“Interviews with Evil” & The Survival Lessons They Teach

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Before the transport began, the officer had been warned that the prisoner was “big and dangerous” and should be kept handcuffed and in leg irons for the whole trip. But the officer felt the suspect might be “too uncomfortable” trussed up in the cramped back seat. So he let him ride in the passenger spot, cuffed in front, if he “promised to be good.”

Dr. Anthony Pinizzotto, Clinical Forensic Psychologist

The suspect would later tell Dr. Anthony Pinizzotto, a clinical forensic psychologist: “Christmas came early that year.”

Before the intended destination was reached, the suspect disarmed the officer and shot him dead with his own sidearm. “I knew I could take him,” the killer said.

Pinizzotto, formerly a psychologist with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, recounted that misbegotten episode recently as he kicked off the Force Science Institute’s Fall Speaker Series with lessons learned from an ongoing research project he calls “Interviews with Evil.”

Across more than three decades now, he and his research partner Ed Davis, along with interviewers Shannon Bohrer and Chuck Miller, have conducted candid, in-depth conversations with nearly 100 offenders who have severely injured or murdered LEOs. They’ve also focused in on nearly 160 officers to date, interviewing those who’ve survived attacks and reconstructing the personalities and practices of those who haven’t.

Their goal is to usefully identify elements of “the Deadly Mix”—the dynamic, fateful convergence of officer characteristics, offender traits, and circumstances that result in life threats to law enforcement personnel.

Their findings have been reported in exhaustive detail in three landmark studies published by the FBI: “Killed in the Line of Duty,” “In the Line of Fire,” and “Violent Encounters.” These comprise what FSI’s executive director Dr. Bill Lewinski calls “some of the most important officer survival work ever.”

In synopsis form, here are seven critical teaching points that Pinizzotto discussed in his day-long presentation as having emerged, among others, from his and Davis’s continuing investigations. In case after case, he backed up these conclusions with video recordings of offenders and officers alike reflecting on their encounters.

“These are good officer safety reminders appropriate for roll call review,” Lewinski says.

1. Remember, you are not a mind reader.

One characteristic the researchers have found to be common among officers injured or killed by assailants is the confident belief that they can reliably “read” people (a la the transport officer described above), and thereby surface latent hazards.

“Many offenders don’t appear to be that much of a threat when you look at them,” Pinizzotto says. “But what you see and what you are told may be only part of what is there.” The circumstances and the offender’s intent “may be far more than you’re aware of, and you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t really know what’s in his mind or what you’re getting into and he does.”

He cites an officer who was initiating a traffic stop for speeding. As the officer approached the car, the violator saw him calling on his radio. The officer was telling a patrol buddy he’d be a little late for their coffee hookup. The driver, a felon who had guns in his car, thought the cop was calling for backup and decided to preempt an arrest by slaying the officer.

“Know that the suspect is evaluating you as you are evaluating him,” Pinizzotto says. “He may already have decided he can take you. He’s just waiting for the opportunity, for that moment of vulnerability.”

2. Don’t turn your back on passive personalities.

Alert officers can often pick up danger cues to the predator-like, anti-social personality types “whose whole life is a textbook of criminal behavior,” Pinizzotto says. “The ones that scare me are those with ‘dependent personality disorder,’ who often have no criminal history.”

These subjects are “over-controlled, submissive, repressive, passive—no ‘spark’ to their personality. They’ve habitually given in to the wishes of others and pushed all their hostility and anger down like a spring getting coiled tighter and tighter, until something they see as very threatening suddenly causes them to explode. The result is often overkill. “Officers may not perceive them as a threat and shift their attention completely off of them. Yet oddly, they can be the most dangerous. The only time a dependent personality is safe is when you can see them in your rearview mirror.”

3. Compliance is not always your friend

Victim officers, Pinizzotto and Davis have found, tend to “look for good in other people” and where offenders are concerned apparent compliance often gets interpreted as evidence of “goodness.” This leads them to “drop their guard inappropriately” and present the vulnerability the waiting predator is laying for.

A common pattern, Pinizzotto says, is for the would-be attacker to be “fully compliant up to the point of handcuffing.” It’s then clear they’re going to jail—a peak danger point.

“Never confuse compliance with your safety,” he warns. “When you’re putting cuffs on, don’t let up; keep your suspect in firm physical control.”

4. Be fully prepared for the fight.

Officers and attackers closely agree on one thing, Pinizzotto finds: Many cops are simply not ready to defend their lives. 

61% of officers interviewed admitted they were “not aware the attack was coming,” and 62% of the assailants said the officers they injured or killed were “surprised, unprepared, indecisive.” “When something happened outside the officers’ expectations, they didn’t know how to react immediately,” Pinizzotto says.

One hesitated because he didn’t know whether his agency’s UOF policy allowed the use of deadly force against an unarmed attacker.

Some were distracted by “crazy thoughts” that flashed to mind during the struggle; others were disturbed by unexpected perceptual distortions.

Some officers found that faulty expectations “played out at the scene” to their disadvantage. One automatically collapsed to the ground when he was non-fatally wounded because he believed that “people always fall down when they’re shot.”

Still others were not anticipating post-gunfight reactions. “I’m a very good shot and I’m good at making decisions of when to shoot,” said one officer. “But I was not prepared for what happened to me afterward, emotionally.”

“Expect the unexpected, and prepare for multiple possibilities,” Pinizzotto urges. He quotes a surviving officer: “If you are prepared physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, when the shit hits the fan you will know I am ready, and you’ll move in that direction.”

5. Your mind-set can save you.

“I knew I was going to win, even in the midst of fighting for my life,” one officer told Pinizzotto. She met her attacker in the Deadly Mix when she responded to a bizarre call from a grocery store where a man with a butcher knife was stabbing raw meat in a display case. 

When she approached, he jumped her and stabbed her 10 times.

Today she doesn’t remember any details of the event—except “I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m going to survive, I’m going to survive!’ I even told the EMTs, ‘I’m going to survive.’ I remembered it from my training, and it got through to me.” Pinizzotto notes: “That deep belief that no matter what happens you will go home alive can have a powerful impact on your mind and body and help you overcome even what may seem impossible.”

6. Resilience starts before the crisis.

Pinizzotto once asked a shooting survivor how he defined resilience. The officer replied that it was “the intersection of knowledge, experience, training, wisdom, humor, intuition, and spirituality.”

“This cluster of factors must be nurtured before you experience a traumatic event to be most effective,” Pinizzotto says. And the core of this task involves cultivating the skills of stress management.

He uses the word STRESS as an acronym for the key components for countering stress:

Sensible eating, with nutritious, well-balanced, healthy meals 
Time for living, taking time to enjoy life and those around you 
Rest, relaxation, recreation—regularly and frequently for genuine fitness 
Engagement in stimulating and fulfilling activities 
Social support from family, friends, and colleagues 
Satisfaction, engaging in activities that enhance your spiritual and emotional life.

“If these elements are in order when a critical incident strikes, you’ll be better able to overcome the challenges of bouncing back,” he says.

7. Departments: Don’t traumatize the trauma.

After a shooting or other critical incident, your agency does not necessarily have to say that everything you did was right, Pinizzotto believes. But it does need to convey that you are a valued human being and “if you or your family need anything, the department will respond.”

Agencies should “take cues from the assaulted officer as to specifically what he or she needs,” Pinizzotto says. “The greatest blunder is to believe that ‘one size fits all.’ ” In common, however, survivors he’s interviewed say they mostly wanted information on what the post-event investigation would entail and a timeline for what lay ahead—but often didn’t get it.

Second-guessing an officer’s actions when you weren’t there, rushing official interviews and statements before the officers involved have enough rest and sleep to consolidate their memories of what happened, even failing to acknowledge that critical incidents have an emotional impact—these and other insensitivities “create the danger of traumatizing the trauma” of a life-threatening encounter, Pinizzotto says.

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