Dave Smith: When the Smoke Clears

It’s critical that everyone in your agency knows what to do after an officer-involved shooting.

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“Shots fired! Shots fired!” Boy oh boy, is there a sound that has more power than that message blaring over your radio? Your adrenaline dumps, your heart pounds, and that next transmission can’t come fast enough to make clear exactly what is happening. “Who, where, and what” are questions racing in your mind as the situation begin to clarify. About the only thing worse is if it is you doing the transmitting…and the shooting.

Now, more than ever, it is important that you know what to do in a situation like this, including making sure your agency has a policy firmly in place for handling officer-involved shootings. Up until recently an officer could count on a pretty quick resolution. There was a clear and common definition of use of force that was understood by the agency, the investigators, and the prosecutors. But times they are a-changin’, so prosecutors are going back in time to review already cleared cases. “Reasonable officer standards” seem to be shaded somewhat by what I like to call “hindsight bias,” with information only known after a shooting has occurred; and indictments are becoming commonplace headlines nationwide.

Recently, I attended a presentation by Major Mychal Johnson of Goodhue County, MN, on developing an effective agency checklist for handling officer-involved shootings in the modern environment. Minnesota is ground zero for the maelstrom of anti-police activity and his first-hand experience has given him wisdom and insight that are vitally important today. Everyone from dispatch to chief or sheriff should have a copy of the agency policy, and the instant a scene is secure, a fair and honest investigation should begin that both the public and law enforcement can have confidence in.

Key points like establishing an incident command system and locating witnesses and ensuring preservation of evidence are all common sense. But in stressful situations human memory often fails and the fact that shootings are still relatively rare in the life of our officers makes a checklist more important than ever. Notifying involved personnel to stay off personal phones, while making sure family is notified and union representation contacted if appropriate, are both things that should be stated in writing, readily available, and not hidden away in a manual. Major Johnson issues his checklist in laminated form so everyone has one on hand.

Simple steps like this help take away the powerful anxiety that I find is so common in officers who are involved in shootings, who all too often feel a sense of “What is going to happen next and what will the agency do?” Time and again I have interviewed crime fighters after a critical incident, and they told me the administrative stress they felt after the shooting far exceeded the tension they felt during the life and death situation they had faced.

Following the good Major’s guidelines, former prosecutor and use-of-force legal expert Imran Ali presents ideas on how to properly structure use-of-force reports to show exactly why the level of force you chose to use was justified. As the original prosecutor reviewing the infamous Kim Potter “TASER confusion” case, his explanation for justification of force in this day and age was compelling. This takes the form of a series of questions:

Who exactly are you? I mean what is your size, age, level of exhaustion, injuries, experience, backup available or lack of, and anything else others need to know? Who is the subject? Does he or she understand you, comply or not, appear under the influence of drugs or alcohol, what offense are you suspecting and what weapons are present, nearby, or suspected? Are they alone, with allies, or with folks who you are unsure what they will do? Have you had prior contact with the subject or other intelligence about them that might be relevant to your contact?

Remember, your force decisions are based on your reasonableness as compared to that of a reasonable officer in your situation. Few citizens will understand how we are judged and I am not so sure enough prosecutors know, but today it is more important than ever that you know your agency’s policies and ask the simple but critical question, “What if I shot someone today?”

When you are fighting for your life, ambiguity and anxiety only create hesitation and I am always heartbroken watching bodycam footage of an officer getting injured or killed because they didn’t decide to use force when they needed to and should have. If you are as trained as you should be, you will be ready and able to recognize the level of force to use, and you will use it effectively and spontaneously!

Today we need you on the street keeping us safe and you need to be as prepared as you possibly can be.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of “JD Buck Savage.” You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Officer (Ret.)
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