Surviving the Aftermath

Although rare in occurrence, approximately 400 suspects are killed by police officers each year. Unfortunately, most agencies and most officers are ill-prepared to handle an officer-involved shooting. Prepare in advance by learning about your rights...

In the movies and on TV, the hero doesn't even stop to clean his pistol after a shooting. Leaving the scene, he continues to rack up the body count, leaving lowly patrol officers and investigators to pick up after him. This is about as far from the truth as possible, but is part and parcel of darn near every cop action movie or TV show. that's a horse of a different color that can offer a far bumpier ride, unless you and your agency become informed as to what your rights are as well as prepare for what may come, and plan as to how you will handle the process. Most cops go their whole career without being involved in a shooting. The fact that this occurrence is rare in law enforcement is a good thing, but lack of familiarity with the process (or lack of any process at all) can create massive amounts of stress for involved officers, as we will see.

Department Procedure

Does your agency have a procedure as to what will happen in a shooting or officer-involved death incident? If not, the following could occur to you or an officer on your agency:

  1. An officer is locked into a suspect holding room after the shooting.
  2. An officer sits in the room after killing a suspect as the chief and union president stand toe-to-toe, yelling at each other, over what rights the officer has.
  3. The local county prosecutor tells detectives that the only time she gives officers a Miranda warning is when she thinks there's a problem with the shooting. She then reads you your Miranda rights.
  4. The chief makes it widely known that he thinks your shooting was wrong, despite the Grand Jury finding that deadly force was justified.
  5. A police agency allows an untrained prosecutor that has not even been to the scene of the shooting to conduct the officer's interview.

All of these scenarios have happened. And they have happened to officers throughout this country. Policy and procedure must be developed to ensure that the officer's rights, as well as the agency's interests, are protected and don't conflict. Ad hoc procedures developed on the scene without forethought oftentimes lead to chaos and only increase the stress on involved personnel. Union and administration officials must sit down and come up with a procedure that clearly maps out a protocol. More stress to officers occurs when they face the unknown than the known. Procedure in this regard is vital.

Effects of Stress

Many agencies still require that an officer submit to an oral interview or submit a written report right after the incident or before they go off duty, post-incident. The effects of a sympathetic nervous system reaction ("fight or flight," in layman's terms) are many and varied. In addition to the many perceptual distortions that can take place and may affect memory, a phenomenon known as Critical Incident Amnesia (CIA), has been studied by Bruce Siddle, Dave Grossman, Dr. Alexis Artwohl, and many more. Memory of actual events has been shown to improve after one to two sleep cycles. Clearly, waiting a day or two before requiring an officer to make a statement, whether oral or written, is only good investigative practice.

Officers' Rights

Many agencies still treat officers who are forced to use deadly force as the suspect, instead of as the victim. This is a flaw, in my opinion, that results in officers being treated as criminal suspects throughout the investigation and oftentimes leaves them feeling alienated and angry. Officers certainly have rights, and they, as well as their union officials and attorneys, should protect those rights. In order to protect your rights, you must first understand them. You do not have the right to refuse to make a statement post-shooting. Your agency can compel you to make what is known as a "public safety statement." A public safety statement and other excellent material is referred to in David E. Hatch's excellent book, Officer-Involved Shootings and Use of Force (CRC Press; 2003). In short, the public safety statement is the short version of what happened, i.e. "I was standing over here and fired in this direction. The suspect was standing there firing in this direction, the suspect's pistol is over there," etc. The public safety statement is a brief overview of what happened, not a full-blown walk through or statement. This statement will aid detectives in their investigation by allowing them to know where the crime scene and evidence reside and a brief overview of what transpired.

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