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Critical Incident Teams Part 2: Processing the Cops

In my last posting I discussed the make-up of critical incident teams and how they are used to investigate officer involved shootings and in-custody deaths. While some officers can, and have, violated the law in such incidents, a vast majority of shootings are legal. Part of this results from the training officers receive. This article isn’t going to get into the legal aspects of a shooting because laws are different all over the world. What I want to talk about is the response of the CSI in such incidents as they pertain to processing the officers. As you will soon see, it can be a challenging experience for both parties. These challenges can produce emotions which you can use in a novel to generate tension or direct a plot line.

When CSIs process an officer we generally perform the same collection procedures we do with suspects. It’s not that we think of them as suspects it’s just what we know. However, this is where the tension comes in because officers who are already at a high stress level tend to feel like they are being treated like a suspect. Assuming the shooting is good the officer may actually feel more like a victim (especially if the bad guy just tried to kill them), so treating them like a suspect puts them on the defensive. But part of our duty is to understand and explain the events that happened and collect evidence which can be used to support those conclusions.

One important issue to remember is that police officers have rights like any other citizen. They may be weary of complying with your every request depending on the advice they get from their attorney (although they are generally cooperative).  Officers are not under any legal obligation to cooperate (although they may be terminated depending on their employment contract) with an investigation but most do. Depending on the circumstances of the incident CSIs may do any or all of the following:

  1. Collect uniform and associated accessories (leather, cuffs, gun, Taser, pepper spray, boots, etc)
  2. Swab hands and face for GSR
  3. Do hair combings or collect hair samples
  4. Take a blood or urine sample (to test for the presence of drugs or alcohol)
  5. Take photographs of injuries (can include full nude depending on locations and types of injuries)

During this process it may be necessary to collect personal items from an officer that they may be very reluctant to give up. These things may have nothing to do with the incident but CSIs don’t want to be accused of letting them take evidence away. Things like car keys (how are they getting home), wallets (all their money and credit cards), watches (may be an anniversary present) may be collected even though they have nothing to do with the shooting. But if we don’t collect them, or at least document them heavily, then someone may criticize the investigation later on. The argument goes something like this. “If you didn’t collect it or photograph it then how do you know it wasn’t relevent?”. I’m not saying I agree with that argument but it can come up from the lawyers involved.

So if you are writing a scene about an officer involved shootings you may want to consider some of these issues in character development and plot line. Consider having the CSI decide to not collect some piece of evidence that later becomes important in proving the officer’s innocence. For example, maybe they don’t collect the uniform but later on someone argues that there was a struggle and the officer and subject rolled around on the ground right before the shooting. A “clean” uniform may help prove that false but if it wasn’t collected or properly photographed then it may be harder to prove one way or another. The reality will all investigations is that you never know where they may end up.

Critical Incident Teams Part 1: Team Design

I love to see films or television shows where a detective or officer shoots a bad guy and then immediately leaves the scene to carry on with their investigation or other duties. Contrary to these depictions, police shootings are taken very seriously by departments. At a minimum the officer involved in the shooting will be on some form of leave (paid or un-paid). When a police shooting does occur a “special” team of detectives is assigned to investigate the circumstances of that shooting. Until the investigation is complete, the officers involved won’t be handling any other cases.

Critical incident teams (CIT) are known by a number of names but probably the most common slang label is a “shoot” team. These teams investigate deaths of individuals occurring in police custody or by police action. Put simply, if the police may, in any way, have had any responsibility in a death, these teams will investigate the circumstances of that death. These teams routinely investigate police shootings, deaths occurring during arrest control (handcuffing and wrestling a guy to the ground), or while in police custody. This may be either during a short term booking or if a convicted inmate is found dead in their cell.  The only deaths which may not “automatically” be investigated by these teams are traffic accidents occurring during a police chase. Certainly there will be an internal investigation to see if the chase policies were followed but that investigation may not be done by a CIT, especially if the police car did not make any physical contact with the suspect vehicle. If the two vehicles did make contact then the CIT may be called.

These teams may be divided into two basic forms; in-house/internal or multi-agency.  An internal team is made up of detectives and CSIs from the agency involved in the incident. Usually there are a mix of major case (homicide/robbery/narcotics, etc) detectives and crime lab personnel. All of the investigation and evidence handling is internal. A multi-agency team is composed of major case detectives from a variety of outside agencies within that judicial district but does not include any personnel from the agency involved. For example, I was once on the 18th Judicial District CIT. It was made up of agencies in four Denver metro law enforcement agencies. I worked on cases that did not involve my agency (sheriff’s office). These teams handle the entire investigation (coordinated with the District Attorney and Coroner) to determine if any crimes were committed by law enforcement officers and assist in understanding the cause and manner of death. All evidence is handled by another agency and not by the agency involved in the incident. This creates a layer of insulation from any bias or influence that the public may perceive from police during the investigation. I have written before on some of the challenges that may occur when multiple crimes occur during these CIT investigations.

In your novel you may consider how the formation of these teams might affect the investigation. What happens if an officer from one agency shoots a friend or family member from another agency? How will the public react to a shooting or in-custody death of a “sympathetic” victim? How will the media or community organizers characterize the police response? I’ll have another posting soon on how CSIs process officers involved in shootings and some of the conflicts that can arise. Look for that in a few days. Until then, if you have an officer involved shooting remember that there will be an investigation and one of the two types of teams will likely be involved. You may want to talk to the agency represented in your novel to see what kind of a team they operate.

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