U.S. law enforcement agencies and officers today face more challenges than ever before. In some circles the word “Police” has become a symbol of racism, hatred, deception, and many other unfair categorizations. Most recently police have come under deadly attacks and have become the whipping boys for politicians and other self-serving groups to constantly attack, while failing to look at both sides of the issue.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the dedicated and decent men and women in law enforcement who risk their lives every day are not recognized, only those that “fail” in the poll of public opinion. Those who choose to serve in law enforcement, much like the military, do so out of a core belief that protecting our constitutional rights is a very worthwhile endeavor. I’ve never spoken with anyone in law enforcement who entered the profession to gain notoriety, rather it was their basic belief they were doing something inherently good.
Police administrations across the country need to recognize that while we currently face more challenges than ever before, this time is also a golden opportunity to begin doing things better than they have ever been done before. Our front line personnel are under siege from many angles and need the support of their administrations and/or command staffs like never before.
The most recognizable and easiest form of support is not allowing the media to dictate the pace and course during the investigation of an officer-involved shooting. Recently, administrators are so quick to be politically correct, they make ridiculous statements soon after the incident. These statements are made to soothe the media and usually have nothing to do with the actual facts of the case.
How many current command staff personnel have actually investigated an OIS? Those that have that experience know a thorough investigation takes time and can’t be accomplished by viral videos or tweets. Address the issue initially as soon as logistically possible then schedule updates. It might not satisfy the “have to have it now” attitude that is so prevalent, but it should be all about the officer, not the media.
There are a few things to remember with an OIS or in-custody death. First, the officer has just been through a traumatic event. Take care of him or her immediately. The suspect’s family, friends, attorney and the media were not there and are not your concern. Your officer is, and should always be, your primary concern. Yes, the other groups need to be addressed, but they can all wait. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden always preached, “Be quick but don’t hurry.”
Make sure your officer is provided legal representation, post-traumatic incident counseling and a fair, thorough investigation of the incident. They all deserve that and you owe it to them. They are asked to make full-speed decisions without the luxury of a command staff group debate. As an administrator don’t forget the difficulty of making those decisions on a daily basis. Remember, you couldn’t be part of the administration without your front line personnel. Simply put, you can’t coach without players.
Many departments have some form of union or association that provides legal representation for officers. Make sure part of your OIS policy is that the officers are able to contact them as soon as practical after an OIS and your department welcomes their assistance. They should be able to respond to the scene and immediately speak with the officer after a public safety statement is given. They should be part of the interview of the officer and able to communicate with the investigating officers as the investigation moves forward.
On any traumatic incident, but especially an OIS, proper counseling is critical. If your department does not have an in-house peer support team or licensed psychiatric support available, go outside for help. These are your people, and there is nothing more valuable to any department than it’s men and women. Everyone deals with traumatic incidents in a different way. There’s no perfect formula for predicting a return date to work but at a minimum they should be seen by a licensed therapist before returning. A better policy would be to let your officers know they are free to contact their therapist of choice at any time afterward with no negative repercussions. You’re making a 20- to 30-year investment in these people. Make sure they have the support and care they need to successfully complete their careers.
Ensure the investigation is fair and thorough. Utilize all available avenues. If it’s necessary to go outside your organization for that process, then do so. Smaller agencies shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from agencies with more resources or expertise. Facts are facts, whether investigated at the municipal, state, or federal level, they don’t change. A complete, thorough, fact-based investigation is critical. Social media comments, suggestions, or opinions have no place in these investigations. Ensuring your officers’ actions will only be judged by department policy and the penal code, sends a strong message to your officers that your first priority is their well-being and obviously that they acted under the law.
If the officers are found to have used unjustified force during the incident, it’s critical to find out why. Was it from a lack of training, poor equipment, bad decision-making, or was it criminal intent.
If it was lack of training or poor equipment then they need to be supported and trained in the proper procedures because they are ultimately a reflection of the administration and what it provides them. Look at any successful sports franchise and you will always find the players are given the best resources in order to compete.
If it was poor decision-making, then their thought process has to be examined. Was it a lack of training or do they just not possess the necessary skills to make the full-speed decisions law enforcement officers are required to make. If they don’t they need to be replaced. This is best for both parties, as it will help keep any future civil litigation at a minimum and allow the officers to pursue careers where they don’t have to make decisions on a daily basis that could cost them their lives. This path may initially sound harsh but in the end it is ultimately supporting the officer.
If it was criminal intent then the officer needs to be removed and treated according to the laws of the state and whatever departmental policies are in place. There is no room in any department for criminal activity at any level. In recent years, we have seen prosecutions of law enforcement officials ranging up from patrol officers in rural communities to the sheriff and undersheriff of Los Angeles County. It’s not a popular topic of discussion among officers, but all these individuals made their own decisions and were made to deal with the consequences after being lawfully prosecuted.
Support after traumatic incidents remains the responsibility of any department’s administration and a fair, thorough investigation of any incident should always be conducted. If this policy is followed all officers involved will benefit and ultimately so will the department and the public they serve.
Rick Carr retired at the rank of sergeant from the Torrance (CA) Police Department. At the Torrance PD, he investigated sexual assaults and homicides. He is now the director of athletic security at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.