what happened from his perspective within the incident scene–these aspects are all very commendable.”
As Larson himself notes, Lewinski points out that Scottsdale has yet to apply the protocol to a complex shooting that is beset with highly controversial nuances–the kind of complicated, politically charged incident that FSI often gets involved in analyzing.
“There may be times when a more traditional interview approach may be demanded,” he says, “and there may be times when a longer period for emotional decompression memory consolidation is necessary before an officer’s statement is recorded. But the general framework of the Scottsdale approach should allow the officer-based focus to remain intact, and should be lauded and copied.”
Lt. Larson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org