Are controversial recommendations about officers in shootings really valid?

Provided by The Force Science Research Center

How do you think an officer should be treated after he has shot and killed an offender:

A. Like a suspect or a civilian witness–required to give a statement ASAP…isolated for fear he’ll collude with others to concoct a self-serving fairy tale of what happened…interrogated rather than interviewed, with every discrepancy and hole in his version of events regarded suspiciously as probable evidence of deceit?

B. Like a survivor of a critical incident–given time to de-escalate and mentally process the high-stress encounter before being extensively questioned…allowed to walk back through the confrontation to clarify what took place…interviewed with techniques that enhance and effectively “mine” memory…regarded as truthful and well-intentioned until reliable evidence suggests otherwise?

According to the recommendations of a nonprofit police oversight and consulting organization that is dedicated to influencing LE policies and practices nationally and internationally, “A” is the preferred approach. And the foothold this group is gaining is alarming some prominent police psychologists and other knowledgeable observers who have spent much of their careers trying to make Approach “B” the standard after an officer-involved shooting.

The oversight group, launched with money from the Ford Foundation and based in Los Angeles, is called PARC (Police Assessment Resource Center). Aiming to help departments “advance effective, respectful and publicly accountable policing,” PARC has been engaged to investigate, monitor, advise and/or propose “reform” recommendations for agencies and police oversight entities in California, New York, Oregon, New Mexico, Louisiana, Michigan, Idaho, and elsewhere, including at least one other country (Greece).

According to its website (, the organization also works with journalists to “improve” the “critical analysis” of LE issues in the media. And lately some plaintiffs’ attorneys have been citing policy principles advanced by PARC in police-related lawsuits. “PARC and its philosophy are surfacing in a wide variety of venues,” declares Dr. Bill Lewinski, one behavioral scientist who strongly takes issue with the group’s post-shooting proposals.

PARC offers a wide range of suggestions for changing police practices. After analyzing 32 officer-involved shootings and 2 in-custody deaths in Portland (OR), for example, the group made 89 recommendations regarding Portland Police Bureau’s training, tactics, policies and procedures. (PARC’s 266-page report of its findings, as well as other of its departmental analyses, can be downloaded from its website.)

Only PARC’s views on the proper treatment of officers after a shooting will be discussed in this article from Force Science News, however, because effective interviewing techniques is an area currently being explored at the Force Science Research Center, Minnesota State University-Mankato.

The propelling force behind PARC is its founding director and president, a 60ish attorney named Merrick Bobb. Bobb has told reporters that he was drawn to changing police conduct after he was accused (falsely, he insists) of trying to drive his car into an officer during his law school days at the University of California’s volatile Berkeley campus.

Bobb, who claims to be the world’s “first police monitor,” served as deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission, which investigated LAPD after the Rodney King incident, and also on the Kolts Commission which investigated LASD. He currently “reviews and monitors” LASD on an on-going basis as special counsel to the LA Board of Supervisors.

His board of trustees at PARC includes, among others, a lawyer who has worked for the NAACP, a representative of the Urban League, the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a former U.S. Asst. Attorney General for civil rights, an executive with the Los Angeles Times, the former U.S. Attorney whose office prosecuted NYC officers in the Abner Louima case, and 2 former LE administrators.

In its Portland report, PARC explains what it considers “best practices” for dealing with an officer who has been involved in a shooting or an in-custody death. Among its observations/recommendations are these:

–Just as it is “beyond dispute that witnesses should be interviewed as soon as possible” after an occurrence, “best practice likewise dictates that officers” should be questioned promptly too, certainly “no later than several hours after” a shooting, PARC declares. “Contemporaneous interviews enhance the integrity of the process by reducing the likelihood that the officers’ account of events will be deliberately contaminated (e.g., by efforts to ‘get officers’ stories straight’) or accidentally contaminated (i.e., where an officer’s memory of the incident is subconsciously affected by what he or she hears from others).”

–“As a general rule, Homicide investigators interview civilians involved in, or witnessing, a shooting…as soon as possible, regardless of their emotional state. Often these civilians are taken from the scene…to headquarters and persuaded to stay–often for many hours–until Homicide has an opportunity to fully interview them.” Police officers, PARC says, should be treated no differently.

–PARC claims “there is no empirical support” for the view that conducting an interview soon after a high-stress event “necessarily produces unreliable testimony.” It dismisses as “not persuasive” arguments that a waiting period of up to 3 days before extensive questioning is fairer for the involved officer and produces more accurate accounts because of reduction of stress and enhancement of memory.

–PARC also objects to “informal, untaped ‘pre-interviews’ with officers.” Rather than seeing these as contributing to more complete and better quality recall, PARC is concerned that they “might corrupt the integrity of statements eventually made for the record.”

–As to significant research indicating that officers’ perceptions can be distorted during a deadly force incident, PARC asserts that “waiting to interview the officer will not affect these phenomena.”

–What seems most to concern PARC is that delaying interviews “increases the possibility of officer collusion or inadvertent contamination” of memory. “Once the involved officers leave the crime scene, there is no one to prevent them from ‘getting their stories straight.'”

Although PARC’s recommendations seem to be finding favor among some investigators and administrators, sources contacted by FSN who are intimately familiar with police shootings expressed serious concerns about PARC’s conclusions and the philosophy they appear to reflect.

“PARC’s proposals are based on an attitude, not on scientific foundation,” says Bill Lewinski, FSRC’s executive director, who has nearly 3 decades’ experience in LE psychology. “This attitude reflects a belief that cops are devious, that they engage in shootings out of their own will, and that they should be handled with the same degree of suspicion as any suspected criminal held in a shooting.

“In theory PARC’s approach will lessen distrust of the police by the public but in reality it could lead to the opposite result because in many cases immediate and aggressive questioning of the involved officer is guaranteed to produce discrepancies, unwarranted suspicion, and problems in court. Then, ultimately, when an unfounded prosecution of an officer fails, the public won’t trust either its cops or the court system.

“Every officer-involved shooting needs to be investigated thoroughly, but in a way that produces more factual disclosures and, in the end, the best possible representation of the truth.”

Investigation of an officer-involved shooting needs to be approached with the understanding that “when officers use deadly force, it’s not
just another homicide,” says John Hoag, an attorney for multiple public safety labor organizations in Oregon who estimates he has personally responded to some 40 LE shootings. “The overwhelming majority of homicide investigations are for murders–killings that are unquestionably not justified and for which guilty persons need to be arrested.

“In contrast, society employs officers to use deadly force when necessary. It’s an essential job requirement and they are trained to use it only when it is appropriate and legal to do so. In virtually every police shooting, officers did what they had to do and what we hire them to do. They are not criminals nor are they civilians, and they should not be treated as such. Protecting their legitimate interests will actually yield more accurate statements.”

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a prominent researcher of critical incident phenomena, a former police psychologist in Portland and, like Hoag, a member of FSRC’s National Advisory Board, agrees.

“PARC seems to think that after a shooting officers are basically going to be liars, trying to cover up and elude” investigators seeking a truthful reconstruction, she says. She points out that in the 21 pages of its Portland report that relate to post-shooting handling of officers, PARC 5 times cites the need to prevent officers from colluding to “get their story straight.”

“I am not so naïve as to believe that there are no police officers who lie,” she says. “A small percentage are unethical, immoral and corrupt. But in a democracy, we are not allowed to accuse everyone in a group of being dishonest just because a small percentage of the group may be.”

“The model should be designed to fit the rule, not the exception,” says Ofcr. Levi Bolton, a 31-year police veteran, a former report writing instructor and now a trustee with the Phoenix Law Enforcement Assn., the city’s police union. “Common practices shouldn’t be built around deviancy.”

It’s usually desirable to interview potential suspects and civilian witnesses as soon as possible after a violent event, Artwohl explains, because they may disappear during a delay. “I’m not aware of a single case where that has happened with a police officer,” she says. She also agrees with others FSN interviewed that most officers will reliably comply with a directive not to discuss a shooting with anyone other than an attorney prior to giving a statement. Thus the realistic risks of waiting to question an officer seem small compared to considerable benefits.

It’s well established that a significant percentage of officers experience perceptual distortions during the mental and physical hyper-stress of a shooting, ranging from auditory exclusion to frustrating memory gaps. Concern about what will happen afterward–the media scrutiny, the investigations, potential disciplinary action, legal proceedings and job loss, the possibility of becoming a political scapegoat–only aggravate the alarm arousal.

“Any time you are at a high level of stress and anxiety it can temporarily impair your ability to remember things accurately and completely,” Artwohl says. “Some officers can calm down very quickly” and may feel in satisfactory condition to give a coherent statement promptly. But most will benefit from “recovery time.”

Some researchers, she says, have concluded that nearly 40 per cent of officers experience a return of “lost” details to their memories “just by waiting,” not only after shootings but after physical-force altercations as well.

Also in Artwohl’s experience, confirmed by research done by LASD, it is common after a critical incident “for all survivors, including officers, to second guess themselves and/or others. This second guessing is emotionally based and almost invariably irrational. Insisting on immediate statements from officers who are still experiencing high levels of emotional arousal increases the risk that they will make emotionally based statements fraught with second guessing and perceptual distortions that are not an accurate reflection of what really happened.”

She points out that delaying an officer’s questioning, even through a complete sleep cycle, has been endorsed by the Psychological Services Section of the IACP, which “reflects the collective wisdom of the most experienced police psychologists.” These professionals have concluded that this delay will yield “more coherent and accurate statements,” Artwohl says.

Hoag claims that an even longer delay may be best. “In most cases, the first night the officer won’t sleep well, if at all,” he says, “and when the adrenalin peak runs out he may be so tired that he won’t give the best statement either. A 2-day delay allows for at least one good night’s sleep. Rested, the officer can sort out better what actually happened as opposed to what may be his mistaken impressions.”

This delay does not impede an investigation. An involved officer while still at the scene can advise as to injuries, location of offenders, evidence that needs protection and witnesses who should be questioned. “This is NOT the same as a full interview,” Artwohl emphasizes. “No transcript is made, information is simply verbally related to investigators.”

Bolton says his department, while preferring prompt full interviews, has been flexible in not insisting on a rigid timetable, and “nothing has been lost. Ideally, the department and the involved officer should approach the post-shooting investigation as partners, all on the same team seeking the truth, not as adversaries at odds with each other.”

As to timing, he says: “No human psyche is the same. The dynamics depend on an officer’s experience, age, training, previous critical incidents, fatigue, what’s going on in his or her personal life-many factors. We let the officers make the call as to when they feel they’ve come back to Planet Earth.” Most, he says, end up submitting to an interview soon after the incident. “We’re not so rigid as to insist that you have to wait in all cases.”

Despite PARC’s caution against “pre-interview” reconstructions, Hoag strongly favors the officer informally revisiting the scene with his attorney–but without an investigator or video camera present–before submitting a statement.

“Walking through the scene under the same lighting conditions and seeing how the physical evidence jibes with what the officer recalls helps identify how much perceptual distortion has occurred and helps the officer remember more accurately and fully exactly what happened,” Hoag says. “I’ve had many tell me that without a walk-through, there would have been many errors in what they said. Any statement given before rest and a walk-through should be recognized as having a high potential for inaccuracies.”

Hoag’s experience has been that “officers who’ve had to use deadly force want to give the most accurate statement possible explaining what they did and why they did it. The investigative approach used by the department should be one that encourages the officer to cooperate fully, as that is in everyone’s best interest.”

He sees “distrust implicit in the PARC recommendations” and observes: “If the officer is approached like a criminal by the very agency that employs him, he’ll be encouraged to exercise his right to remain silent. Society will not benefit from that. The agency will not benefit, and the involved officer will pay a horribly high price as well.

“You want the officer to come out of a shooting and a shooting investigation at peace with what happened, a stronger, better officer, not an embittered one. How he’s treated is huge in the results you get.”

Lewinski notes: “There have been tens of thousands of experiments and articles related to emotional intensity and its effect on perception and memory. These help us understand about the true ‘best practices’ for working with officers who have been involved in deadly force encounters. They inform us of the types of information officers cap
ture and don’t capture during a critical incident and the best ways to mine the memories of an officer who has been in a life-threatening confrontation.

“FSRC will be conducting studies next summer funded by the Constables Branch Board of the London Metropolitan Police which will consolidate this research. The object of this study will be to examine and effects of stress on psychomotor skills, perception and memory and then to investigate a variety of methods for their effectiveness in tapping memories.

“In short, we’re going to explore what science has to say rather than relying on attitude and opinion.”

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