Should Police Get Extra Time After a Shooting to Process It?
In October of this year, Joyce Jackson called the Dallas police during an argument with her 52-year-old mentally ill son. She informed the 911 dispatcher that he was violent, throwing things, and had a knife. By the end of the confrontation, Officer Cardan Spencer had shot at Bobby Bennett four times, hitting him once in the stomach.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, Spencer’s partner, Christopher Watson, said that Bennett aggressively took steps toward them with a knife. Bennett was charged with aggravated assault. Spencer did not give any statement at the time of the shooting, however his attorney would later say that “the facts and circumstances known to Officer Spencer at the time completely justify his actions.”
The next day, Dallas station WFAA News 8 obtained surveillance video from Joyce Jackson’s neighbor which disputed Officer Watson’s account. The video showed that Bennett moved away from the officers, stood with his hands by his side, and made no movements toward them.
The aggravated assault charges were immediately dropped.
This shooting came at a time of mounting criticism after a number officer involved shootings over the past year. Many have complained that the shootings were unjustified. Dallas Police Chief David Brown has instituted a number of changes which help to track and report use of force incidences, including reporting all officer involved shootings to the FBI.
His latest effort involves how and when officers talk to investigators about the shootings. It is standard for officers to give their story of what happened at the time of the shooting. Chief Brown changed policy late last month, requiring officers to wait 72 hours after an incident before talking to an investigator. Furthermore, they will be allowed to view any available video prior to making their statement.
Critics claim that the new policy allows officers to get their stories straight to cover for each other. Chief Brown believes it makes good policy. He is not alone.
Dr. Alexis Artwohl is a behavior specialist and consultant for police departments. Her research has focused on the conditions during force situations, as well as the aftermath. She notes that in addition to dealing with a suspect, officers have to be aware of several things at once, such as their environment, bystanders and overall public safety. They often have just seconds to make a life or death decision, often while being shot at or attacked by a suspect. It is important to remember that these officers are subject to the same psychological and emotional stressors as anyone else.
All while carrying a gun.
In a 2002 article, Stress Reactions Related to Lethal Force Encounters, Dr. Bill Lewinski reports on how the stress of these encounters have many psychological and physiological effects, including physical changes in eyesight such as tunnel vision. All of these things can impair how accurately officers can relay circumstances in the immediate aftermath of a lethal encounter.
In light of this research, several police departments across the country have created policies which focus on officers’ psychological and emotional needs after a shooting. In 2005, Denver Colorado’s police department created procedures that include immediate attention to officers’ needs after an incident. They point out that the pressure of an investigation, including possible legal problems, makes them particularly vulnerable to memory lapses and an inability to focus on details. Oregon passed SB111 in 2008. which directed police departments in the state to create similar deadly force plans, which include specific procedures for evidence collection and interviewing.
These plans recommend a 72 hour waiting period for officers prior to talking with investigators.
It’s difficult to remember that police officers are still human beings with the overwhelming evidence in many communities of police brutality and the “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality highlighted in case after case. Whatever personality traits they may possess that may make them more prone to certain approaches, there is no doubt they are under a great deal of pressure. When lethal force is involved, their minds need a break.
Dallas police Chief Brown feels that the new policy will improve investigative efforts. The Dallas Police Association welcomed the change, having long wanted witnessing officers to view any available video prior to making statements, as is allowed for officers that fire their weapon. Chief Brown cited his own experience of having been shot while on duty, admitting it was two or three days later before he could accurately recall the incident.
Policies such as these can be frustrating for communities, many of which have an understandable distrust of the police. In the era of “breaking news,” it has become difficult to realize that real life isn’t an episode of “Law & Order” and the truth isn’t revealed in an hour. However, we understand that witnesses and victims often have trouble remembering details in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Is it such a stretch to believe that an officer would have the same difficulty?
As for the incident that sparked the policy change, Officer Cardan was fired, and his partner Officer Watson was suspended for fifteen days. Bobby Bennett has filed a lawsuit against the Dallas Police Department.