Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Officer-involved shootings, from training to investigation

With officer-involved shootings in the national spotlight the last few years, I want to share how the members of the Kansas City Police Department train to deal with potential threats and how to avoid them, what happens if a shooting does take place, what’s made public and what isn’t, and how we will work with the FBI, prosecutors and U.S. Attorney’s office to investigate.

Training
I’ll start with our training. In the last couple of years, we have developed and implemented ground-breaking training on how to de-escalate situations so we can avoid having to make a shoot/don’t-shoot decision. Police departments from around the nation have contacted us about this training so they could give it to their officers. I discussed this in a post last year about officers’ well-being:

“The instructor of the course, Sergeant Ward Smith, describes the idea well: ‘I can remain in this same position, and I’ll have to use force. But if I use tactics and training and think my way through this, I can pull out of this location and avoid shooting it out with someone.’ This is a change of mindset for many. Throughout the history of law enforcement, we’ve had the idea of ‘never back down, never retreat.’ We are encouraging and training our officers to use critical thinking and problem solving to avoid a situation in which they have to shoot someone to protect themselves. This is easier said than done, because oftentimes situations unfold rapidly, leaving officers seconds or less to make decisions. Although we've stressed critical thinking and problem solving in the past, with Sergeant Smith's training, we’re emphasizing the idea that there may be other options.”

Our training staff developed more training along these same lines this year. Our officers now must qualify on their firearms twice annually. At their first qualifying sessions, they learned about the importance of proximity – both physical and emotional – in preventing the escalation of a situation. This article provides more information about what went into that training.

At their second qualifying session this year, officers are learning how to provide first aid to anyone they might have hurt (also discussed in the above linked article). A big part of this is determining whether a situation is stable and if an armed subject still poses a threat. On many occasions, an injured subject will fall to the ground still clutching and able to fire a gun. But if this is not the case, our officers are being instructed to provide emergency first aid to anyone injured by police use of force until an ambulance can arrive. We did this in an incident on Aug. 27. The suspect survived.

Even with all the de-escalation, proximity and first aid training in the world, however, officers may be forced to use lethal force against someone, resulting in fatal wounds. No one wants that to happen, but police must protect themselves and others.


Shoot/Don’t Shoot
Recently, a suspect pointed a gun at our officers, and the officers did not shoot. This is not unusual. Kansas City Missouri Police encounter shoot/don’t shoot scenarios often, and they make split-second, life-or-death decisions in those situations with varying outcomes. No situation is the same. Although the officers in the most recent incident did not shoot, they would have been legally justified if they did. The suspect was threatening their lives by pointing an assault rifle at them. Based on their training and experience, other officers might have chosen to shoot, and they still would have responded to the threat appropriately, according to the law and our department’s policy.

No officer ever wants to take a life, and we are training to avoid such situations whenever possible. But if an officer or resident’s life is threatened, we must respond to protect ourselves and others.


The Investigation
If an officer-involved shooting does take place, several things happen to ensure a thorough investigation, beginning at the scene of the incident. Multiple people respond to the scene of an officer-involved shooting, including the county prosecutor or someone from his or her office, our lead legal adviser, the commander of the Internal Affairs Unit, crime scene investigators, usually myself and the police shooting team, among others. Nothing is done in a vacuum.

The police shooting team is a squad of specialized detectives charged with preparing the investigative case file that will go to the prosecutor. As with any other shooting case, they collect victim and witness statements, gather evidence and present their findings to the prosecutor. After submission to the prosecutor’s office for their review on whether charges are warranted against the officer, the case file also is reviewed by Internal Affairs, our Notable Events Review Panel, training staff and commanders. There are multiple checks and balances to ensure the investigation is fair and unbiased. It also provides opportunity for analysis on whether additional training is warranted.  

We made an even bigger step toward transparency and independent investigation of officer-involved shootings last December when we announced an unprecedented memorandum of understanding between our department, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. We already were doing everything covered by the MOU, but this memorandum formalized our procedures.

I have wanted to put this agreement in writing since I became Chief of Police. I initiated the drafting of this MOU and am pleased with the transparency and confidence it provides to other segments of our community.

U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson explained the agreement at a press conference on Dec. 9, 2015. The agreement proactively addresses allegations of the excessive use of force by a KCPD officer, marking an extraordinary partnership between local and federal law enforcement. As soon as there is a notification of such an allegation, the matter can referred to the FBI to make an unbiased assessment.

U.S. Attorney Dickinson explained the rest of the process:

“In some cases, the FBI may determine that a federal civil rights investigation is warranted and refer the matter to my office. In other cases, the FBI may determine that a state criminal investigation is warranted and refer the matter to the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, or the FBI may determine that police officers acted lawfully and appropriately, and no further investigation is warranted.

“Whatever the outcome, the public can rest assured that any and all allegations of excessive use of force by KCPD officers are being fairly investigated and justly resolved.”



What Is and Isn’t Public
In terms of public accessibility, a police shooting investigative case file is treated like any other investigative case file. No part of it is made public until the case is fully adjudicated. We don’t release the name of any suspect until he or she is charged. Police officers involved in a shooting are treated the same way: their names aren’t released unless they are charged with a crime in a court of law.

And just as we would not release video evidence in any other shooting case to protect the integrity of the investigation, we do not release police dash-cam or any other video evidence in an officer-involved shooting case until it is adjudicated and closed.

In fact, the Missouri Legislature nearly unanimously passed a bill this year restricting public access to police video, and Gov. Jay Nixon signed it into law. The measure blocks the public from accessing footage recorded by body-worn cameras or police dash-cam while investigations are ongoing. Once an investigation is over, any footage recorded inside a home, school or medical facility remains largely off-limits.



Let me be clear that no officer wants to be put in a situation in which he or she must decide to shoot someone. But suspects do threaten the lives of officers, and officers must employ their training and experience to decide how to best protect themselves and others. Sometimes this means they must fire their service weapon to stop the threat.

I take pride in how well-trained our officers are and am confident they have received some of the most cutting edge instruction in the country on how to navigate a possible shoot/no-shoot situation. I also am confident in the integrity and accuracy of our investigative processes. Multiple levels of review – both internally and by the FBI and U.S. Attorney – assure our community that the actions of any KCPD officer involved in a shooting are comprehensively reviewed for adherence to the law and department policy. The people of Kansas City deserve nothing less.

Send comments to kcpdchiefblog@kcpd.org.