Officer-involved shootings

Uncovering clues with 3D diagramming

     It is 1:17 a.m. on a balmy summer morning at a 24-hour convenience store on Market Street, in San Francisco, and a robbery is in progress. The calm store owner is able to gently push a silent security alarm button beneath the counter with his left knee without being noticed. It's a good thing since the jittery robber has a handgun pointed at the store owner's chest, demanding all cash in the register. With cash in hand, the robber flees the store. But not before he is spotted by officers as they drive their patrol car toward the store entrance. The officers bolt out of their car and chase the suspect down an alley, which soon turns into a maze of even more alleys. Suddenly, the pursuit stops. It is quiet. The officers are a few yards apart, one behind the other. Using an infrared scope, the officer in the rear sees the suspect emerging from a building corner and moving toward his partner. As the suspect raises his handgun to shoot the officer, who doesn't realize what's occurring, his partner shoots the suspect in the stomach. And the suspect lays dead in the alley.

     When officer-involved shootings occur, they are never cut-and-dried cases. The questions are predictable: Could lethal force have been avoided? Who was truly threatened, the officer or suspect? How could the incident have been avoided?

Diagram is a key element

     Mapping these complex crime scenes can be equally challenging because the scene's reconstructionist will need to rely upon police reports and crime scene evidence, and, possibly, eyewitness testimony (if there were witnesses). One of the most crucial aspects of a crime scene where one or more officers have used a gun on a suspect is the diagram that shows where officers, other participants and various objects (i.e., cars, buildings, terrain) were positioned during the incident, as well as bullet trajectories.

     A detailed diagram, which can be drawn with high accuracy using a computer drawing program, can give a realistic view of a shooting incident's events. The ability to convert this diagram from its two-dimensional (2D) plane to a three-dimensional (3D) one is at the core of crime reconstruction diagramming, and can help a jury best decide how to weigh the scene's evidence. A 3D diagram of an officer-involved shooting incident can also aid an officer's superiors in determining whether or not his judgment and use of force with a suspect was warranted.

     This article will discuss why diagrams of officer-involved shooting scenes are so vital to a clear understanding of an incident's events, and how crime scene investigators and reconstructionists view this tool and use it as a focal point in their presentation of evidence once crime cases go to the courtroom.

Data collection must be swift

     A police officer can be the unfortunate participant in a showdown between himself and an assailant at any moment. If an officer shoots and kills the suspect, the case suddenly becomes high profile because deadly force is the highest level of force that a police officer can lawfully exercise. Naturally, the officer's training allows him to be as prepared as possible to assess the issues associated with use of force, and, in many cases, to survive such incidents. There also are many difficult state and civil legal issues, plus a police department's own polices and procedures that the officer must somehow filter in his mind before deciding to pull the trigger.

     "I'm sure police officers have died in the line of duty because they were unable to process all of this information in time," says Crash Investigator Mark Kimsey of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Kimsey, an ACTAR-accredited crash reconstructionist, is often called upon by the Hamilton County SO CID Division to map crime scenes. "The suspect doesn't have to process any of this [information]. Even if [the police officer and suspect] start off on even keel, the suspect still has an advantage," he adds.

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