December 02, 2013
Regular Grits readers will recall the recent episode in Dallas where a police officer shot a mentally ill suspect, claiming he feared for his life. His partner said in a written report that the man had rushed at them with a raised knife when, in fact, a neighbor’s surveillance video showed the fellow had first backed away then stood calmly with his hands to his side. DPD fired the officer and suspended his partner for 15 days.
Now, though, rather than beef up penalties for officers caught testilying, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has succumbed to pressure from the police union and changed the rules so that officers can no longer be questioned about shooting incidents until 72 hours after they happen. The Dallas News story (“Dallas Police Chief David Brown quietly changes shooting investigation policy,” Nov. 27) announcing the new policy opened thusly:
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.
Previously an officer who witnessed a shooting typically would have been required to give a statement to police investigators within hours of the event. And the officer who fired, while not required to speak right away, typically did so. The new policy now requires the firing officer to wait at least three days before giving a complete statement to investigators.
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.
An attorney for the shooting victim, who survived, said the policy will give officers involved in unjustified shootings time to make excuses.
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.
One wonders, if “memory experts” say this is the better way to go, why isn’t the same courtesy extended to suspects so their memory can be similarly improved? I’m sure suspects in criminal cases would be less likely to give contradictory statements if they could wait three days and review all the evidence accumulated against them with their lawyers before talking to police. What’s good for the goose …
An attorney for Bobby Bennett, the man shot in the October incident, correctly identified the real reason the police union pushed for the change and pointed out the obvious hypocrisy:
Don Tittle, one of Bennett’s attorneys, called the policy change “maddening.” Give police officers enough time, evidence and lawyers, and all their statements will sound alike and justify a shooting, he said.
Plus, he said, any other witness to a crime is asked to talk to officers at the scene, he said.
“If the goal is to seek the truth in an incident, then why would a witness to a police shooting be treated differently than a witness to any other incident?” he said. “No other witness is told, here, you have three days to get back to us. And, by the way, here is a copy of all the video of the incident so you can get your story straight.”
Grits doesn’t buy for a moment the argument that the policy stems from memory science – where is the science that says people remember an incident better three days later compared to soon after it happens? A few hours later? Perhaps. Three days later? No way. By that time, one’s memory begins the process of self-reinforcing a version of events that may or may not conform to what actually happened. (For more on the brain science behind that process, see here, here, and here.)
The “memory expert” quoted by the Dallas News is not a memory expert at all but a consultant who co-authored a book on how police officers can “survive” the emotional and legal aftermath of deadly shootings. Looking through her website and linked publications, one is struck by the one-side analysis. Yes, memory is less certain than was once thought – which is why we’ve witnessed so many DNA exonerations based on faulty eyewitness identification – but she never takes the next step to apply that observation to suspects, witnesses, or for that matter victims of police shootings. Her schtick is all about protecting the cop from negative consequences after a shooting occurs, right or wrong.
In a blog post on Friday, Dallas attorney Robert Guest made the obvious comparison to how police treat suspects: “This traumatic-event-impairs-memory theory could impact other cases as well. Take family violence cases, if we can’t trust officers memory of traumatic events how we can trust those who got in a fight with their spouse?” Guest sums up what’s going on in the Bennett episode from a non-cop’s perspective: “If you work in criminal justice long enough you see situations in which rules are broken often. Defendants break rules and face the unbridled wrath of the criminal justice system (which seeks to take their money, time, and sometimes freedom). But what happens when the Government breaks rules? More often than not, the government changes the rules so that they don’t get caught again.” That’s precisely what Chief Brown did here.
This shooting and the coverup that followed by the shooter’s partner was an embarrassment for the Dallas Police Department, but not nearly as embarrassing as this shameless change in departmental policy. Just pathetic.