My wife looked at me funny when I told her that I thought we could make a movie. I was a police officer in a big city and she was a nurse, but neither of us were filmmakers.
What she said next I’ve rebroadcast when we’ve shown our film across the country: “It’s probably not the most expensive idea you’ve ever had.”
I had watched one friend go through an officer-involved shooting and then had another friend ask me about shooting the tires off a car instead of having to shoot the driver. “Let me find a documentary and we’ll watch it together,” I told him. My intention was to find something on film that showed the reality of what officers experienced in the line of duty, offering to translate what I had seen in one friend to the next.
In my search for a film that adequately captured the spirit of the American Law Enforcement Officer while presenting the realities of the aftermath, I was in disbelief that nearly every documentary I could find related to “police use of force” cast a negative light on policing.
This was before the events in Ferguson that catapulted the debate of police use of force to the most hotly contested issue in contemporary American history. This was 2013, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to begin the biggest and most important journey of my life. One that would have me traveling 24,000 miles to conduct interviews and another 50,000 miles to present my findings.
I was interested in capturing raw conversations. Over the course of two years, I was able to do just that.
A combination of word of mouth and social media brought me to meet scores of men and women who had experienced one or more officer-involved shootings and were now sitting before me speaking about things they hadn’t told even their loved ones.
After conducting the first 10 or so interviews, we were acutely aware of the big responsibility that was being placed in us and that’s when events started to unfold, beginning with a little known town outside St. Louis, and spilling over into nearly every facet of daily life in the United States.
Everyone suddenly had an opinion on police use of force and American law enforcement officers were quickly becoming demonized. All the while I was firmly attached to my work to bring a human perspective to the profession being bashed — not just in mainstream media, but daily conversations between friends and strangers.
Perhaps the biggest frustration for us was that the film wasn’t ready, but we were. We were ready to talk and share the lessons we had learned. As time went on, the animosity toward our profession didn’t wane. It became more pronounced.
When our film was finally ready, we took to the road and showed it across the country, presenting to audiences from seven to 400 police officers and family members.
Our findings were met with resounding agreement. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a place to start and presents a brief overview of what we saw in our work on ‘Officer Involved’ and presents information that is helpful to the officer and when steering our conversations with the general public.
For the Administrator
Lack of Preparation for Shooting Aftermath
In the police recruit’s training to become an officer, it was common for the officer to spend hours in and then have easily recallable memories of intense firearms, criminal law and tactical training.
It was, however, rare that officers had any exposure to the concept of shooting aftermath.
Of importance was that, if the officer was untrained in what happens after the smoke clears, the family of the officer was completely in the dark. Family being the officer’s most important support system, dealing with the aftermath of a shooting was made much worse when families felt the effects.
Management’s Response is Critical to an Officer’s Well-Being
Those officers who expressed to us that they had the support of their departments while they were going through the investigatory phase of the shooting expressed more satisfaction with the process, whereas those officers who were openly treated as suspect or blatantly ignored often reported negative feelings to commanders and the department as a whole.
It is important to note that, in several of our cases, communication or lack thereof was the only difference between “My department was great” and “I felt like I was thrown under the bus.”
For the Civilian
Officers Involved in Shootings are Cleared by Caselaw, not Corrupt Administrations
Graham V. Connor is the landmark caselaw that established that a police officer who uses force may use that amount of force which is reasonable and necessary as judged by a reasonable officer under the totality of circumstances at the time of the incident.
This means that a shooting can take place in a matter of seconds and new information may come to light in the moments after it happens, but the legality of the officer’s actions will be judged by what was known, seen and experienced at that time. This is a difficult concept, especially when new information enters the arena and the advent of bodycams has allowed viewers to process the details while witnessing incidents from the safety of their home computers or cell phones.
A Common Factor in Police Use of Force is a Non-Compliant Subject
Nearly every officer we interviewed presented circumstances where there was a move from non-violent to confrontational behavior initiated by the subject, which then escalated the officer’s response from verbal communication to deadly force.
The officers’ actions were thereby reactionary.
An officer also has a job to do when responding to an incident and, apart from limited circumstances, is not at liberty to disengage from a combative subject.
Many of the incidents involving the officers we interviewed presented ample opportunity for the subject to cooperate or, at the very least, not escalate an already tense situation.
For the Officer
Becoming a Suspect
Many of the officers with whom we’ve spoken have talked about what it is like to find out that they are the suspect in the shooting.
Remember — if you are involved in a shooting and the subject dies, that death will be deemed a homicide. Seeing those letters on a report can have an impact on the officer.
However, the officer should be aware that cause of death and legal justification are two completely different concepts. The investigation leading to that justification can take days, weeks, months, and, yes, even years to be made by whichever body makes that determination. During the investigation, the police officer will have the same rights as anyone else who is accused of or investigated for a crime.
Not Everybody Gets PTSD, But Some Do
The study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is vital to the future health of our profession and we are barely scratching the surface on what our men and women are experiencing after the cumulative effects of a career spent under stress.
Managers and co-workers who ignore the obvious signs of PTSD in an officer may miss a vital opportunity to address a devastating issue.
However, not everyone who goes through a shooting will develop it and not everyone who has PTSD will show outward signs.
A large portion of people who experience a shooting will report recurring thoughts, issues with sleep, anxiety, and increased emotions for a period of time. For a large percentage, that drops off over time. For another percentage, it becomes an issue.
If that issue is ongoing, know that you are not abnormal and help is no more than a phone call away. Speak with someone you trust or seek a qualified professional. In this profession, we need to remind ourselves that taking care of our minds is equally if not more so important than taking care of our bodies.
It is important to point out that not every officer we interviewed had negative reactions following their shootings. Some were supported by the community, supported by commanders, and have full confidence that he or she had acted appropriately. Some had varying degrees of support and never had a doubt. Others felt abandoned and forgotten by the same departments who trained them to go out and do the job.
Having begun our work on ‘Officer Involved’ in 2013, we had a unique vantage point while things unraveled in our country. However, the law enforcement profession can’t rest on laurels knowing that the truth is now out there.
Over the next few years, departments can strengthen their community relationships by drawing attention to realistic portrayals of what happens in our profession and better explain how the law works and how police officers make decisions.
What took us nearly four years to finish is instantly available worldwide with the click of a button. And it is just a drop in the bucket.
Patrick W. Shaver is the director of the groundbreaking documentary ‘Officer-Involved.’ He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s in conflict management. His work on ‘Officer Involved’ was inspired by his experience as a police officer in Georgia.
NOTE: To see the film, order the DVD here or, for go here a list of platforms for instant viewing. Perhaps the biggest recent development is that ‘Officer Involved’ can be brought to theaters across the country by initiating an event here.