These days, when police too often are depicted as heartless killers, the world needs a film like Officer Involved.
This one-hour and 43-minute documentary reveals the reality of the law enforcement psyche through the moving experiences of officers who have faced the moment and the aftermath of shooting a civilian.
Some still tear up when speaking years later about their taking of a life, though they are far from being broken human beings. All talk candidly. Their observations can impact the thinking of other officers who have used–or have yet to use–deadly force, of administrators whose departments might be beset with the fallout from an OIS, and of citizens who may inevitably question LEO motives in light of the anti-police narratives persistently spun by activist partisans.
Officer Involved is the remarkable product of the passionate commitment of a young officer and his wife who learned the craft of filmmaking specifically to create this motion picture.
It premiered at the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Assn. (ILEETA) earlier this year. Now it’s on a cross-country screening tour that could include your agency. (More on that in a moment.)
We first reported on this project more than a year ago after Patrick Shaver, a patrol officer with a large metropolitan department in Georgia, and his wife Carla filmed interviews with Force Science Instructor Dr. Alexis Artwohl and with Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute (see Force Science News #276, 2/24/15 in the newsletter archives at www.forcescience.org).
At that point, they were over a year into their research, conducted largely on vacation and comp time and funded primarily from their own pockets, with some contributions from friends and strangers. This herculean effort eventually involved more than 90 interviews with OIS survivors and human behavior experts and thousands of highway miles, Patrick Shaver says.
Now they’re back on the road, living out of a camper with their seven-month-old son and driving from site to site across the US for invitational screenings. Carla has quit her job and Patrick has taken a year’s leave of absence from his department to devote full time to Officer Involved. Their hope is to get the movie accepted into film festivals and eventually into general theatrical release.
MOST STRESSFUL THING
The film opens with an officer’s voice-over: “I used to think the easiest thing to do was to make a deadly force decision. ‘He tries to kill me, so I kill him.’ It’s not that simple.” And of all the complexities, experts are inclined to agree, by far the most stressful thing is the aftermath.
Thus launched, in Patrick Shaver’s words, the film takes “the tunnel to the heart of the question: what’s it like to be an officer involved.”
In a seamless flow, the film offers intimate accounts from those who’ve “been there” about the arc of post-shooting challenges, including among others:
One chief recalls that all he wanted when he first arrived home after killing a suspect was a reassuring hug from his wife. But her reaction was stone-cold stoicism. “It caused a lot of problems between us,” he says. Another survivor asks plaintively: “How do you tell your kids that Daddy shot someone?”
Several survivors talk about sleeplessness, with one having tossed and turned across five weeks before he got a decent night’s sleep. Says another: “You just wouldn’t believe how many times your mind replays it and replays it and replays it. And it literally jolts you every time.”
The media take a major drubbing for “exaggerated or completely false” reporting. After one officer shot a woman, the media reported that she was holding a puppy at the time (“not true”), with no mention of the gun she had. On social media, “facts” may morph into fantastical scenarios that are nowhere close to what actually happened.
Some officers talk about ways in which their departments supported them after the smoke cleared, but for others the story was much different. One officer explains that he consciously decided he would let an offender get off the first round in their confrontation because he was “terrified at the possible repercussions.” Justifiably, it seems; his chief walked up to him at the scene and said, “You are one of the most cursed individuals I have ever met. You are a shit magnet.”
One officer breaks down crying when he talks about a shooting in which his partner was killed. He didn’t know how to process the guilt he felt at still being alive. “My daughter had a father, his daughters didn’t,” he says. Another says he will “never understand” why a young woman put him in a position that forced him to shoot her. “I wanted to help her. When I first got there, I envisioned sitting and talking to her. Not a day goes by that I don’t see her face and wish she had let me help her.”
One officer describes shooting an unarmed black teenager whom he mistakenly thought was drawing a gun from his waistband. Riots, fires, looting, “total chaos” ensued and “I felt responsible for everything taking place, the weight of all that on me.” After a month in limbo, he learned he’d been indicted for negligent homicide by watching tv. At trial, prosecutors portrayed him as a thoroughly reckless individual, yet he was found not guilty. He fully understands the fear of civil and/or criminal liability that haunts shooting survivors.
Coming back to work for some is a continuation of pain. One officer recalls being greeted as he walked into the station with a jaunty, “Hey, Killer!” But for others, returning to the job is a triumph. An officer who’d been wounded in a shooting drove his patrol car to the exact location where he’d been shot, picked up his mic, and announced, “I’m on duty.” “Welcome back,” the dispatcher radioed back…and one by one fellow officers on patrol echoed the same greeting.
Long term, says Dr. David Klinger, a prominent researcher and CJ professor, “most police officers are resilient. They triumph in a shooting and then they integrate it into their life experience and they move forward.” Artwohl agrees: “Usually the brain begins to accept it and you think about it less and less. Eventually, like any other exciting or stressful memory, it doesn’t have that same sense of intensity.”
One of the academic experts the Shavers integrate into Officer Involved, Dr. Matthew Sharps, a forensic cognitive scientist with Fresno (CA) State University, points out that “Most people have a vastly different view of police work than is accurate.” His research shows just how colossal the public disconnect is regarding use of deadly force specifically.
Sharps surveyed LEOs and civilians on whether a suspect pointing a gun directly at a police officer constitutes a “must shoot” situation. The cops all agreed that it did. But only 11% of civilians thought so.
When Sharps asked civilians their views on when an officer should shoot, he got “amazing feedback.” Such as: “An officer should not shoot unless he knows exactly what the suspect is thinking”; if the suspect is threatening another person, the officer has to convince the suspect to drop the gun; an officer should shoot “only if he is certain [the suspect has] a real gun”; an officer should only shoot an offender’s arm or leg to take him down, “not to kill”; and so on.
In one of several appearances in the film, Dr. Lewinski debunks the myth that intentional limb-targeting is a practical means of stopping threatening suspects and explains the “eye-blink speed” at which attacks on LEOs are likely to occur, often a pivotal factor in officer decision-making and reaction.
BOOKING A SCREENING
At this writing, the Shavers are booking screenings of Officer Involved as far out as next year. Over the summer, they so far have plans for screenings in Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Montana, Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas, then intend to head East.
For information on bringing the film to your agency, contact Patrick at the website: www.officerinvolvedproject.com/screening, which will connect you directly with his email.
“We’ll go anywhere people are interested,” he says, with audiences generally ranging from 50-200 in a “family night” atmosphere. Hosts typically are departments, law enforcement unions, fraternal organizations, and civic groups. “We charge only a small amount, enough to keep us on the road so we can continue bringing the film across the country. Usually the cost works out to less than the price of a normal movie ticket per person,” Patrick says.
After a screening, the Shavers conduct a discussion of the challenges the survivors faced, the vulnerabilities they reveal, and the lessons learned from their experiences.
Steve Zona, president of the FOP lodge in Jacksonville, FL, expresses a consensus view of several previous hosts we contacted. “We had wives, children, dispatchers, LEOs, chiefs, prosecutors, and shooting survivors at three screenings over a weekend. I did not hear a single negative comment. At some points, you could see emotions getting the best of some in the audience and tears were flowing.
“This film showed aspects of police-involved shootings not seen in the mainstream, not talked about among fellow officers or administrators, and not really understood by family members of those unfortunate enough to be involved. A powerful tool.”
Patrick says he and Carla have driven more than 30,000 miles researching and screening their film, with untold odometer clicks yet to come in pursuit of their commitment to show audiences “a look behind the curtain” at officers who “shoot not to kill but to stay alive.”
When Force Science News caught up with them recently, they were headed to Iowa. In celebration of Patrick’s 31st birthday, they intended to visit the site that commemorates another man’s long-shot vision: the rural baseball diamond from the movie Field of Dreams.