What Happens After You Shoot Someone?

Most cops will never fire their service weapon in the line of duty; this film examines those who do

By Crawford Coates  |   Aug 14, 2017

Publisher’s Note: I recently spoke with the co-creator of Officer Involved, a film that interviews officers who have been involved in shootings, most of them fatal. This experience and the lessons learned are important for every officer to ponder. For more on this groundbreaking and critically acclaimed film series, click here. 

Who are you and why did you make these films?

My name is Patrick W. Shaver.  Being a police officer throughout my time working on Officer Involved gave me incredible inside perspective on the topic. I am a police instructor and I am a filmmaker and I got into the job with a master’s degree in conflict management. I’ve always been interested in worldview—how we see ourselves and how we see each other.

Early in my career, a friend of mine went through a shooting and I saw some changes in his personality. About the same time, another of my friends was asking why can’t police officers shoot the tires off of a vehicle. Knowing that my own friend was going through something as a result of his shooting, I looked for a film that could show this other friend what actually happens after a shooting. I couldn’t find anything, so my wife and I decided to make it. I had no idea how to make a movie. It was something my wife and I learned how to do while we were doing it. 

What did you have to learn along the way?

Before we started making Officer Involved, I read everything that I could get my hands that related to officer-involved shootings. I wanted to know what the current state of knowledge on OIS but also what others though were the important points. I learned that there wasn’t a lot out there in terms of video that was accessible to the public. I’d probably read a dozen books before I even asked my first subject if he would like to be involved in the film and it was my friend who had been in his shooting.

Before long, we were interviewing officers around the country. We learned that officers often keep their stories and experiences close to the vest. There are a few reasons. One has to to with our culture and we worry that we might be judged for talking about feelings or how our actions affect us.

There’s also something to be said about our utter failure to recognize the need to address long-term mental well-being of police officers in our country. That alone is discouraging officers from opening up. Some departments handle it better than others.

Another reason officers hadn’t talked about their experiences was that they have now been through something that not everyone can relate to. I had several officers refer to it as an unwanted fraternity. Another of the lessons that we learned was that, just as the officer is going through the shooting aftermath, so too is the family of that officer. 

What was the biggest surprise for you when interviewing officers after shootings? 

The biggest surprise that we learned was that officers, almost universally, spoke of how they weren’t prepared for the aftermath of a shooting. We were told time and again how they weren’t prepared for what happens next so they didn’t know what to expect. The officer isn’t prepared to learn that you will become a suspect, by default.

We heard several stories of commanders coming to the scene and asking the officer to recount what happened. In one case, one of our officers told the commander that he would need to be read either Miranda or Garrity if he’s going to answer that question. That’s something to think about. What you do can and will be used against you just like any other suspect. Another of our officers said something to a commander that became a big part of his investigation and it led to charges. So in that aspect, not only are we not preparing the officer for the aftermath of the shooting, but some commanders themselves are unprepared.

The second point wasn’t as universal. We have come across several commanders who are going above in beyond in how their officers are treated until the determination is made. It’s not an indictment on the system. The reality is that only a segment of police departments across the country will experience a shooting in a given year, so, statistically, many commanders have limited experience in the realm of OIS.

I think another important lesson in officer-involved shootings is that some of these cases are going years without a determination being made for that. Even when an officers’ actions are objectively reasonable and captured on camera, they can wait a year to hear that they have been cleared. That’s unacceptable. I had one case where I put in a public information request and the officer’s case was cleared in conjunction with my request. That was sobering. 

Any lessons for officers who might find themselves involved in a shooting? 

Every officer who is involved in a shooting should prepare themselves ahead of time that they are now going to be a suspect. That doesn’t mean they did something wrong, but it means that an investigation is going to take place.

Many shootings aren’t the type that make for great action movies. They are split-second decisions made in less than perfect circumstances, so it’s normal to go over it again and again in your head for a while. The officer should have some kind of plan in place for legal representation and be aware of what type of counseling options are offered in their area. They should also have a talk with their families and know what to expect if a shooting ever happens. You are going to be investigated, you are going to have some time off work, and you are going to (statistically speaking) return to work.

The officer should also know that if they are 100% fine after a shooting and experience zero effects, that’s OK too. We had an officer tell us she felt guilty because she didn’t feel guilty.

Likewise, commanders should know that just because your officer has been involved in a shooting doesn’t mean they are any different from the employee they were the day before. But they will need some support as they go through something new. You should call your officer and ask how they are. Take as much interest in their well-being as you did when you were hiring them. It might be the difference between the officer continuing their career with your agency and leaving the profession. We had one officer who was forgotten about while on leave.

What do you hope the wider audience might learn from these films? 

We want the wider audience to see that police officers don’t just get into a shooting and go back to business as usual. It’s an event that makes an impact on their lives and can effect them for years. This idea that some outside the law enforcement community have that officers go on a paid vacation for getting in a shooting really couldn’t be farther from the truth. They are separated from the job and enter into a state of questions and uncertainty until they get a letter in the mail (or see it in the newspaper as some of our officers have told us) that their actions were found to be cleared and justified. Until that comes, it can hang over their head. Even after they get it, some officers still live with the question of, “Was there another way?”

Every officer who goes through a shooting is going to experience a set of procedures that are going to happen whether that officer is prepared or not. False and misleading media only makes that more difficult. The thing to remember is that officers who serve in our communities sign up to go out and make society a better place. In many of the communities where they police, they have relationships and ties to that community. So when a shooting happens, they now shoulder the weight that they have taken action against a community member. 

A point that I’d like to make is that one of the challenges in getting our message out there is that some decision-makers in police departments aren’t willing to address the issue of what the officer experiences in the aftermath. I can only speculate why that is, but there are still departments who suspend an officer and treat them as persona non grata until a decision is made on clearance.

I recently spoke with an officer who was terminated because his shooting happened while on probationary status. Several months later, he was cleared. He hasn’t been given his job back. Several officers told us that they did exactly as they were trained and then were treated as if they had done something wrong. We need to keep in mind that, until it is repealed or a new precedent is established, Graham v. Connor is the standard—objectively reasonable should be a term on everyone’s tongue. Is it or isn’t it objectively reasonable? 

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Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job and the publisher at Calibre Press.
Crawford Coates

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