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Do “cooling off” periods help cops remember police-involved shootings more accurately?

I wrote last week about Dallas Police Chief David Brown. The post was mostly complimentary of Brown’s efforts to bring more accountability and transparency to the Dallas Police Department. But I did criticize a new policy he instituted which gives police officers involved in shootings 72 hours before they’re required to answer any questions. The policy also allows both the officers involved and any witnessing officers to view any known surveillance video before questioning.

In implementing the policy, Brown cited expertise from a police consultant who claims that witnesses need ample rest before they can accurately recall the details of a traumatic event. I pointed out that this would imply that DPD should give the same 72-hour delay to suspects and witness who aren’t cops, too. It could also give crooked cops the opportunity to collaborate on a suitable narrative. (Brown implemented the policy after surveillance video emerged that contradicted his officers’ account of shooting of a mentally ill man.)

But Jeff Noble, the former deputy chief for the Irvine, California police department sent an email to dispute Brown and his consultant’s claims about memory, too. Noble sends this article he wrote with criminologist Geoffrey Alpert for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, which provides a broad overview of the issue, and a summary of the relevant research.

To provide guidance on when to interview law enforcement personnel after incidents, researchers developed a pilot study involving groups of officers responding to active-shooter scenarios, including a school shooting and a terrorist attack. Teams cleared buildings, helped victims and hostages, and secured suspects. Following the simulations, each officer attended a short debriefing. When training concluded for the day, researchers asked a group of officers to write a report of the event. The same group also gave recollections 3 days later. Additionally, researchers had a second group of officers provide their memories only after 3 days had passed. The study focused on determining whether officers had better recollections immediately following a shooting or sometime later.
The researchers recognized that the studies involved simulations that could not completely replicate the stressors of an actual incident and that none of the officers were tired, injured, or otherwise impaired. However, the results offered insight on stress and memory—that the officers reporting on the threat immediately after it occurred had sharper recollections than those who shared their memories only after a few days had passed.
Additionally, the recollections of individuals who shared their memories about the environment immediately after the incident improved slightly when also reporting sometime later. Although differences were not remarkable, evidence indicated that officers had a better recall for threats than for surroundings and that asking them to relay facts immediately after an event may provide the best results for threat-related variables.

Noble and Alpert also address the problems that come with giving police officers added layers of protection:

Like everyone else police officers have the right to protect their own interests during each of these investigations. Of course, the Fifth Amendment allows them to refuse to answer questions during a criminal investigation if the question would implicate the officer criminally and if the officer has not been compelled under the threat of dismissal. However, while officers may assert their own right to refuse speaking with investigators, they may aggressively seek statements from other citizens during the critical time period soon after the incident to get to the truth. Investigators ask for the cooling off period for officers, but not for any other citizen equally impacted by such a stressful event. Indeed, in the case of a shooting involving one dead person and another holding a gun, only an officer may avoid immediate arrest for refusing to explain the events leading to the death . . .
The manner in which an agency investigates its own, especially after a shooting incident, directly impacts the public trust. People have concerns of corruption because of the powers held by officers and the potential for abuse, and well-documented instances exist of excessive force at the hands of unprincipled officers. This public trust concern becomes heightened because police officers frequently face investigation by their own agencies, which may have an interest in protecting personnel from criticism and liability, thus, enhancing their reputation or avoiding financial damages. Departments have demonstrated through proactive investigations, criminal arrests, convictions, and disciplinary actions that they will address officer misconduct. However, while no evidence exists that outside investigatory agencies do a better job, the public reasonably perceives that officers may receive special treatment not available to other citizens. While a cooling off period legitimately may exist to help officers accurately and truthfully recall events, it also serves a similar purpose as Miranda in that it raises a red flag warning the officer to seek counsel, encouraging others to suggest to the officer to do so, and providing an opportunity for a dishonest officer to either develop a deceitful version of events or to collaborate in doing so with other involved officers. Agencies avoid all of these potential problems when dealing with the average citizen because they seek an immediate interview. Creating such policies that further the perception of special treatment, combined with a lack of transparency, can only diminish public trust.

They also stress that we need a lot more research into all areas of officer-involved shootings, and how best to handle them. I’d agree. Right now, police agencies aren’t even required to collect and report incidents in which police shoot at citizens. Consequently, good data on the frequency of officer-involved shootings in the U.S. just don’t exist.