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11 tips for cops at the scene of a self-defense shooting

Attorney Andrew Branca specializes in self-defense law, and has advice for cops responding to a potential self-defense shooting

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Ralph Mroz. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story.

By Ralph Mroz, PoliceOne Member

As most of us know legitimate self-defense shootings happen on a pretty regular basis. However, they constitute a small minority of shootings to which law enforcement responds. Many of the shootings that we respond to are bad-guy-shoots-bad-guy, or bad-guy-shoots-good-guy. 

But what if you get the call to respond to that rare shooting in which a good guy legitimately, legally, and righteously had to shoot a bad guy intent on doing them or their family serious harm? 

Different, and Not That Different
Our job in these cases is no different than at any shooting or any crime scene: we need to secure and control the scene, begin to gather the relevant evidence, and interview witnesses until the assigned investigators arrive on scene. 

We want to be fair, objective, and to help the system arrive at the truth of what happened. Since self-defense cases are, in the words of Attorney Andrew Branca, “exquisitely fact-sensitive,” we want to take particular care that we gather all the facts, get them right, and document them accurately. 

Branca — a specialist in self-defense law and the author of The Law of Self Defense — has this advice for officers responding to potential self-defense shootings:

1.) Make sure that you get all statements accurately. It’s amazing the number of cops that don’t carry voice recorders in their gear bag. You can’t remember all that’s said, and your notes — if you can even read them a year after the event — will be fragmentary, and possibly inaccurate, at best.
2.) Consider filming the scene with your smart phone. These are the kind of events where even the smallest detail can be important, and filming a 360 degree view — with the time carefully noted — can go a long way to establishing what happened.
3.) Make sure you look for all possible evidence. Knives can slide under merchandise displays, footprints can be difficult to see, and so on. Everything counts. Spend extra time looking.
4.) Ask for, or look for, evidence that’s circumstantial to self-defense situations. For example, whether or not the shooter or the person shot took a step backwards or forwards may mean all the difference between a justifiable self-defense shooting and attempted murder. Retreat is a big issue in most self-defense analyses. This isn’t the kind of fact that you might think to capture at, say, a robbery.
5.) There’s no such thing as “enough” witnesses. Make sure you try to identify and interview every single person that might have seen or heard anything at all related to the event. You want to particularly focus on what the involved parties said — that is, their exact words.
6.) In addition to recording statements, accurately note the demeanor of the people giving the statements: calm, excited, cooperative, sober, etc. Their demeanor can be as important as the content of their statement.
7.) Understand if the shooter refuses to answer any questions, or any but the most basic questions. Remember, this is the advice that we are given if we are in an officer-involved-shooting. You can’t reckon time, distance, and other things accurately after such an event. Silence on the part of the shooter does not necessarily indicate guilt.
8.) Make sure you understand the precise sequence of events. Whether Party A did something a second before or a second after Party B did something can be critical. 
9.) Try and nail down exact locations of people during the sequence of events. A foot one way or the other can make a difference
10.) In addition to knowing where all the involved parties were during the event, and what they said, capture their other actions and postures: were there arms out? Was their posture threatening?
11.) Call for medical care for the shooter as well as the parties shot, whether or not they seem to need it or ask for it. They have just been in a deadly force encounter and should be checked out. And remember: some evidence-relevant injuries won’t be apparent for some time.

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