Initial response to an officer-involved shooting: A checklist for supervisors
Creating order out of chaos and taking command over an emotional and tense situation necessitates a level of confidence that can only come from adequate preparation
By Mark Kollar
The critical first minutes following an officer-involved shooting are chaotic, commonly characterized by confusion, conflicting information and sensory overload – not only for the involved officers, but also for the initial supervisors responding to the scene.
It is during such incidents that the competence and leadership of first-line or mid-level supervisors are put to the test with lives and prosecutions hinging on the quality and speed of the decisions made. Creating order out of chaos, taking command and exerting a calming influence over an emotional, tense and uncertain situation necessitates a level of confidence that can only come from adequate preparation. Though it is hoped you will never have to experience such an event during your career, you must be prepared for this possibility. The appropriate time for planning your response is before an incident occurs, otherwise you do a great disservice to the officers you lead and the community you have sworn to serve.
The development and implementation of comprehensive policies specific to officer-involved shootings is key to successful response to an incident. Deliberate consideration and resultant procedures should be implemented in order to answer questions such as:
- Who will you call to handle the criminal and internal investigations?
- Who will process the scene?
- Will the officers be mandated to submit to drug and alcohol testing?
- Will officers be physically and mentally evaluated at a hospital immediately afterwards?
- Who can be called if additional manpower is needed?
- Will officers be required to attend a critical incident stress debriefing?
- Will officers be interviewed immediately, or only after a specified “cooling off” period?
- Can officers view their body-worn camera or dash cam videos prior to being interviewed?
- Will the names of the involved officers be released to the media and if so, when?
These and a multitude of other factors should be addressed in your department’s policy. It is your responsibility as a supervisor to know these procedures inside out – you won’t have time to look them up during the immediate scene response. Your actions need to be steered by these processes with minimal deviation. Under the intense pressure, stress and confusion such an incident can cause, your policies, along with the following suggestions, should serve as your guide to navigating those crucial first minutes.
1. Approach cautiously.
As you arrive on the scene of a shooting, do so knowing that potential threats that led to the incident may still exist. Exercise great caution to ensure no additional injuries occur. Your leadership will be of little value to anyone if you become a victim. Be mindful of potential evidence, unsecured weapons and the possibility that additional suspects may be in the area or fleeing away. Consider the possibility for the presence of biological fluids and other hazards at the scene – the safety of all involved is paramount.
2. Take control.
Take a deep, calming breath and begin directing the activity of the scene. Remove unnecessary personnel, mitigate dangers and delegate activities. While the suggestions in this article are presented as a numbered list, many of the activities occur simultaneously, requiring communication, command and control. Though you may initially need the assistance of the involved officers to stabilize the situation, all attempts should be made to relieve them of scene responsibilities as quickly as practical so they can concentrate on their physical and mental well-being.
3. Render medical aid.
The preservation of life takes priority over the collection or preservation of evidence. That being said, be a good witness by making mental notes if, during the urgency of medical treatment, alterations to the scene are necessary to care for the injured. Officers should attempt life-saving efforts within their abilities and available equipment, with appropriate medical first responders being summoned without delay. If practical, clear an entry/egress route into the scene that is relatively free of obvious physical evidence and direct responding medical personnel to follow that path. If time permits without sacrificing the welfare of patients, photograph the positioning of injured persons and evidence prior to moving. Physically check involved officers for injuries; it is possible they are injured but may not realize due to increased levels of adrenaline.
4. Secure the scene and evidence.
Physical barriers, such as crime scene tape, should be established as quickly as possible in order to protect the integrity of the scene and evidence. Always start larger than you believe is needed – it is easier to collapse the size of the scene than to increase it. Designate officers to maintain security and a crime scene log with areas separate from the crime scene being established for a command post, equipment staging area and for the media. Attempts should be made to protect fragile or transient evidence from destruction by conditions such as adverse weather or rescue personnel. Await the arrival of appropriate crime scene processing staff to collect evidence, including any firearms, unless exigent circumstances dictate otherwise. If a weapon poses no hazard, it should be left untouched as it was found. If it becomes necessary to move or unload the firearm due to safety concerns, be mindful of fingerprint/DNA evidence. Do not attempt to reposition the weapon into the scene. Make detailed notes as to its location, positioning and status (e.g., if there was a live cartridge in the chamber or if there was an apparent malfunction/“stovepipe.”).
5. Identify and separate witnesses.
All witnesses to the incident, to include officers, should be identified and separated to avoid contamination of their memories. However, separate does not necessarily mean alone. It is a good practice to assign a companion/peer officer to be with the involved officers to serve as a liaison and resource, but not to actively discuss the incident unless the involved officer insists. The police department, command post, a hospital or their own residence (once positively identified) can serve as locations for staging witnesses while awaiting investigator arrival. Keep good notes as to where persons were sent or taken in order to provide to the arriving investigators. It generally is not practical or advisable to keep witnesses at the primary scene of the event longer than absolutely needed. A canvass of the area is typically necessary to identify all potential witnesses as many are willing to cooperate if asked but will not come forward on their own. Also note the presence of any possible recordings (e.g. surveillance systems, cell phone video, etc.) and make attempts to obtain and preserve them (or notify responding investigators of their existence).
6. Make necessary notifications.
The seriousness of the incident or injury tends to dictate the notifications required to be made. Calls for additional personnel or resources (e.g., investigators, crime scene staff, scene security and traffic/crowd control) are common, as well as notifications to the agency’s command staff and public information officer. In the event of a fatality, contact with the decedent’s next of kin, the coroner/medical examiner and the prosecutor/district attorney may also be warranted. Exercise great caution when briefing the criminal investigators who arrive on scene to avoid sharing any statements (or derivative information) made by the involved officers under potentially compelled circumstances (possible “Garrity” issues).
7. Comply with departmental policies.
A detailed agency protocol may include taking the involved officers to the hospital for medical and psychological evaluation, drug/alcohol testing and photographs of the officer as dressed at the time of incident and of any visible injuries. The collection of the officer’s firearm as evidence may be designated to be completed by a supervisor or crime scene personnel. Policy may also dictate replacing the officer’s weapon with a spare. Additionally, prescribed public safety questions and/or an initial walkthrough of the scene with investigators may be requested or required based upon agency protocol. In short, know your policies and comply with their mandates for a given situation.
8. Consider legal issues.
Though generally the responsibility of the criminal investigators, small agencies may rely upon supervisors to contemplate legal issues surrounding law enforcement’s continued presence and evidence collection at the scene absent a search warrant or other exception to the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure protections. Just because law enforcement was legally called to the scene and a shooting death resulted does not necessarily give you the right to conduct further searching once any life-threatening exigency has subsided. Consult with your local legal counsel to ensure any evidence collected is done so in a constitutionally appropriate manner.
9. Accurately document the scene.
Timely and accurate documentation of the scene and of your actions relative to the incident are critical for the investigations that are likely to follow (administrative, criminal, civil and training/tactical review). Small details, such as whether the lights were on or off in a situation where an officer mistook an object for a weapon, can become vitally important to the investigation. Use checklists to ensure every pertinent fact has been recorded and keep notes throughout regarding your observations, post-incident alterations to the scene, persons present and statements made. Photographs taken as soon as practical – and then progressively throughout the scene response – can also be useful in quickly documenting large amounts of information.
10. Conduct a debrief/self-assessment.
We all make mistakes and there is always room for improvement. Conduct an honest self-assessment to identify areas where you can refine your leadership or better prepare for future incidents. Look for opportunities to enhance your policies and procedures and to train the staff to better accomplish the goals and objectives of a critical incident scene response. Question your officers about their perceptions of how the event was handled and solicit their constructive criticism on how things can be improved. Once the dust settles, it can also be useful to speak with the involved officers to gain their perspective on the aftermath and ways they could feel better supported during those initial minutes following a traumatic event.
About the author
Mark Kollar is a special agent supervisor for the Major Crimes Division, Northeast Special Investigations Unit with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.