Success depends on more than good luck. Officers require a solid set of survival skills to prevail during and after a deadly force incident. Fortunately, each of us has the opportunity and ability to gain greater knowledge and skill. But first we must accept the reality that violence can occur at any time, placing each of us at great risk we run to the fight when others run away. With the acceptance of personal risk should come motivation to spend the time and energy necessary to make incident and aftermath skills part of our conscious and subconscious daily responses.
Historically, use-of-force training is directed at the moment of the fight on the street. The majority of agencies and officers I have trained with do not give adequate thought to after-action issues. Failure to plan and train for such issues creates uncertainty and additional stress. The learn-as-you-go method is a poor model to employ when lives and careers are at risk.
Following are several important training, planning and reporting issues officers face following use-of-force incidents. While these points are not all-inclusive, they highlight certain areas that will create serious problems unless addressed through prior training and preparation. I have also included a checklist that can help you measure your use-of-force knowledge and preparedness (see The Peace Officer s Use-of-Force Checklist, ).
On Scene Response
Immediately following a use-of-force incident, responding supervisors and investigators should not pursue questioning or comments in an open, unsecured crime-scene area. The media and citizens commonly use long-range video and audio recorders to view and listen in on the action. Unwanted comments, criticism or speculation could taint the issues or generate red herrings in future legal proceedings.
Know that the words you use as well as the actions you take create a perception in the minds of witnesses. Effective verbalization during and after an incident establishes the impression of professional conduct. Alternately, profanity can give the appearance of an unprofessional officer, out of control and enraged. Improve your verbal skills through reality-based training that requires you to speak under stressful conditions. Communication remains a most vital skill, and you can practice it every day, everywhere.
When officers and supervisors first respond after a high level use-of-force event, the what remains more important than the why. Why an officer made the decision to fire their weapon should be reviewed in detail later. Later, not on scene, the complete investigation will determine the lawful justification of the officer s actions.
The time immediately following the incident features extreme stress, and it s counterproductive and likely harmful to all aspects of the coming investigation to demand an officer make such justification. What the involved officer knows can protect responding officers and the crime scene, and if not communicated, vital information may be lost.
Designated supervisors or investigators should determine this information. Every supervisor from the first on scene to the last must not demand the officer repeatedly recite the events.
First responders should train to immediately address four basic issues that can affect a crime scene and the coming investigation:
1. Injuries to officers or others (they may remain unaware of injury or the extent, and officers will say they are OK when they re not);
2. Offenders (identify and locate to protect from further attack or escape);
3. Evidence (secure guns, etc. from loss, contamination or destruction); and
4. Witnesses (identify and isolate).
Get the officer to the hospital as soon as feasible after the incident. If injured or wounded, transport them immediately. If not visibly injured, an officer may have a medical condition (e.g., high blood pressure) that the stress of the event has elevated dangerously. Failing to allow for a medical assessment in a hospital setting places the officer at unnecessary risk.
The Report One Chance to Do It Right
After a use-of-force incident, do not attempt to write or verbally report detailed information until you have decompressed from the effects of the stress chemical reaction. It takes many hours and sleep to return to a more normal heart rate and blood pressure, and extreme stress severely affects the ability to think and react. Incomplete or inconsistent reporting is easily attacked both within and outside the department. Officers ordered to produce reports without sleep or the opportunity to reconstruct their memory of their involvement will produce inadequate reports. What you do not include in a report is as important as what you do. You get one chance to do it right, and right means complete.
Limit your incident report or statements to your involvement and the facts and information known to you at the time of the incident. Your mindset and the basis for your reasonable belief about an incident will be a primary area of inquiry. The law does not require officers to be factually correct, only reasonable in their belief. Example: A suspect threatens an officer with a pistol, and the officer fires in self defense. Afterwards, it s found the pistol was a look-alike pellet gun. That it was not a loaded, operational firearm does not render the shooting unjustified and unlawful, however. So long as officers reasonably believe they faced imminent death or great bodily harm, the law does not require factual proof that the threat is real.
Do not engage in speculation or conjecture. Unless it s absolutely necessary, do not write or speak for other officers. Doing so may force them to correct or explain your comments attributed to them. Conflicting statements and explanations open an avenue of attack against you and other involved officers. Write and/or speak about what you did and your perception based on your five senses. Let others speak for themselves. Use of force is not a team event in terms of lawful justification. Each officer acts at their own discretion and must remain within legal and policy guidelines. It will not be acceptable to base use-of-force decisions on the acts of another officer. I fired because he fired is not an acceptable response.
Do not estimate distance and time. In high-stress events, your perceptions of time and distance will likely be adversely affected. If you are uncertain or don t know, do not engage in speculation you either know or you don t. One officer reported that after shooting dry in a close-range gunfight, he ran a short distance to reload. Measured later, that short distance was determined to be 20 yards. Let the evidence technicians complete the on-scene investigation their findings will indicate distance and other evidentiary matters that address related questions.
When officers are asked very specific questions, such as Exactly how far was he from you? or Exactly what did he say just before you fired? often they can t answer due to stress effects. Demanding such answers without an understanding of human performance under stress ensures faulty information.
Simply put, the human mind does not capture events in life-threatening circumstances in ordered, real-time sequence. The tachy-psyche effect (mental, emotional, and physical stress effects) is very real and well documented. Officers, supervisors, and investigators should learn to recognize and address the effect of high-stress incidents on involved officers.
Always gain the assistance of knowledgeable, competent legal counsel if you are involved in a serious use-of-force incident. Your attorney must understand the legal and procedural issues, help you prepare written reports and advise you during oral statements or testimony. Ask them if they have experience and training in officer-involved shooting defense.
Don t think you can deal with the aftermath of a high-stress situation by yourself. Officers don t have the experience, training or detachment to do so. Many have tried, and some have paid dearly.
The time to locate legal counsel is before a situation occurs. Former prosecutors and police labor lawyers can make good resources when you need to locate an attorney willing to respond to officer-involved incidents at all times.
Your agency will not go out of business due to any event, no matter how catastrophic. You, however, might, through death, disability, termination or resignation. Do not fall victim by not training adequately, or refusing to believe you might be involved in a serious use-of-force incident.
Officers should not attempt to learn life-saving skills when their life is at risk, and the same holds true for career-saving skills. Plan your defenses before defense is required.
Recognize that you do not control events around you. You control only your reaction to such events. You cannot guarantee the outcome, but you can assure the process. The more forethought, training and planning you invest, the higher the chance of success. The converse remains just as true: Do little, expect little.
The Peace Officer s Use-of-Force Checklist
The following checklist gives a snapshot view of an officer s current level of preparation and knowledge relative to use-of-force situations, from start to finish. While it does not cover all issues, a majority of positive answers increases the probability you will succeed on the street and in the court room.
It s unrealistic to expect every officer to be expert on all issues related to police use of force. However, each officer should have a basic understanding of U.S Supreme Court decisions, state law and department policy. Attorneys can and will assist you later, but on the street, you are on your own. The following 16 questions can protect your life and your career:
1. Have you received any training in constitutional limitations related to police use-of-force since basic training? ________
2. If so, do you have written documentation of the training date, the length of the training, the content and who performed the instruction? ________
3. Does your department have a written use-of-force policy? ________
4. Do you possess a copy of your department s use-of-force policy? ________
5. When did you last review this policy? ________________
6. If called before a civil or criminal jury, can you accurately describe your agency s use-of-force policy? ________
7. If you testify about your agency s use-of-force policy and are asked if you know the content of the policy, what is the only acceptable answer you can give? ________
8. What is the next logical question? _____________________________
9. Do you possess a copy of your state statute relative to peace officers use-of-force in defense of themselves, other persons or in making arrests? ________
10. When did you last review, in detail, the state law relative to peace officers use-of-force? ________________
11. If called before a civil or criminal jury, can you accurately explain your understanding of constitutional and statutory limitations related to peace officers use of force (e.g., Tennessee v. Garner, Graham v. Connor, Canton v. Harris, your state statute, etc.)? ________
12. When did you last receive training on less-lethal defensive tools? ________________
13. Are you carrying batons, chemical sprays, stun guns, etc., without written documentation and certification of training? ________
14. Does your agency require refresher training in use-of-force procedure, tactics and physical skills? ________
15. How long do you believe it would take you to review law and policy and be able to effectively articulate the same in writing or verbally? ________________________
(Correct answer: 5 10 minutes a day for 4 6 weeks.)
16. The bottom line: Do you believe you are prepared to effectively defend your actions with regard to law, policy and procedural issues when you are involved in any type of use-of-force confrontation? ________
Tips for Trainers
Provide reality-based training
Train your officers for after-action survival through the use of realistic scenarios. Require officers to defend their actions based on law, policy and procedure. Do not let them assume their supervisor or coworkers will pick up the pieces.
Provide training that includes mock deposition/trial testimony. Train them in successful report writing, and deposition/trial tactics the same as you train them in street tactics. Knowledge is acquired through training and practice it s not spontaneous. Failure to test for weakness ensures your officers adversaries will find and exploit such weakness to the fullest.
As the author John Keats wrote, Nothing is real til experienced. Experience does not have to be purchased through terrible loss. Realistic training can prepare officers mentally, physically and emotionally before the true fight is joined.
For additional information on officer-involved shooting investigations and research, visit the following Web sites:
Dr. William Lewinski and the Force Science Research Center: www.forcescience.org
Dr. Alexis Artwohl: www.alexisartwohl.com
Dr. David Klinger: www.umsl.edu/~ccj/faculty/klinger.html