How To Assure “Fair, Neutral & Fact-Finding” Officer-Involved Shooting Investigations (Part 2)

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Part 2 of a 2-part series

A foremost authority on police psychology, Dr. Alexis Artwohl, has designed a protocol checklist that can help assure that an investigation of an officer-involved shooting is fair, neutral and fact-finding in nature.

Part 1 of this series [Force Science News Transmission, sent 4/1/06] explored the first dozen of her suggestions. These concern procedures primarily at the shooting scene, designed to “minimize the risk of emotional trauma to officers, their families, and other personnel.”

In Part 2, we explore recommendations 13-21 for investigators, which offer “the best hope possible of recovering accurate memories” of the deadly force encounter, according to Artwohl, a National Advisory Board member of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

As we noted regarding Part 1, Artwhol’s list purposely steers clear of administrative and legal components of an investigation. Her focus is on subtleties of human psychology that affect the mental well-being of shooting survivors and impact their ability to remember and articulate what happened.

Her recommendations for investigators continue as follows:

13. An officer’s memory often will be helped by revisiting the scene and doing a “walk-through” after evidence and evidence markers have been removed and before being interviewed.

The purpose of a walk-through, explains John Hoag, an FSRC National Advisory Board member who has responded to some 40 officer-involved shootings as a police union attorney, is to “help the involved officer sort out what’s really real” by putting him back into the shooting environment and having him lead step by step through the encounter. This process can be instrumental in separating a true picture of the event from perceptually distorted recollections.

“Memories will be made much richer by a walk-through,” confirms Dr. Bill Lewinski, FSRC’s executive director, “because the involved officer will recognize things in the shooting environment that will stimulate his recall.” He cites numerous studies that have compared what people can remember after being put back in the environment where the experience they’re trying to recall actually occurred versus those asked to remember the event while in a different setting.

“In general, the subjects returned to the environment can remember from about 50 per cent to about 70 per cent of the significant details of the experience, while those trying to remember in a different place can only recall about 30 to about 50 per cent of the specifics.

“Even people asked to remember something as simple as a word list will recall significantly more words if tested in the room where they first learned the list.”

An analogy, Lewinski suggests, is trying to remember things from your high school days. How are you likely to remember more: by sitting in your living room thinking back to that time…or by returning to your old school and walking through the hallways?

“With any major experience in your life, there are some things you will remember very well and some that will never come back to you,” Lewinski says. “Then there is a huge grey area that revisiting the environment of the occurrence can really stimulate.”

Hoag recommends that only the officer, his attorney and possibly a police association representative be present at the walk-through. “No IA investigator, no criminal investigator, no one representing the agency” to inhibit, monitor and possibly misinterpret the conversation, Hoag emphasizes.

No audio- or videotaping of the walk-through should be allowed. “Many times the walk-through experience will surface a lot of emotions for the involved officer,” Hoag explains. “He may start second-guessing his actions, make impulsive statements like ‘Maybe I didn’t need to shoot,’ be emotionally affected to the point he can’t speak, break down crying and so on. You can’t predict which officer is going to be affected by what emotion, and no officer needs to suffer the indignity of having his raw emotions later made public in court or elsewhere.”

14. It is best for officers who’ve been involved in a shooting NOT to be required to write a report of the incident. “A written report by an involved officer can easily be jumbled and poorly written,” Artwohl explains. Lewinski adds:

“An officer’s official story after a shooting is the most important statement he’ll probably ever give. How to structure it, what important elements (like fear of death or of great bodily harm) to include, how to properly articulate feelings and actions–all this is far different from the ordinary daily call reports officers write, and it may be beyond the writing skills of many.

“A good investigator will help an officer orally articulate the essential elements of a statement and reveal what he saw, felt, and did. The idea is not that the investigator will slant things in the officer’s favor but that he’ll help, through skillful questioning, to produce a comprehensive statement that’s as accurate as possible.”

Artwohl puts it: “Information is best gathered by careful interviewing of all participants and officer witnesses by highly skilled investigators trained in questioning survivors of critical incidents. This should lead to a professional, well-written report by the investigators that make an officer’s written reports unnecessary.”

15. Officer interviews should take place in a comfortable location, preferably of the officers’ choice. “If the interviews are done at a police facility, avoid conducting them in rooms normally used for questioning suspects,” Artwohl advises. “And remember basic courtesies for physical needs such as movement, beverages, bathroom breaks and so on. Whenever possible, let the officer be in charge of pacing the interview. Suggest breaks as needed for yourself and the officer.”

16. Understand that the officer is a cooperative witness who, in this circumstance, also happens to be a crime victim. “Your interview techniques should NOT be the same interrogation tactics you use on recalcitrant criminal suspects,” Artwohl cautions. “Your goal is to maximize the involved officer’s accurate recall, to mine his memory as thoroughly as possible. The method of choice for this will be ‘cognitive interviewing.’”

This technique, which requires special training, involves invoking all of an officer’s senses in recreating a frame-by-frame picture of the shooting event–”what he saw, heard, smelled, felt, thought, and why he reacted as he did,” explains Lewinski. “The interviewer uses stimuli that will help the officer recreate the event in his mind step by step.”

Among useful source materials on this approach is the book “Memory-Enhancing Techniques for Investigative Interviewing: The Cognitive Interview,” authored by R.P. Fisher and R.E. Gieselman and published by the Charles C. Thomas company. For information on training in cognitive interviewing, you can contact one of the authors, Dr. Ronald Fisher, a psychologist at Florida International University, 305-919-5853; email: fisher@fiu.edu.)

“Before conducting the interview, you as the investigator need to find out as much as you can about the incident,” Lewinski says. “This is one reason for delaying the interview [as recommended in Part 1 of this series], to give you time to gather facts so that your questioning and scope is well informed.” Lewinski recalls one shooting in Arizona, where an officer was eventually put on trial for murder. “The interviewer didn’t even visit the shooting scene,” Lewinski says, “so he didn’t know where to go with his questions. This worked to the decided disadvantage of the officer,” who eventually was acquitted after a long and expensive legal nightmare.

If the interview is videotaped, take care that subtleties like lighting, focal length and camera angles are attended to so that the officer’s demeanor is neutrally portrayed and any physical demonstrations he may give are accurate, undistorted representations of what he is attempting to show, Lewinski says.

17. Keep in mind that officers, as well as all witnesses and other participants, can only report what they perceived during the encounter, not necessarily what actually happened. “If officers’ perceptions differ from the physical evidence, each other, or accounts of witnesses, it does not necessarily mean they are lying or being evasive,” Artwohl states.

“Fragmented, missing, and/or inaccurate memories of a high-stress encounter are normal. They are the result of perceptual, cognitive, and memory distortions produced by physical changes in the body during a state of high physical and emotional arousal. You know from your experience in interviewing eye-witnesses in other cases that human memory is rarely perfect even under the best of circumstances.”

18. Officers sometimes feel pressured to provide specific details to investigators’ questions even though they can’t really remember them. “They may feel self-pressure to do this, too,” Artwohl says, “because ‘filling in the gaps’ is a means of psychologically gaining control over the incident. Obviously it is best for the officers to always be honest, admitting that they didn’t notice something or can’t clearly recall it.

“As an interviewer, you can facilitate honesty by being aware that perceptual, cognitive, and memory distortions are a normal part of intense events. Do not pressure officers or imply that they are being incompetent, evasive, or dishonest when they report memory gaps or confusion. Keep your responses to all statements as neutral as possible.”

To underscore the potential consequences of inappropriate pressure to remember, Lewinski describes an experiment in which test subjects were put together in a classroom that had blue chalkboards, rather than the more common green ones. Later, after the subjects were moved to a different location, they were asked the color of the boards in the room where they’d sat.

“Roughly 20 per cent were adamant in insisting that the boards were blue because they were conscious of the boards when they were there,” Lewinski says. “More than half insisted the boards were green, possibly because that was common in their experience. They hadn’t paid attention to that detail at the time so the reality hadn’t registered.

“A significant minority who couldn’t remember waffled and were able to be influenced in eventually reaching a conclusion by what the interviewer told them.

“If you push an officer to answer questions he’s uncertain about, you may actually get false information,” Lewinski says.

19. Be prepared for officers second-guessing themselves and each other. “This is commonplace, due to each officer’s highly personal ‘tunnel vision’ of what happened, the distortions of perception and memory, and the intense emotions involved,” Artwohl says. “Second-guessing should not be automatically interpreted as evidence that any officer acted inappropriately.”

Lewinski elaborates: “Second-guessing tends to be interpreted as an officer having made a mistake. Actually it may be a wish by the officer that the whole thing had never happened or could have been avoided.

“He imagines that if he had only done something different the inevitable could have been prevented because he doesn’t like what he is going through. It’s not that he really made a mistake. It’s that he’s expressing a subconscious wish that he wasn’t where he is.”

20. Officers often remember additional details of a shooting days or even weeks after the initial interview. “This is especially true if the officer is questioned immediately after the event,” Artwohl says. “If their recall improves or remembered details change over time, this does not necessarily mean the previous statement was untruthful.” Supplemental or amended statements should be permitted.

Remember, though, Lewinski says, more recently surfaced memories are not necessarily more accurate than earlier ones. You need to weigh them against other, documented evidence and keep in mind the frustrating shortcomings of human memory that can make any investigation a challenging undertaking.

21. The life-threatening events you interview other officers about may have an emotional impact on you. “Take care of yourself and your family by seeking out peer support, supervision, and/or psychological debriefing from a mental health professional as the need arises,” Artwohl suggests.

“Interviewing fellow officers who’ve been in a shooting is one of the most demanding and difficult jobs you will face. Those officers deserve and need 2 things from you: the most professional, swift, thorough, and accurate investigation you can possibly do, and your respect and compassion while doing it.”

Lewinski offers this concluding thought: “This 2-part series on investigative protocol began at the scene of an officer-involved shooting. But attention to this subject really needs to begin in academies and in-service training. The more that officers, investigators, trainers, and administrators alike understand about the proper procedures and considerations BEFORE there’s a shooting, the greater the chances that the legitimate interests of everyone involved, including the community, will be served.”

[Note: Dr. Artwohl’s suggestions for a successful OIS investigation were part of an extraordinary collection of handout resources distributed recently at the first annual seminar on Lethal and Less-Lethal Force, sponsored by Americans for Effective Law Enforcement. Along with Artwohl, faculty for the program included Dr. Lewinski and FSRC National Advisory Board members Capt. Greg Meyer of the LAPD Academy and Chuck Remsberg, senior correspondent for PoliceOne.com and Force Science News.]

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