Officer-involved shootings

     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.

     It is for this reason that Kimsey feels it is vital to collect data from the crime scene of an officer-involved shooting as soon as possible. This, he says, will enable the reconstructionist to re-create what the officer had the ability to see, plus the evidence the officer was presented with to prompt the use of deadly force. Doug Jordan, a detective and certified reconstructionist with the Eugene (Oregon) Police Department, agrees with this contention, but also notes that there typically is a lot of time — as much as 4 hours — lost between the conclusion of a shooting incident and when reconstructionists arrive at the scene to diagram it. Once the crime scene can be accessed, proper diagramming requires placing everyone in his or her place, and determining bullet trajectories and officer placement in the scene based on shell casings. "That's impossible to do unless you have access to those people involved in the shooting," Jordan says. Such access is rarely immediate since there is considerable emotional trauma for officers directly involved in a shooting incident that turns deadly, and because the officers may be unavailable. "We're working on protocol [for the Eugene PD] to shorten that time frame so we can get basic information right away," Jordan adds.

Better documentation needed

     Officer-involved shooting incidents are inherently different from any other shooting because the officer has decided to shoot a suspect, and because the crime scene soon can become very busy and complex. Matt Noedel of the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction says, "The officer in an officer-involved shooting has a higher set of rules associated with what he must do, which means we must provide a higher level of documentation. We know that officer-involved shootings will be scrutinized at two or more levels."

     Noedel, a Forensic Scientist III with the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and a member of the patrol's crime scene response team, considers officer-involved shooting scenes among the most challenging to reconstruct. The chief reason is that these crime scenes often comprise multiple locations as a result of a car chase, altercations with gunfire in various locales, and even foot chases. "Shots can be fired at any of these locations," Noedel says. "Ultimately, what we want to do is reconstruct the actions and see if they match what the officer's recollection is and what the scene looked like." Fortunately, Noedel points out, a huge benefit of building a 3D diagram for crime scenes, such as officer-involved shootings, is that a reconstructionist can create different scenarios. "By troubleshooting these scenarios," Noedel says, "you can see which scenarios are likely and which are unlikely."

     During such high-stress, dynamic shooting incidents, the recollections of both police officers and witnesses (if any are available) can be sketchy or simply unreliable. This explains why crime scene investigators must approach an officer-involved shooting scene with an icy objectivity. "You can't assume it's a good shoot," notes Mike Haag, also a member of the Association of Crime Scene Reconstruction. "The physical evidence has to tell the story. You have to be open to it." Haag, a forensic firearms examiner and member of the major crime scene team with the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees with Noedel that officer-involved shooting scenes must be investigated carefully and meticulously. However, what makes a difference in the investigation, he feels, is how many gunshots were fired, people killed, types of guns used, and even the number of bullet ricochets that occurred versus bullets that came to rest inside a building wall or other objects. These are crucial details that can be incorporated into an automated diagram of the scene.

Mapping trajectories is tricky

     Cars used in officer-involved shooting scenes can add another layer of complexity, says Haag. "Cars can throw a huge kink into things in several respects, especially if you've got shots into the car and they don't perforate or hit anything else," Haag explains. "The whole crime scene has moved, leading to quite a few complex things. If a car is de-accelerating or accelerating in a rapid way, or turning rapidly, this can change the accuracy and precision with which you can address trajectories into the car." Mapping trajectories can be additionally difficult since it may be unclear as to whether a suspect was advancing toward an officer with a gun or fleeing.

     Because of these challenges with diagramming a shooting scene, Haag considers 3D diagramming an invaluable tool for crime scene reconstruction. "Scenes that would have taken us a day to diagram — like a huge parking lot with a running gun battle — can now be documented and diagrammed within one quarter of this time depending upon the kind of scene," he notes. And, he adds, 3D depictions of details in crime scene diagrams are becoming more integral to effective jury presentations. Haag predicts this trend will continue.

3D bullet trajectory

     The ability to show bullet trajectories on a vehicle, notes Eric Richardson, a master sergeant with the Oklahoma City (Oklahoma) Police Department and a trained crime scene reconstructionist, is an especially key part of the diagram's details. "You want to be able to determine distance — height of the gun off the ground and distance away from the first primary defect," says Richardson, a 15-year veteran with his police department's crime scene unit. The reconstructionist uses The CAD Zone Inc.'s Crime Zone V. 7.3 drawing software, designed for creating crime scene investigation diagrams, with a 3D Viewer. "We're dealing with height, space and width," Richardson continues. "The 3D aspect of the software helps show where a person was shooting with respect to the trajectory. It helps establish an approximate point of origin."

     Adding to Richardson's comments, Jordan notes that shootings are a good example of complex crime scenes because bullets travel in 3D space. While a simple overhead view can be used to show the compass direction of the bullets' path and the side view (elevation) gives the angle (up or down), it takes a true 3D model to completely show the bullets' trajectory, he argues. With a 3D model and accurate scene measurements, one can show where a shooter was standing, the direction he was firing, and the elevation of the weapon in his hand. According to Jordan, one can even extend the trajectory path to potentially see where the bullets may have entered other structures or vehicles. "These details can be critical in proving a point to a jury or in a use-of-force board investigation for an officer-involved shooting," Jordan adds.

3D mapping looks at training

     For the Rapid City (North Dakota) Police Department, the application of 3D mapping not only helps in crime scene investigations, but is a valuable tool for training purposes, too. "When we map a scene, especially officer-involved shootings, we do it two-fold," explains Sgt. Brad Booth, who supervises the department's traffic section and oversees forensic mapping for traffic crash scenes. "First, we map a scene for evidentiary reasons. We provide diagrams to aid in court testimony. Second, when we create our maps, we want to learn if everything was done according to training procedures." Rapid City PD uses the MapScenes program from MicroSurvey Software of Westbank, B.C., Canada, because of its ability to illustrate 3D surfacing.

     "That doesn't mean having a [diagramming software] program that will simply allow placement of 3D symbols," Booth explains. He says software must be able "to actually do surfacing so we can see contours in the land so that we can see if the officers had the best available cover, and whether they had a low spot in the ground they were lying in, or if they had adequate cover and concealment." Booth says the MapScenes program provides this capability.

Accounting for errant rounds

     A recent shooting in Creswell, Oregon, which is part of Lane County, illustrates how effective a 3D diagram can be for showing bullet trajectory. In the incident, a male suspect kidnapped his girlfriend in a trailer park. Shortly after the kidnapping, the girlfriend escaped. When Lane County deputies arrived at the scene, the suspect fired several shots through his trailer's walls. The Eugene-Lane County Metro SWAT Team was activated, arriving at approximately midnight. The suspect continued shooting outside through the walls of his trailer. Negotiators tried to talk the suspect out. But when the suspect emerged from the trailer the next morning, he began shooting at the SWAT team with a handgun. The SWAT team returned fire, hitting the suspect several times. During the shooting, some of the SWAT team's rounds, which had been fired from across the street from the suspect's trailer, penetrated a modular home on the north side of the fence that ran between the RV portion of the trailer park and a section of modular homes.

     Upon reviewing the shooting incident, the Eugene PD's use-of-force board wanted to know from where the ammo rounds that struck the modular home were fired. Consequently, it was critical to determine the trajectory of these rounds.

     An ideal way to determine the trajectories was to create a scaled diagram in which the location of the SWAT personnel could be carefully plotted. Jordan used a drawing program that has 3D drawing capability. The 3D diagram clearly showed that a SWAT team member lying prone across the street from the suspect's trailer had fired the errant rounds and that those rounds had been fired at the suspect.

     These drawing programs also offer other capabilities that are designed just for creating crime and crash scene diagrams. These capabilities enable the user to draw 3D surfaces and bullet trajectories, place symbols on slopes and assign exact heights to symbols, generate profiles, calculate slopes, and easily show evidence like blood spatter on walls and vertical surfaces.

Diagrams hold up in court

     A 3D diagram of an officer-involved shooting is just one piece of evidence that the jury must weigh as it decides the outcome of a case. The jury also must consider photos, exhibits of evidence from the scene and eye-witness testimony. Yet a 3D diagram is an illustrative high-profile piece of evidence that can connect most enduringly with jurors, Jordan asserts. "With a good diagramming program, we can create a virtual photo of what the officer most likely saw at the time of shooting," says Jordan. "We can show what an officer was up against, what his viewpoint was, and what the suspect's viewpoint was. That's what causes jaws to drop open and the people who need to make decisions make them better. It's like somebody took a photograph at the time of the shooting, and was looking down the barrel of the gun with the officer when they took the photograph."

Ease of use

     To be truly effective a crime scene diagramming program must be easy to use. After all, it is unreasonable to expect that every crime scene technician or police officer is a seasoned computer-aided design user. Also, while there are many drawing programs on the market, most are designed for engineering or architecture, and can be torturous to master. A drawing program that enables its user to learn how to produce a 2D diagram within 2 hours is one to strongly consider. The program should also have the capability to convert 2D diagrams into 3D views. Other suggested features include easy-to-find drawing and editing tools and a large library of symbols, most of which are available as 3D objects.

     Remember that although an officer-involved crime scene stays fresh in witnesses minds for a short time, an accurate depiction of the scene — the diagram — is what keeps it fresh in the minds of all who may be called upon to evaluate the events. Whether the diagram winds up in court in a few months or several years later, if it was created with the level of detail and functionality discussed here, authorities can rest assured the proper story will be told.

     Bob Galvin is a freelance writer based in Oregon City, Oregon. Diagrams provided courtesy of Doug Jordan, a detective and certified reconstructionist with the Eugene (Oregon) Police Department, and Trooper Eric Cannaday of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol (diagram bottom right on Page 82).