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Mirror Mirror On The Wall: How self-investigation by U.S. law enforcement monkeys things up

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

by: Police Chief Gordon L. Wiborg, Jr.



Photo by Matheus Augusto from Pexels

Just about any U.S. law enforcement agency:


Mirror mirror on the wall, who had the most justified law enforcement response of them all?


Agency's Typical Intra-department Mirror:


Why, your fellow officer and great buddy did!





Law enforcement agencies have, for decades, conducted their own internal investigations, unless other coordination was made with neighboring jurisdictions for serious incidents. Thankfully, that policy is rapidly coming to an end. That is the subject of this brief commentary. But first, let's consider this heart wrenching account of Mr. Michael Bell, Sr.



I was not personally familiar with the officer involved shooting that took Michael Bell’s life in November 2004, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After my 35 years in law enforcement, it isn’t hard for me to understand some of the local effects manifest through a grieving family, Police Department, and others similarly affected. My heart goes out to the family of Michael Bell. Regardless of whether the original shooting was actually justified or not, an officer involved shooting (OIS) is truly a tragedy for everyone involved. Certainly, the tragedy for Michael Bell Sr. is obvious and heartbreaking. Such a familial relationship binds people like no other. That relationship is usually the most essential and impactful relationship that anyone can have. Watching the video of the very public and very trying efforts of Michael Bell Sr., one can immediately understand and appreciate the sacrifice that tragedy provides when one is violently and unexpectedly taken from the family.


Regardless of whether the original shooting was actually justified or not, an officer involved shooting (OIS) is truly a tragedy for everyone involved.

Less obvious and less understood and appreciated is the impact the incident has on those outside of the family unit. I can tell you from experience that shooting and taking the life of another human being is likely to be the most stressful and damaging of a law enforcement officers (LEO’s) career and exposes his or her employer to immediate and unexpected public scrutiny. Whether justified or not, the shooting of another human being by a law enforcement officer becomes a personal as well as professional, critical incident for the officer. If the officer is later indicted by a grand jury or otherwise charged for the allegedly criminal conduct associated with the officer involved shooting, the stress is multiplied exponentially.


But, in order to arrive at such a charging decision, one would expect that, normally, the local District or State’s Attorney would conduct or oversee a thorough and unbiased investigation appropriate for a death investigation of the highest order. Unfortunately, in most jurisdictions in the United States, that is not what happens.


One would expect that, normally, the local District or State’s Attorney would conduct or oversee a thorough and unbiased investigation appropriate for a death investigation of the highest order. Unfortunately, in most jurisdictions in the United States, that is not what happens.

Most people would likely agree that having a criminal suspect conduct his own criminal investigation of HIS alleged offense(s) would be laughable. A uniformed police officer would likely have to pull his patrol cruiser to the side of the road and stop because he is laughing so hard that he would probably crash the brand-new current year patrol vehicle he was assigned and end up with in an unexpected meeting with the Chief of Police that he would be leaving with many emotions, none of which would cause him to laugh.


The idea of self-investigation for criminal suspects is so far out in left field for cops as to be almost incomprehensible for the experienced police officer. I know of no law enforcement agency in the United States that has a suspect investigate his own exploits. None of them allow another a member of the suspect’s gang to investigate his buddy’s critical incident, either.


But, most law enforcement agencies do exactly that.


I think that is reasonable to presume that most of the nearly 20,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States currently conduct their own investigations of any potentially criminal or policy violation incident. These may range from “cooping” (sleeping on duty) to intentional murder. Regardless of the allegation, most police departments will still conduct their own investigation. This became a controversial and problematic practice for professional law enforcement services as they entered the 21st century.


I am here to suggest that we should change that policy. Completely. Immediately. Here is why.


Even if a law enforcement agency conducts a thorough and professional investigation that is proficiently and procedurally adequate in an unbiased manner and arrives at a fair and impartial decision, such investigation is forever tainted in the public’s eyes. The agency may have even taken the momentous step of asking another jurisdiction to review the investigation. It is still forever tainted as an investigation. Even if it arrives at the “correct” conclusion, it’s a bad investigation. Even if the agency is right, it’s wrong.



In order for the public to respect and value a investigative process, the entire process must be as transparent and disclosable as permitted by state law and the police officer’s Bill of Rights. This is true whether the incident appears to be favorable for the agency or not. The objective of the investigation should be to determine what it is that actually happened. Law enforcement executives should be focused on the accuracy and fidelity of information, not just on what it appears that the substantive information shows. There should be no bias for or against any entity.


In order for the public to respect and value a investigative process, the entire process must be as transparent and disclosable as permitted by state law and the police officer’s Bill of Rights.

I realize that is a tall order. Having been “one of them”, I realize the effect that having one of your officers shoot and kill a suspect has on your agency. I have seen good officers and good law enforcement executives taken down by poor media relations and/or management. The reality is that the public response to our media image can be decisive in the adjudication of our department and executive management. Training, for example, is a significant factor in the professional appearance and behavior of police officers.


When it comes to incidents resulting in the use of lethal or high less lethal force, the pressure upon the command staff of a law enforcement agency is tremendous. The agency may have, in fact, one or more employees who have suffered the same or even more serious injuries. The agency may have even lost an officer in the incident. And, it is likely that the Chief and possibly even a Deputy Chief has already conducted a first visit to the bereaving family(ies). Then, after a potential visit to an injured and possibly dying police officer in the hospital, and a potential visit to or with his or her partner, and a potential visit to an injured and possibly dying suspect (or even innocent bystander), and similar visit with or to his or her partner, the Chief of Police, likely emotionally and physically exhausted, returns to the office and is immediately accosted by the press. Now, with all of the principles either injured, dying or deceased, or exhausted, the agency has the best opportunity available to put their best foot forward to the public. Unfortunately, it is probably the best opportunity available to fall on their sword to the public, as well.


Photo by Renato Mu from Pexels

Training, Personal Interaction, and Media Relations.


A law enforcement agency, in this writer’s opinion, has several major factors available for presenting a positive image to the public. Three of them are critically important to a Chief’s and agency’s survival during and after a deadly force critical incident.


Training, Personal Interaction, and Media Relations. There are many others, of course, but if you look at the death certificates completed by the media on various Police Chiefs, these three are the most common causes of professional homicides and suicides. Even many of the “professional homicides” are greatly self-induced by our nation’s leaders. By “professional homicide”, I refer to the painful and deadly, often avoidable, professional self-destruction that an agency leader will suffer, but yet, often self-induce.


By “professional homicide”, I refer to the painful and deadly, often avoidable, professional self-destruction that an agency leader will suffer, but yet, often self-induce.

Training


Let’s take a brief look at each of these critical factors. Training. After 35 years practicing law enforcement in four states and one foreign country, I believe that training is one of the most critical opportunities that a public agency has to develop. When it comes to lethal and less lethal force, training is a primary consideration for the impetus of what an agency has done right and what it has done wrong. Remember, memories of witnesses and participants of critical incidents are greatly enhanced after time allows for the brain to process what the senses have obtained. Human senses, having become aware of and observing what may be a very critical incident in a very short period of time, likely single digit periods or micro periods, sends the raw, unprocessed video or audio signals to the processing command center in the brain. That command center, possibly totally unprepared, must process the critical fight or flee considerations immediately and put everything else to the side. The ensuing stress reaction takes time to run its course.


This is not a paper focusing on stress, although that is a great deal of what agency executives and their employees experience and suffer. I would note that Dr. Bill Lewinsky has done breakthrough research at the Force Science Institute in the areas of deadly force and critical incident stress, among others. I strongly recommend reading and referral to him.


Interpersonal and Media Relations


All administrators and most who are not will agree that Interpersonal Relations, including Interpersonal Communications, are vital professional skills to develop early in one’s careers. In fact, it is reasonable to presume that a police officer candidate would not pass the entry requirements and be found qualified unless he or she were adequately proficient in this area. We should not be looking for someone who comes across as an experienced actor. But, neither should we be hiring those candidates who cannot adequately express themselves through interpersonal communications and become visibly frustrated and shaken at the thought of public speaking. In a perfect world, every employee that we hire would be proficient in public speaking and media relations right out of the box. Of course, we could all hope for that. And, consequently, our community could hope for a better Police Department, too.


We should not be looking for someone who comes across as an experienced actor. But, neither should we be hiring those candidates who cannot adequately express themselves through interpersonal communications and become visibly frustrated and shaken at the thought of public speaking.

If you are a member of a command and staff, and you haven’t learned yet the art of dealing with the media, managing media relations, and fostering good relationships with media principles, and are therefore uncomfortable dealing with those principles, I strongly recommend that you immediately enroll in courses to improve your media relations. Arguably, this may be one of the best ways to ensure your professional survival.


In summary, law enforcement would be well served by deliberately moving into the 21st century.


U.S. law enforcement policy and decision-making need to get outside its current box

In summary, law enforcement would be well served by deliberately moving into the 21st century. We have been challenged by policies and decision-making that is based in the 1960s and 1970s. We must assess and understand the landscape around us. We must begin to open up our government agencies to more outside help and oversight. Deadly force situations, in my opinion, have only become more challenging and time sensitive. The time that a police officer has on the street and that leadership has to make critical life and death decisions has not increased as we may have anticipated. The street has not become easier and the decades have not blessed us with a weekly airdrop of military surplus to each of our agencies.


Instead, while the expectation of the public has grown for a more professional response to these challenges, law enforcement has only occasionally risen to meet that expectation. Legislative bodies continue to generate meaningless babble, with little more than children attempting to control grown men and women.


Good things are on the horizon, as they must be.



There is a movement going through law enforcement in America now to reach a level of professionalism we all can be proud of. Especially, in the area of response to critical incidents. I would highlight one such agency but would prefer to highlight a group of agencies that I am familiar with. These police departments are responsible for a good portion of Snohomish County in the state of Washington. Just north and east of Seattle and Everett respectively, Snohomish County agencies have partnered in a consortium to investigate officer involved shootings. This group is called the Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, or SMART. And, it certainly is. Snohomish County agencies have come together to combine collective investigative skills, leader skills, and experiential skills from each of the partner agencies. When an officer involved shooting occurs, the SMART responds immediately to the scene to investigate. If a SMART agency member is from the agency involved in the shooting, they are not permitted to actively participate on the team for that investigation. Those departments in Snohomish County have recognized that even if a true conflict of interest does not exist, the public perception that it may is a showstopper. Therefore, that member is out of that investigation. The consortium conducts the complete investigation from beginning to the end. Is it perfect? Of course not. But, it is probably as close to it as I have seen. Kudos go out to those agencies in Snohomish County, and elsewhere, that have begun to make the transition to the model of success in the 21st century.


The deficiencies and failures of American law enforcement are not unique. The professional standard-bearers of our society have largely died off and left us with, at best, second echelon wannabes who have delusions of grandeur, or, at worst, willful and deliberate micro-idiots whose only qualification for public office is a core temperature above 72°F.


We must do better than this. We can do more than strive to excel at the minimum. We can do better than suffering through another shift with a diet of Maalox and medicated hemorrhoid relief pads (not denigrating either of these fine products), dreading being targeted by the media who are currently editing the target on my head. We must ensure that our agency ethics and mission statement reflect the best in our profession, not being satisfied with a policy manual from the 1980s which is “essentially adequate”.


We must do better than this. We can do more than strive to excel at the minimum. We can do better than suffering through another shift with a diet of Maalox and medicated hemorrhoid relief pads (not denigrating either of these fine products), dreading being targeted by the media who are currently editing the target on my head.

There is a word bantered about quite often that I actually have grown to respect and strive for. It has become one of the essential concepts in my vocabulary. Many politicians and public employees have adopted it as a catchword, shrewdly recognizing that this public community likewise values the term. They throw it about as though it is a warm can of soda, desperately wanting to speak about it but not quite sure what it really means. They really don’t want to drink it and will usually hand it off to some staff flunky after the lights go out.


That word is “Transparency”. Instead of handling it as a stale can of Diet Air, we should be embracing it as the new four-lane expressway we can take to the city of professionalism.


The simple and brutal reality is that the public deserves it. They pay for virtually everything we do, and we respond by saying to them “Thanks for your support, but all we can tell you about your son’s shooting death is that after a very thorough and exhaustive two-day internal investigation, during which we found that our self-investigation was more than adequate to exonerate our next officer of the year, is that the use of force met the requirements of the law and our most excellent policy, and was justified. That is all we can tell you at this time about what we can tell you at this time.”


The fact is that the vast majority of officer involved shootings are more than justified under state laws and department policies. Occasionally, we come across a use of force which represents another issue outside of the green area of our professional ethics model. Generally speaking, we do the right thing, and aggressively purge our agencies of those employees.


The fact is that the vast majority of officer involved shootings are more than justified under state laws and department policies.

However, generally speaking, too, we have continued to conduct a profound disservice to the public by clumsily and massively ignoring federal and state privacy acts and deeming their familiarization and training as time wasted off a dangerous and volatile street. To increase our comfort levels and ignorantly divorce ourselves from the painful consortium with risk management, it has been easier for us to find federal and state privacy laws as disposable as we do the blow dryer refreshening kit publicly awarded to you at the department’s last holiday party. So, we have placed them on the shelf and largely ignored them. In the interest of survival and time and effort, it is simpler to tell the media that we can’t tell anybody what they actually have a right to know, and instead, you’re welcome to take all the photographs that you want to of the outside of the police facility, even with revealing frontal exposure. And excuse me, while I am out of service for a while and circling our wagons. The infamous Blue Wall has been called into service.


To be blunt, law enforcement agencies should never and can never investigate themselves, at least for serious incidents. Fairness, impartiality, and truth are in the eye of the beholder. Public perception is critically important to our survival.


As an old school Director of Public Safety once told me, as one of his deputies, as I prepared to walk into my city council’s chambers to challenge them in some inconsequential decision where I undoubtedly knew better (and apparently felt it was to be considered as a national emergency when I fell on my sword),


“Gordie, you’re perfectly within your right to walk in there and tell them how you are right and they are wrong. Your handling of this is correct. However, you should understand that if you do that, you will put your career at risk. I’m not so sure it is worth that to you. It certainly isn’t worth that to me. Because I realize that “EVEN IF YOU’RE RIGHT, YOU CAN BE WRONG.”


He was a SMART man.


To be blunt, law enforcement agencies should never and can never investigate themselves, at least for serious incidents. Fairness, impartiality, and truth are in the eye of the beholder. Public perception is critically important to our survival.


NOTE: This is the first of a series of commentaries that I will be doing about law enforcement’s transition into the 21st century. There are many challenges that have faced our agencies and personnel. Many of them we have conquered or are in the process of doing so. But, many others have either been tossed to the wayside carelessly. We have to deal with those. Or not. I will be examining those challenges in the following articles. Your comments are welcome whether you agree or disagree with me. Thank you.