When a police officer shoots someone, there is invariably an investigation that follows. Forget that the outcome of the investigation tends to be a foregone conclusion, and consider that they still go through the motions. Of course, the police strongly prefer when the officer’s story aligns with the facts, and this becomes even more important when the facts are shown via video.
There are, therefore, two primary routes to be taken following a police shooting: First, question the officer about what happened and why he decided to shoot to kill rather than protect and serve. If he tells the truth, then his story will be confirmed by subsequent evidence, ranging from witnesses to the event to the omnipresent video.
This was the means used in Dallas, where Police Officer Cardan Spencer shot a mentally ill man, Bobby Gerald Bennett.
The officers arrived outside [Bennett's mother's] southeast Dallas home around noon to find Bennett sitting on a chair in the street holding a knife. At this point, accounts of the incident differ.
Spencer wrote in a police report that Bennett refused to drop the knife and moved toward him and another officer “in a threatening manner.” Spencer says that’s when he fired at Bennett four times from about 20 feet away, wounding him.
Righteous shoot. Except…there was video from a neighbor’s surveillance camera.
The video tells a different story. Although the police report says Bennett “lunged” at the officers with a knife, in the video he stands up from the chair but then doesn’t appear to move at all until the gun is fired and he crumples to the ground.
This was terribly unfair to Officer Spencer, as he didn’t know there was video of the shooting that would show his claim to be a complete fabrication.
This brings us to the alternative method of aligning police statements with evidence.
Any Dallas officer involved in a police shooting — whether the officer fired a weapon or witnessed the gunfire — will now have the right to remain silent for 72 hours under a new department policy.
And even before they give a statement about the shooting, the officers can watch any available video before they give a statement.
This is what I like to refer to as higher math, where either the justification for the shooting is the unknown or the evidence is unknown. If the latter, then the former only works if it’s true (and then, only if it’s actually justified). But if the latter, then you provide the cop with plenty of opportunity to see the evidence, consider the possibilities and arrive at a story that makes sense. Dallas Police Chief David Brown apparently did well in math:
Chief David Brown quietly made major policy change less than a month after surveillance video went public in October that showed an officer shooting a mentally ill man for no apparent reason — contrary to a witnessing officer’s account that led to a felony charge against the victim.
“It is my belief that this decision will improve the investigation of our most critical incidents,” Brown said in an emailed statement.
The efficacy of Brown’s statement all depends on how one defines “improve.” His “theory” is that police officers, unlike everyone else who is subject to interrogation immediately, can’t be expected to recall such traumatic events as shooting other people accurately so soon after they inflict harm.
But memory experts side with the chief.
Alexis Artwohl, a nationally known behavior consultant for law enforcement agencies, said studies show officers need rest before they can accurately recount traumatic events.
“They are not passive observers watching something from an easy chair,” she said. “They are at the scene where life-and-death decisions are being made, and they’re an integral part of it. So of course they are going to be impacted.”
Not nearly as impacted as the recipient of their bullet, perhaps, but impacted.
Brown said in his email that the science was “fairly conclusive.” He also said at an October news conference that he experienced memory problems when he was shot at once.
“It wasn’t until two or three days later to where I remembered it accurately,” he said.
Oh yeah. When I said he lunged at me and forced me to shoot him to protect my life, what I meant to say was that he didn’t do anything to threaten me and I just shot him for the hell of it. Yeah, now I remember.
As Bennett’s lawyer, Don Tittle, contends, this puts the lie to the police interrogating witnesses immediately after an incident. If police can’t remember anything accurately, then neither can anyone else. But there’s an excuse for that:
Artwohl, the memory expert, said officers treat civilian witnesses differently because officers won’t always be able to find the person again. That usually isn’t true of officers, she said.
“I don’t know of a single case of an officer disappearing after an officer-involved shooting,” she said.
Rumor has it that it took Artwohl 72 hours to come up with this response, and that was still the best she could do.