Disclosure of information in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting
When a public servant takes a life, the public has a right to know certain details, but they should receive this information within the proper contextual balance
We are all aware of the numbers by now and the story they tell. Since 2010, there has been an increase in murders of police officers in the line of duty. Added to this unsettling reality is the increasing number of ambush attacks on police officers.
Meanwhile, law enforcement has been confronted by a nationwide pattern of reductions in manpower, training, and equipment underscored by a growing criticism of police policies such as NYPD’s stop and frisk practice. It is important in this environment that police officials remain proactive in the management of information released in officer-involved shootings by ensuring the facts of the shooting are made clear to the public and the officer’s use of deadly force justified.
Anything less is an invitation to public speculation and misunderstanding. Even though subsequent grand jury investigations will determine the legal justification of an officer’s use of force, public disclosure and proper management of that disclosure must begin immediately in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting.
Proper Contextual Balance
A recent police shooting of a suspect in my home county brings this concern to light. Less than a year and a half ago, I wrote a column about the line of duty murder and funeral of City of Poughkeepsie Detective John Falcone, which took place just a few miles north of where I reside. On the evening of May 14 our county averted another similar tragedy when New York State Troopers Daniel Hoffman and Michael Hettinger responded to a 911 call of a home invasion in progress at a residence in the Town of LaGrange in Dutchess County, just a few miles and two towns east of where Detective Falcone was murdered.
As Trooper Hoffman entered the front of the residence, he was attacked by one of the perpetrators, Abdelle St. Ange, who was armed with a cut-down .22-caliber rifle. Trooper Hoffman fired five shots in the ensuing struggle, two of them struck the suspect, one in the chest, one in the head. As St. Ange lay dead in the residence, his four criminal cohorts fled into the rain-drenched night.
They were all apprehended within 45 minutes by responding troopers, deputy sheriffs, and local police. This was a situation which could have gone terribly wrong for the officer involved and his partner. Five felons were in the process of committing an extremely serious and violent crime. It was the troopers’ training and professionalism which carried them through the incident. Home invasions are violent felony offenses. The responding troopers were in as much potential danger as any occupant of the home, likely more so at the point of response.
Yet, in the ensuing coverage and official statements from the State Police there was a critical omission, the simple truth that the trooper who was attacked was lucky to be alive and his actions likely prevented further harm to the residents of the home. In the tense moments which unfolded at that house on a dark and rainy night both troopers survived. This critical detail — a very important part of the story — did not make its way into the news coverage. Unfortunately other information was released by the police that should not have been reported.
The public wants to know information as soon as possible. We live in a culture of instant media wherein the public has even greater access to receipt of information as well as sources of creating their own. In the case when a public servant takes a life, the public has a right to know certain details. But they should also receive this information in a proper contextual balance. In the aftermath of the LaGrange shooting the information presented to the media was scattered, not protective of the trooper involved in the shooting and critically flawed. Whether or not the mismanagement of the media releases will have any deleterious effect on subsequent legal proceedings is irrelevant at this point.
In the Aftermath of LaGrange
Proper management of media relations and post-shooting statements to the media need to be cognizant of the legal effect of words as well as basic concerns for the officer(s) involved. In the hours and days after the LaGrange shooting, several errors were made. Let’s explore each one, one at a time.
1.) There was no unified spokesperson for the State Police; at least three different individual sources provided information to the press which likely resulted in variations of reported versions of events as well as pre-grand jury disclosure of key factual information. The best news coverage of the shooting was clear, direct and succinct in its reporting – a man with a sawed-off rifle confronted and attacked a trooper responding to a home invasion in progress, the trooper in turn defended himself and shot the perpetrator. Unfortunately several other media versions alternately had the responding troopers attacking the gunman 1, or the trooper firing his weapon in response to a non-deadly confrontation. 2
The critical failure in managing the release and flow of information resided in what was left out of the press conference convened by the State Police after the shooting and in all subsequent news accounts – the fact of a violent crime in progress being perpetrated by armed intruders and the heroic and life-saving actions of the troopers involved. Three adult victims were in the house along with a 10-month old infant and there were five perpetrators. The nature of the crime, its violence, the use of force against the trooper which amounted to deadly physical force with the presence of the firearm and the state laws regarding police use of force were not addressed by the State Police. An opportunity to effectively manage the post-shooting disclosure of information was lost. A case in point came when a reporter at the press conference asked the Troop K Commander why the deceased perpetrator may have struck the trooper and the response was “Only the deceased would be able to provide that information as to why he took those actions.” 3
While the statement is true and not flawed in its logic the response fails to enlighten the public as to the nature of the crime and the sheer violence of the moment facing the trooper. In 2009 the IACP Police Psychological Services Section revised its Officer Involved Shooting Guidelines. Section 4.9 of the guidelines states the following:
“Members of the community, including the media, may benefit from education regarding procedure and protocols to police use of force. It is recommended that police agencies assist the community in these efforts by providing information about factors involved in police use of force such as officer safety issues and pertinent laws.” 4
At the press conference, there was a blown up photograph of the cut-down .22-caliber weapon the perpetrators brought to the home. This was an excellent instructive device for the media and the public but it was little utilized other than as a passing reference at the press conference rather than a continual theme indicating the violence of the crime, the threat to the occupants and to the responding troopers. While the photograph of the weapon appeared in the next day’s news coverage of the crime the thematic effect of its presentation was lost by not saying enough.
2.) The number of shots the trooper fired, as well as how many shots struck the deceased and the location of those two shots, was released prior to the grand jury presentation and release of an autopsy report. This disclosure in itself was unfortunate and unnecessary. It was information the public did not need to know at the point it was disclosed and information which could tend to prejudice opinions on the propriety of the shooting and inflame anti-police sentiment in the community. Additionally, the county coroner was quoted in a news story four days after the shooting, saying that she would not release the autopsy results without permission from the deceased’s family.
In the public comment sections of the online versions of several area newspapers, there were a large number of reader comments which indicated the use of force was excessive or the trooper could have shot the perpetrator in a non-vital area of the body.
The familiar and impractical “shoot-to-wound” chorus began to harmonize online. Although these sections of the news are not always safe harbors for reasoned and intelligent discourse, they do reflect cross-sections of public opinion. Once again, the control of information and its place in a proper contextual perspective was lost, this time by saying too much.
3.) The name of the trooper who shot the suspect was released less than 48 hours after the shooting. Many departments will not release such information within a 48-hour-window of time after a shooting, thereby giving the involved officer some time and public anonymity after the trauma of a shooting incident. There are additional concerns for the officer and the officer’s family which may come into play.
In the LaGrange case, there was speculation as to drug and possible gang involvement. While there were no immediate signs of gang activity, the investigation was ongoing and the possibility was still being explored. Nonetheless, there were at least two threats against the involved trooper made in the online comments section of the local newspaper by individuals who indicated they were acquaintances of the deceased perpetrator. The threats were likely empty boasts, but they still need to be investigated and the safety of the trooper and his family members trumps any immediate disclosure of his identity.
4.) The media was informed the trooper had a regularly scheduled day off after the shooting and would return to work the next day. Aside from the potential negative public impression left by this statement — that being the suggestion that taking a life was just another routine day for the officer involved — there are several policy gaps which expose the trooper and the employer.
Section 4.1 of the IACP Officer Involved Shooting Guidelines recommends that officers involved in shooting incidents be given a minimum of three days leave. The guidelines also suggest leave time as necessary for other non-shooter officers who were present during the incident. From an agency viewpoint it is necessary that all officers reporting back to duty after a critical incident are in fact ready and mentally-fit for duty. There are several liability implications for an agency that does not carefully monitor officers after traumatic events prior to resumption of their duties.5
However, it must be remembered that fitness for duty is an independent evaluation which involvement in a shooting should have no bearing upon unless there is concern for post-incident trauma.6After a critical incident, especially a shooting death, there is need for a clear policy to return officers to work.7 This is not to suggest an officer undergo mandatory psychological screening after a shooting incident. Although many departments require this screening studies show this may not be the most effective post-incident response.8
Officers have been found to be distrustful of agency mandated programs involving department-hired counselors and therefore may not be as forthcoming regarding their emotional, physical, and psychological well-being for fear of negative employment impact. Rather, every situation and officer is different and time is the simplest of services that can be offered to an officer. Management statements to the press that the officer will bounce back to duty after a regular day off may unintentionally force an involved officer to return to duty at a time when he or she is not ready. Once again, the effect of words and statements made to the media need to consider the impact they will have on all recipients of the message including involved police officers.
The control and management of information released to the media is important for any police organization and how that organization is publicly perceived.9 This is particularly important after an officer-involved shooting. The legitimacy and professionalism of the organization will be publicly judged by it, not to mention the residual effect that released statements and information may have on the legal process. This point was emphasized in a class on Police-Media Relations I attended years ago with several other line officers. There is also the need to counter potential negative reaction to police conduct or practice, especially the subliminal subtext that may creep into media coverage.
Such sub-text was evident in the LaGrange shooting. The deceased perpetrator was depicted in subsequent news stories as a “22 year-old…remembered as a good person and top-notch athlete who fell in with a bad crowd” and as a former star high school football player who participated in a program that helped students build character, self-esteem and etiquette.10
The fact-based nature of the deceased perpetrator’s positive background information must pale to the ready reality that confronted the trooper as he entered the home and was attacked by a hulking adult male armed with a deadly weapon. This is where the management of post-incident information is crucial and an equally necessary part of a criminal investigation.
There was a time before budget cuts when many agencies had dedicated public information officers to handle this task. Oftentimes these were experienced officers who underwent specialized training and became a ready resource for the media. Police supervisors have enough concerns in the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, the media and press releases need not be an added one.
Trained public information officers, even if they do not end up as the face before the media, provide an invaluable service to an organization. For smaller agencies or those whose budget cuts have eliminated the position the public information officer may be a luxury; however, there are a few basics that can be followed in any situation. The first is to have a sound policy for dealing with media requests for information and to have that policy be as comprehensive as possible. The IACP is a good resource for model agency policy guides.
Second, have one source of information release. The old adage that too many cooks spoil the broth is just as applicable here — too many voices distort the message. Third, be careful in the information that is released — in most cases investigations are ongoing and care must be given not to compromise the investigation or resulting legal process.
And lastly, consult as necessary with department counsel, the municipal attorney’s office, or local prosecutor, as the case may be, for any legal issues relating to the disclosure of specific information.
1 YNN News, 05/16/12 – “When troopers entered the home, they came in contact with the suspect, and clubbed him with a rifle. Police say Trooper Hoffman then fired his gun five times, shooting St. Ange in the head and torso, killing him.”
2 Poughkeepsie Journal, 05/15/12 – “A state trooper who entered the home confronted St. Ange who hit him with a sawed-off rifle. The trooper then shot St. Ange dead.”; Poughkeepsie Journal, 05/16/12 – “Abdelle St. Ange was killed after striking a police officer with a rifle when authorities tried to break up a burglary in progress in LaGrange.”
3 Poughkeepsie Journal, 05/17/12
4 International Association of Chiefs of Police (2009). Retrieved from Officer Involved Shooting Guidelines: http://theiacp.org/psych_services_section/pdfs/Psych-OfficerInvolvedShooting.pdf
5 See eg., Bonsignore v. City of New York, 683 F.2d 635 (2d Cir., 1982) where the spouse of a New York City police officer sued the employer city for damages resulting from her injuries after her husband shot her and then committed suicide. The wife alleged the City of New York had failed to properly “flag” her husband as a violence-prone officer despite numerous warning signs. The appeals court, in affirming a lower court verdict for the wife, found that it was reasonable for a jury to find that the employer police department’s programs in place to track problem officers were either abandoned or not properly followed thereby resulting in her injuries.
6 Section 5.10 of the IACP Officer Involved Shooting Guidelines provide the following: “It should be made clear to all involved personnel, supervisors, and the community at large that an officer’s fitness-for-duty should not be brought into question by virtue of their involvement in a shooting incident. Post-shooting psychological interventions are separate and distinct from any fitness-for-duty assessments or administrative or investigative procedures that may follow. This does not preclude a supervisor from requesting a formal fitness-for-duty evaluation based upon objective concerns about an officer’s ability to perform his or her duties. However, the mere fact of being involved in a shooting does not necessitate such an evaluation prior to return to duty."; See also, Trompetter, P., Corey, D., Schmidt, W., & Tracy, D. (2011, January). Psychological Factors after Officer-Involved Shootings: Addressing Officer Needs and Agency Responsibilities. The Police Chief, pp. 28-33, for an excellent article providing more information in this area.
7 See also, Klinger, D. (2002). Police Responses to Officer-Involved Shootings: Executive Summary. Washington D.C.: Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice. Taking department mandated time off was found to ease negative reactions officers perceived experiencing after a shooting incident.
9 Chermak, S., & Weiss, A. (2005). Maintaining legitimacy using external communication strategies: An analysis of police-media relations. Journal of Criminal Justice, 501-512.
10 Poughkeepsie Journal, 05/17/12