10 tips for surviving controversial, high-profile cases


By Chuck Remsberg
Senior PoliceOne.com Contributor
Sponsored by Blauer

Thumbtack this to your mental bulletin board. It may help you survive intact the next time you’re involved in a controversial OIS or other high-profile use of force.

These tips are the distilled wisdom of 6 distinct voices from the trenches of street combat, sounded during a 2-hour panel discussion for chief executives at the recent IACP annual conference in Boston on how to balance police-community interests when a crisis erupts.

Chaired by IACP past president Charles Gruber, now chief of the South Barrington (IL) PD, and sponsored by the legal research organization Americans for Effective Law Enforcement, the panel featured 2 psychologists from the Force Science Research Center, a strategic partner of PoliceOne, 2 veteran police attorneys, a candid newspaper reporter and a battle-scarred chief from a city that’s often roiled by headlined police confrontations.

1. Involve key stakeholders in updating policies before a crisis.

Policies and procedures on using and investigating deadly force “haven’t changed significantly in many departments since the 1970s,” charged Jack Collins, general counsel for the MA Chiefs of Police Assn. Back then, agencies “didn’t pay attention to some of the psychological issues” considered important today.

Among other things, he recommends to “get the officers’ union involved with you” in developing updated, modernized policies that address such important issues as the timing of statements/interviews, gun replacement, media contact, provision of counseling resources and so on. Then “when an officer-involved shooting occurs there are no surprises.”

Likewise, he suggested briefing “the minority community and civic organizations” on “why we do certain things” so they’ll know what to expect and, hopefully, better understand the process. “Talk to the press and explain how these events will be handled.”

Conduct dry-run rehearsals to surface additional needed refinements. “Don’t practice on the day an officer-involved shooting takes place,” Collins urged.

2. Treat involved officers different from common suspects.

The panel’s 2 psychologists, Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSRC’s executive director, and Dr.Alexis Artwohl, a member of the FSRC National Advisory Board, agreed that an officer in a shooting investigation IS different--“a totally unique animal”--and thus warrants different treatment.

“With a criminal suspect there is a higher expectation they have done something wrong and may lie,” Artwohl explained. “Officers are usually cooperative witnesses. They usually want to talk and are doing their best to remember and tell what happened.”

When officers are reluctant to cooperate, “it’s usually because of big mistakes” in the investigative approach, resulting in them “not trusting the system,” she claimed.

“Policing is the only job where we send employees out to perform their mandated duty--to use force when necessary--and simply by fulfilling their job description they become a suspect in a felony crime. That may be inevitable and I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it’s a strange position to be in.”

3. Make science part of the investigation.

Too often shooting survivors are judged on the basis of “assumptions and personal opinions, not on the basis of scientific reality,” Artwohl asserted. It’s assumed, for example, that an officer can avoid shooting a subject in the back if he wants to, or can absolutely control the number of shots he fires. Or because he was involved in the shooting, it’s believed he should be able to remember everything about it.

Some common expectations would require an officer “to defy the laws of physics and exceed the limits of human performance,” as FSRC research has dramatically illustrated, Artwohl declared.

“It’s essential that officers be held accountable, but it’s also essential that this not be done with unfair, arbitrary and unscientific standards,” she said. Lewinski added: “We believe the science of human factors in force encounters needs to be drawn into the investigation, especially when gathering information from officers.”

In controversial shootings, “there often appears to be a conflict between what the officer says happened and what seem to be the facts,” Lewinski noted. But when scientific findings about memory, physiology and other human elements are brought to bear, the contradiction is often clarified and the officer absolved of wrongdoing.

“We need to understand an officer who’s been in a shooting as a human being,” Lewinski said. Not just from the standpoint of compassion but in terms of how the human mind and body work.

Failing to do so, Artwohl said, risks violating involved officers’ civil rights with possibly unfortunate consequences. Other officers will see the pain this causes to those officers and their families and realize it could happen to them, too. This can cause agency wide demoralization, mistrust of the community, and lead to the phenomenon of “depolicing” where officers are less likely to actively pursue violent criminals for fear of being mistreated if they are required to use force while apprehending the predators.

“Misunderstanding of shooting events can thus foster more controversy and pain for the officers, the agency, and the community,” she said.

4. Approach officer interviews with the right objective in mind.

The goal of a “fair, balanced and impartial interview” of a shooting survivor should be “to mine his memory as thoroughly as possible, rather than to seek something wrong to accuse him of,” Lewinski said.

Or as Artwohl phrased it, “The purpose of an investigation should be to determine accurately what happened, not to drag the involved officer in and give him a memory test that he will inevitably fail” because of the nature of post-stress recollection.

That means, they agreed, that officers should not be pressured to give statements immediately after a shooting, because in most cases they’ll have better recall after at least one sleep cycle. Viewing videotapes of the incident, returning to the scene for a walk-through, consulting with peers who were also involved, being interviewed as a group--all these tactics usually tend to enhance memory.

Attorney Austin Joyce, counsel to the MA Police Assn.’s Legal Defense Fund, said he has seen officers “very stressed” after a shooting who don’t want to talk about what just happened “because they can’t remember, they haven’t processed it.” He agreed “they’ll handle things better after adrenaline levels drop.” If there are other witnesses investigators can pursue, “the need to have an officer give an immediate statement is not so severe.”

5. Don’t expect full recall by involved officers.

The impact of intense stress “before, during and after an event affects what people remember and how they remember it,” Lewinski stated. “During a life-threatening experience, like a shooting, an officer’s brain is more likely to record ‘snap photos’--chunks of the event--rather than a continuous ‘videotape’ of everything from start to finish. People tend to remember certain things clearly and not much in between.

“Under high stress, the brain operates differently because it is rapidly processing information in a way designed for survival. Attention forms memory.” That is, you can only remember what you pay attention to, and your attention will be focused predominately on the things that relate to the threat and to your survival. “Your brain ignores or suppresses other information coming in from your senses because otherwise that information would distract you and interfere with your attention.”

Lewinski explained that there are 4 possibilities for focusing your attention: external broad or external specific, related to people and the environment around you, and internal broad and internal specific, related to yourself and your actions. Under stress you can concentrate intently on only one of these at a time, and “what your attention is driven to is what you are going to remember.”

Artwohl cited, as an example, an experimental training exercise in which a loud air horn was sounded during a threat scenario. Later, nearly 100% of the officers involved said they had no memory of hearing the horn, including 40% who had displayed evidence of hearing it at least on a subconscious level by flinching, looking in the direction of the sound, etc.

“The brain is incapable of giving full attention simultaneously to both audio and visual stimuli,” Artwohl said. The officers’ conscious minds didn’t register the sound because their attention was focused on dealing with a visible physical threat at the time. Yet if those who reacted to the sound denied hearing the horn in a real-world investigation, they might falsely be accused on lying, she speculated.

“One of the most consistent things research on memory has told us,” Artwohl concluded, “is that it is not realistic to expect officers to have full memory of high-intensity events.”

This provided an illuminating context for a comment by Joyce. He said that after a shooting, he counsels involved officers to “focus on what they actually do remember, and not try to fill in gaps” that are missing from their recollections.

6. Nail down witnesses who “didn’t see anything.”

Investigators who encounter civilians at or near the scene who claim they didn’t see what happened should “document this,” Joyce advised. “Get them to confirm that they have nothing to say. This will be important” if they try later to assert themselves as “witnesses.”

7. Understand where the media are coming from.

“The media’s job is to be skeptical, check out what you say, and act as a watchdog,” declared Reporter Donovan Slack of The Boston Globe. Every cop and cop action, bottom to top, is “open to scrutiny once you take the oath of office” and become the taxpayers’ employee.

Gruber asked her how much time the media should fairly allow an agency to assess a crisis and formulate its message for the public. “None,” she shot back. “The public has a right to know the truth as soon as it is known. If a department declines to provide information we’ll seek it elsewhere.”

Recounting the notorious fatal shooting in Boston of a female college student with a supposedly “non-lethal” pellet gun, Slack ticked off 6 key points at which the PD declined to comment on critical developments, despite promising a “public” investigation. “There are always other sources,” she said. “These things don’t take place in a vacuum.”

“It’s not a good idea for a chief to hunker down and hide away from the media,” agreed Counsel Collins. “‘No comment’ is a big comment. Honesty and openness make a lot of difference. Never lie to the media. Give them as much as you can. Then they’re more likely to give you slack when you want them to hold back information.”

8. Remember that administrators can be victims too.

In some jurisdictions, officers’ unions are empowered to vote “no confidence” in a police chief, or involved officers may allege they didn’t have enough training. These are just a couple of ways an administrator can become a victim if an OIS is handled poorly. “Be aware of the rebellion in your own department, who’s out there shooting at you,” Collins cautioned. He described desperate chiefs, fearful of losing their jobs, breaking down crying in his office, while he wondered “who’s going to take their gun away from them.”

“If the first time you worry about how to handle an officer-involved shooting is after the gun is fired, you’re going to be a victim,” he stated bluntly. “You are expected to be a leader. Think of officer-involved shootings today, even if you’ve never had one.

“Build up your political capital from the day you become chief,” he advised, including “developing good relationships with all politicians” and joining civic organizations. “There will come a day when you will need it.

“Bring the union and department naysayers in and deal with issues that arise when things are hot. Tell your command staff what’s going on. If they don’t know what’s in your mind, they can’t be out there supporting your story.”

9. Take care of yourself.

In the midst of crisis, “don’t stop doing things that keep you healthy,” Collins reminded. You’re going to need everything you can muster to provide stress immunity, stamina, confidence and clear-headed decision-making. During a crisis is not the time to put your best health-and-fitness habits in mothballs. “If you’re too busy to go to the gym every day, you’re too busy,” Collins said.

10. Be motivated by how fast “routine” encounters can become calamities.

Chief Wayne Tucker of Oakland (CA) PD described in detail 3 of the officer-citizen crises he has wrestled with recently:

• A heroin addict being arrested in a buy/bust operation resisted by running and then struggling when caught. Once handcuffed, he was discovered not to be breathing. A package of dope that he’d been “cheeking” had lodged fatally in his throat. A crowd of 300 at the scene yelled at the police, “You beat him! You killed him!” A “media frenzy” followed.

• A simple traffic stop on which officers believed they smelled marijuana escalated when the driver decided to flee, almost immediately ran a red light and t-boned another vehicle. Toll: 2 dead in the victim car, one severely injured. Relatives vociferously proclaimed the police “did nothing right” and refused to speak to investigators.

• On a “family argument” call to a wealthy home a man refused officers’ commands to drop a large knife. When he advanced threateningly, they shot and killed him. The same round penetrated a door and also killed the man’s brother, who was hiding from him. The family spoke little English—but enough to blame the police.

Moderator Gruber had Tucker lead off the panel to “set the table” with examples of “what police chiefs around the U.S. are facing.”

We close with him to leave you pondering this question: Are you ready for this kind of controversy in your jurisdiction?

Note: the AELE website now features a number of legal documents from the IACP conference, including 2 scholarly articles, 8 legal outlines and 5 visual presentations. The diverse topics include Garrity warnings, Section 1983 liability, employment law and hiring standards, videotaping of custodial interrogations, immigration enforcement, psychological fitness, a Supreme Court summary and more.

Go to the AELE Web site

Papers and visual presentations from prior years (1998-2005) are also available at the site free of charge here.

About the author

Charles Remsberg co-founded the original Street Survival Seminar and the Street Survival Newsline, authored three of the best-selling law enforcement training textbooks, and helped produce numerous award-winning training videos. His nearly three decades of work earned him the prestigious O.W. Wilson Award for outstanding contributions to law enforcement and the American Police Hall of Fame Honor Award for distinguished achievement in public service.

Buy Charles Remsberg's latest book, Blood Lessons, which takes you inside more than 20 unforgettable confrontations where officers' lives are on the line.

Recommended Officer-Involved Shootings

Join the discussion