The recent police shooting in Benton Ridge, Ohio clearly demonstrates that an unarmed suspect’s words and actions can create a situation which would lead reasonable officers to believe that their lives are in imminent danger. In this situation, more than one officer perceived the danger and dramatically backed away from the van. Then, more than one officer fired as the enraged suspect burst violently out of the window of the vehicle. But that video, as compelling as it is, is woefully inadequate as a true record of events. For that, we must turn to the reports from the officers involved. That’s why this event is a stark reminder for all officers that in a use-of-force incident, the report you write is critical to the post-incident events that inevitably follow.
Dynamic Story Telling
Officers involved in any use-of-force situation must freeze frame the moment. In their report, they must articulate every bit of information given to them leading up to the decision to use force. They must also document every statement, threatening gesture, and overt act that created the perception of danger which led them to the decision to fire.
After the fact the suspect may lie and the attorney will likely spread the lie. The media will then report the lie (and probably speculate and edit the tape to shape their story). Defense experts will make good money explaining how they would have done things differently. All of these people will be able to replay the tape over and over again in slow motion before coming to a conclusion in a situation that played out in mere seconds before your eyes.
There are so many cases in which suspects’ threatening words and movements lead officers to believe they are facing an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm. Suspects arm themselves with cell phones and other fake weapons and at times make movements feigning attack. That first report where you freeze a critical moment in time will help you accurately frame the desperate events. It should put the reader in the shoes of the officer involved.
For example, the suspect bent on “suicide by cop,” wants to be shot, so they aggressively do what they have to do to get their wish. A suspect may point a firearm at an officer and say, “You are going to die tonight!” and the reasonable officer will stop the perceived threat by shooting until the suspect no longer presents a threat. The discovery later that the gun was not loaded (or was even a toy) can never alter the officer’s perception at the moment the decision was made to shoot the suspect.
Put the Reader in Your Shoes
Officers who use force on a suspect should take the time to paint a vivid picture and put the reader in the officer’s shoes. Articulate your fears of your own impending death or great bodily harm that would lead anyone reading the report to come to the same conclusion as you did. Officers are hesitant to admit that they experienced fear, but this is the appropriate time to admit to the world in writing, “Because of … I was afraid for my life and my partner’s life.”
The book is always better than the movie. Grainy video images of cannot accurately capture the fear an officer in survival mode will experience. The viewer can not feel the painful tearing of cartilage as the officer scrambles to avoid an assault. They can’t see the protruding arteries in the suspect’s neck or smell the rank odor of intoxicants on his breath. The video will not show the spray of saliva into the officer’s face as it is flung out of a suspect’s mouth when he screams, “I’m going to kill you cop!” A vivid, truthful, and realistic description of what is transpiring can tell so much more than the partial digital recording of an incident shot from a bad angle, in poor focus, and in low-light conditions.
The dynamics of a shooting are such that certain specifics may come back to you at a later time. This is a natural phenomenon, so when that happens complete a supplemental report to outline the missing critical details you may recall later.
In the inevitable legal follow-up to these events, you have an advantage over the suspects, the attorney, the defense experts, and the media. You have the truth in your pocket.
Winston Churchill once said, “The truth is incontrovertible, malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end there it is…” in your report.