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Public Response to In-Custody Deaths

When your agency faces a potential crisis over an in-custody death, its PIO becomes a public relations daredevil.

September 17, 2013  |  by - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.
Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.com.
The prepared statement communicated the facts: "In order to effect the arrest, the officer deployed his conducted electrical weapon….The suspect was taken to a nearby hospital where he later died." It was a sterile, brief statement of what happened left hanging out there for the public and media to inject opinion and premature conclusion.

Such was the case last month in Miami Beach after 18-year-old Israel Hernández-Llach died subsequent to arrest. The arrest followed a lengthy police chase and TASER deployment. Nothing about the prepared statement attributed Hernández-Llach's demise to a TASER use, but the headlines were quickly calling it a "TASER death." The reality is that the medical examiner did not rule on a cause of death pending further tests, but that's not headline material.

The chances of an in-custody death subsequent to police use of less-lethal weapons sparking a media firestorm in your city are ever growing. So it is imperative that your agency be prepared to respond to the public and media when an arrest-related death occurs, especially if that death occurs subsequent to the use of a TASER.

When an in-custody death occurs, an agency has one chance to set the story on the right track—the truth and not wild speculation—and that task falls on the agency's public information officer. Veteran PIOs know that a public relations crisis can come on fast, and if you're not ready, the firestorm will consume the good reputation of any department or officer.

Arrests, deaths, and lawsuits involving conducted electrical weapons (CEW) like TASERs are fixtures in the news these days and experts who support law enforcement use of CEWs and those who do not are readily available to add depth to a sterile set of facts contained in the initial press release.

That means the task of framing an arrest-related death for the public and the media is a job that would challenge the best public relation firms. But it often falls on the shoulders of a sworn PIO who has very little training and even less experience dealing with such potentially explosive situations.

Be Careful and Cautious

The first consideration of any PIO caught in a arrest-related death controversy is necessarily the integrity of the investigation. A close second, is the inevitable litigation that will likely follow the death. For these reasons alone, the PIO has to be careful about what gets released to the media during the initial stages of the investigation.

Seasoned public information officers will tell you that when they have to deal with controversial incidents, they feel like they are on a tightrope, balancing what they are allowed to say with what the public demands to know. The PIO has to assure the community that the department is investigating what happened at the same time, he or she has to try to rein in speculation and labeling.

The problem is that these investigations don't happen quickly. The 60-minute television crime drama mentality is prevalent among reporters, and they want to have answers for their viewers and readers before the next news cycle. What some reporters don't understand is it can be days or even weeks until critical parts of the investigation can shed light on what caused the person to die. Lacking the complete set of facts, reporters often turn to the unofficial "experts" or surviving family members to fill the story with content.

Surviving family members are also caught in a tough situation when it comes to the media. They are experiencing the loss of a loved one, the stress of a police investigation, and the annoyance of reporters begging for interviews. When they agree to be interviewed by local media, they are laying their emotions out there for everyone to see. They may be experiencing anger, they may lash out at the police. As a PIO, it is tough to answer that without seeming insensitive.

Again, the PIO is balancing between a public response to the family and sensitivity for the family's grief. It is usually best to let the family's statements go without direct response.

Asking for Help

So what can the spokesperson for the agency say? The best strategy is to gather as much information as you can about what happened. So reach out to experts to help identify what the issues are now and what they may be in the future.

CEWs have become the most common less-lethal weapon used in law enforcement. And TASER now makes the vast majority of CEWS used in police operations. Most officers will tell you that the TASER is their go-to less-lethal option when facing active aggression. Logic would tell you that it is highly likely that a TASER will be used on an aggressive resistor. Aggressive resistors are the ones who are most likely to die subsequent to arrest. So that often brings TASER use into the spotlight.

If the death is subsequent to a TASER CEW deployment, TASER International offers resources for the department. Steve Tuttle, TASER's vice president of communications, was recently contacted by an agency dealing with an arrest-related death, post TASER deployment. He was able to give the PIO a quick tutorial on TASER use and how agencies have responded in the past.

Tuttle says he sticks to scientific facts when talking to a PIO who is dealing with a TASER incident. Agency spokespersons need to know what a TASER can do and what it can't do, he says. Not that PIOs are going to get into detailed bioelectrical facts about the human body, but it will help spokespersons to have background information so they can become confident in responding to reporter questions.

The key to understanding what caused the arrest-related death often lies within the toxicology lab. In the case of an arrest-related death following a TASER deployment, there are some very critical facts contained in the toxicology report. Drugs are usually in the system of a person who dies suddenly in police custody. There also may be indications of excited delirium—an agitated state in which the body overheats and the heart may fail—prior to the death.

The TASER or other use of force may just be coincidental and not causative. Until the toxicology report is complete, there is no way to say how the person died. Again, that takes time to complete, so it is the PIO's job to explain the delay to the public.

Dr. Gary Vilke, professor of clinical emergency medicine at the University of California at San Diego, says people are not dying from TASER use. "They are dying from drug use or excited delirium, he explains. Vilke is a recognized expert on police in-custody deaths. He has been asked for his medical opinion on many in-custody deaths and he sees common threads in most of the deaths.

"It does not matter if a TASER was used, a TASER cannot cause your core temperature to rise to levels seen in excited delirium cases," he says. "So the facts of an in-custody death are important. There are too many factors to consider before labeling it as a 'TASER death.' Amnesty International recognized this and changed their statements from 'TASER death' to 'death following a TASER deployment.' It could also be 'death following a prolonged and violent struggle,' but if a TASER was used, you likely will see the former phrase to describe the death."

Wrangling the Press

When dealing with a suspect death that follows an arrest or use of a less-lethal weapon, it is critical that an agency's public information office develop a strategy from the beginning. The PIO has to be careful that public statements aren't rushed to meet a media deadline or news cycle.

PIOs should make such statements on the department's schedule, and only after having a solid understanding of known facts. It's also important to have a plan for how to tactfully reserve comment on facts that are not known. In a case where a TASER was used, the media will quickly label it a "TASER death" because that's a popular phrase for reporters to inject controversy into the story.

But the truth is that an arrest-related death can have many causes. Some people have hidden medical conditions, some may have a lethal combination of drugs onboard, and it is possible that a less-lethal weapon like a TASER contributed to the death, but there is much to consider before making conclusions.

Until the cause of death has been determined, a PIO has to keep speculation to a minimum. A PIO will want to say what the arrestee did that caused police contact, what the person did to resist the arrest, and how long the struggle lasted before the person was taken into custody. The PIO will also want to know timelines as best as possible for the first public statements. This is an important bit of information to keep the incident in perspective for the public. It is also important for the PIO to say what the officers did to bring the person into custody as quickly as possible to get them help.

Vilke points out that from a medical perspective, it is important to get the person help as soon as possible. "If the officers are fighting with the suspect, they can't get him help. They have to effect the arrest as quickly as possible, and it is a fact that TASERs are able to quickly stop the fight with minimal chance for injury to the officer or arrestee," he says.

TASER devices crank out 50,000 volts during a cycle. That number can be shocking to hear on the evening news and it is a staple of any TASER use-of-force report on the news. The reality is that the amperage is a more important measure of electrical force than the voltage. Voltage is volume of energy, amperage is what moves that energy.

Static electrical charges often reach 50,000 volts but have little or no effect on the body because they have very little amperage. The TASER puts out about .003 amps of current, a fraction of what you get from a static shock. But you'll never see that on the evening news. Why? It's simply too small of a number and not, well, shocking enough for the evening news.

So how does a PIO become an expert on TASER devices, heart rhythms, and toxicology before stepping to the podium for a press conference? The answer is simply that the PIO has to reach out to experts and become knowledgeable about whatever weapon or tactic was used. It's also important for the PIO to know what questions he or she may face as a department spokesperson addressing the media about an arrest-related death.

In-custody deaths are complicated issues that involve police use-of-force and investigations, medical and scientific facts, autopsy and toxicology reports, grieving families, and a public that wants answers. The controversy is all but guaranteed so law enforcement agencies have to be ready for it. The best strategy is to stick to the facts and convey the agency's commitment to fully investigate all the circumstances of the death. Once all the facts are known, then the agency should be prepared to share the results with the public.

Mark W. Clark is a 27-year veteran police sergeant. He has served as public information officer, training officer, and as supervisor for various detective and patrol squads.

Tags: Public Information Officers, In-Custody Deaths, TASER, Special Assignments


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