Cop Charged with Murder: ANALYSIS + VIDEO
Failure to understand & prepare for stress is our profession’s most systemic problemBy Jim Glennon | Apr 23, 2018
On Nov. 15, 2017, 29-year-old Dustin Pigeon called 9-1-1 and advised a dispatcher that he wanted to kill himself. The man didn’t elaborate on the how, but suicide was his intent.
Oklahoma City police responded to the subdivision where Pigeon lived. They found the man walking around the residential neighborhood. In one hand he had a bottle of lighter fluid, in the other a Bic lighter. Now the police knew his method.
Three officers engaged Pigeon. The first two to arrive, Officers Eric Howell and Troy Nitzky, immediately recognized what was in the man’s hands with one saying to the other, “He’s got a lighter and fluid in his hands.”
Pigeon immediately started walking away from the officers who pursued him on foot. As they approached the suicidal subject who was walking around a house and into what looks to be a side yard, they continually told him to put the items down. Over a period of 20 – 25 seconds the officers gave those orders approximately five to six times. Pigeon refused to comply but stopped walking and stood under a large tree. At this point one officer ordered the man to put his hands up. Pigeon complied and stated, “My hands are up, my hands are up.”
The next order from one of the officers was, “Put the lighter fluid down.”
It was delivered in a clear, calm and concise manner but Pigeon still refused to comply. This occurred approximately 25 seconds after the officers made the initial statement about the objects in the suicidal man’s hands.
Immediately after the aforementioned command came a third officer, Sgt. Keith Sweeney. His orders had a different tone. Fast, loud with a touch of anger and certainly stress: “Hey put it down! Drop it! Drop it right now! Put it on the ground! I will fucking shoot you! Get on the ground! Get on (inaudible)!”
Sweeney’s orders took place over a period of less than 8 seconds. Pigeon is illuminated clearly throughout this time. At the beginning he was standing still under the tree with his arms up, objects still clearly in his hands. As Sweeney moves in and says, “I will fucking shoot you!”
Pigeon begins backing away from the officers, his arms dropping to his side.
It’s at that point, 8 – 9 seconds after Sweeney’s first orders, that you can hear a distinct POP! We know now that the sound was the discharge of a bean bag gun fired by Officer Nitzky who was attempting to subdue Pigeon without seriously harming him.
By my unscientific calculations, well less than one second after the bean bag discharge, Sgt. Keith Sweeney fires his first of five quick successive rounds at Pigeon with his 9mm pistol. The man immediately falls to the ground dying at the scene a short time later.
Those five shots out of the sergeant’s semi-automatic weapon, were fired in approximately a single second.
All told, from Sweeney’s first orders to the time he finished firing his fifth round, less than 10 seconds elapsed.
In December 2017, one month after the incident, Sgt. Keith Sweeney was charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said it’s the first time the district attorney has charged an Oklahoma City police officer involved in an on-duty shooting.
The purpose of this article is not to condemn Sgt. Sweeney or to second-guess the prosecutor. It’s for consideration. It’s for training. It’s to point out the incredible speed of a dynamic force event: How stress—specifically acute, sudden onset stress—can influence behavior and thought; how a lack of clear communication can be deadly; how your emotions, out of control, can influence your perception, observations, assessments, and ultimately your decisions and behavior. Much of the following is based on my conjecture (nobody who wasn’t there that night knows what exactly transpired and why). The points, I believe, still stand.
There are too many training points to cover at length here, but let’s discuss a few.
Time. Why the hurry? From an old guy’s perspective, time is almost always on your side. So take it. Howell and Nitzky appeared to be doing just that. They were clear and controlled and not rushing the issue. There didn’t appear to be any reason to rush the situation. Pigeon even complied with at least one order (putting his arms in the air), stopped moving, and engaged verbally to some extent.
Distance. Why move in? The danger is in being too close. Pigeon wasn’t threatening to hurt anyone else, no one besides the officers were even in the area. Distance was the officer’s best safety option at that point. Sweeney, it appears on the video, is moving towards Pigeon.
There’s an accurate and telling training point about distance that you should never forget: The closer you are spatially the more intense the interaction and the stress—for you and the subject. The more stressed you become the more chance you will experience cognitive deterioration, perceptual distortions, and the harder it will be to make an accurate and appropriate decision.
I believe Sweeney was very stressed given his tone, rate of speech, amplitude, and obscene language. He probably had more tunnel vision than the officers who were maintaining a distance. His skewed and distorted assessments naturally affected his decisions and subsequent behavior, i.e. moving towards someone he believes (incorrectly in this case) to be holding a knife. Why do that?
Communicate. This is so much easier said than done. In the academies around the country it’s emphasized that in such situations only one person should be giving orders. In reality, that almost never happens. This is for a few reasons. First, it’s difficult to determine who does what in evolving dynamic situations. Second, everyone feels a need to do something. The problem is three people giving different orders with different tones causes confusion for all. A third reason is we simply don’t practice what to say, how to say it, and who should be doing the talking. And we seldom advocate, train, or practice one officer taking control over others. What winds up happening are multiple officers working independent of each other.
While I am not one to believe that officers should never, ever use foul language (most cops believe a well-placed profanity often works), know that your use of threatening obscenities will not only raise the stress level of the person you are talking to, it most likely will raise your own stress level.
Force Response. Discharging any type of non-lethal weapon should be announced so everyone knows what’s happening and there’s no misinterpretation of who’s doing what. If you have time to deploy a less-lethal option, then you have the time to communicate that you’re going to do it.
Stress Responses. Which brings us to the body and brain experiencing acute and sudden onset stress. When this happens, you will experience both stress responses immediately. On some level you might be aware of this stress, but not completely. Perceptual distortions kick in, tunnel vision and auditory exclusion being the most common. Odds are the three officers did not comprehend what each were saying and how they were saying it. In this case, for Sweeney at least, his perception was skewed as he interpreted what was clearly a lighter, at least to Nitzky and Howell, as a knife.
After the sergeant shot Pigeon, Sweeney asked the other officers, “Is that a knife in his hand?”
One responded, “It’s lighter fluid.”
Back to the discharge of the bean bag gun.
Besides his vision being limited and/or distorted, Sweeney’s auditory abilities were most likely affected because of the high level of stress he was experiencing. Add it all up: his close proximity to what he has determined to be a threat, his highly aroused state, put him on edge. His muscles were tensing up and his finger was on the trigger of his 9mm. Then, to his immediate left: POP!
Why Did He Shoot?
I can think of three possible reasons Sgt. Keith Sweeney fired his weapon at Dustin Pigeon. Again, my opinion and I was not there …
One. He intentionally fired believing he was about to be attacked by a man with a knife. That would make the shooting justifiable if his belief was reasonable. In other words, to a reasonable police officer, would Pigeon’s behavior lead him to conclude that he was in immediate danger of death or great bodily harm.
Two. The startle effect. Sweeney didn’t consciously pull the trigger repeatedly. It was a reaction to the sound. The sergeant, as we have established, was likely under extreme stress. His gun is out, his muscles are tightening, his finger is on the trigger, he has placed himself in a vulnerable position and is acutely stressed. A loud sound and he squeezes as fast as he can for one second. Five rounds towards Pigeon is the result.
Three. Sweeney, believing the other officers were firing (due to hearing that POP!), follows suit and discharges his firearm. Evidence of this may be found in a statement by Sweeney to Officer Nitzky after he fired his five rounds, “I didn’t know you had a bean bag.”
Train. People are constantly looking at law enforcement in an effort to find ill intent, malevolence, racism, etc., etc., among it’s over 800,000 members. I don’t believe that 18,000 law enforcement agencies are imbued with such systemic issues. But training is a profession-wide problem. We must train better in the areas we are most vulnerable to avoid making mistakes that result in injuries and deaths. Officers should be trained extensively in understanding how to deal with people while experiencing a high level of sudden onset stress. But we pretty much don’t. We just hope everything just works out.
Sometimes it doesn’t.