Some months ago, officers responded to a single-car accident on a freeway in a major midwestern city. As they tried to tend to and question the driver, he became unruly and earned himself a Tasering. Later, he died. As customary in that jurisdiction, a state investigative agency took over the death investigation.
And that surfaced a nettlesome conflict.
As part of the report-writing process, the officers’ department traditionally permits its personnel to view video from arrest scenes, and it saw no reason that the officers involved shouldn’t see recordings of the Tasering before they were interviewed, to stimulate their memories of what occurred. The investigating agency, however, felt strongly that the videos from dash-cams and the Taser should not be seen prior to the officers giving their official statements, lest the viewing color their recollections.
Reports of the controversy motivated a consortium of agencies in Minnesota to probe more deeply into the question that departments large and small throughout the country potentially face: In a major use-of-force situation, which position best contributes to a fair, impartial, and comprehensive investigation?
To see what science might say, the group turned to Dr. Bill Lewinski, director of the Force Science Institute, parent entity of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
In a first-of-its-kind presentation earlier this month [1/09] in St. Paul, Lewinski spent more than 2 hours exploring the pros and cons of the subject, culminating in recommendations that agencies confronting the dilemma may find useful. In the audience were representatives of 9 of Minnesota’s largest law enforcement organizations.
In St. Paul, Lewinski first reviewed some realities of human memory, as determined by scientific research, including experiments conducted with LEOs by FSRC.
“After a high-stress experience, such as a major force confrontation, an officer’s memory of what happened is likely to be fragmentary at best,” he explained. “An incident is never completely recorded in memory.”
At various times during an incident, the focus of an officer’s attention may shift between internal thoughts and concerns to external stimuli, and where his focus is at any given moment will unavoidably influence what he remembers.
“A person’s attention is an extremely significant factor in determining what that person perceives and then remembers,” Lewinski said. “It would be extremely rare, if not impossible, for an officer involved in a fluid, complex, dynamic, and life-threatening encounter to remember peripheral details beyond that on which he or she was focused.
“The average person will actually miss a large amount of what happened in a stressful event and, of course, will be completely unaware of what they did not pay attention to and commit to memory.”
Compounding the problem, a participant or witness “may unintentionally add information in their report that was not actually part of the original incident,” Lewinski explained—not in a plot to deceive, necessarily, but in a humanly instinctive effort to fill in frustrating memory gaps.
“Memory is not neatly stored in a single compact file in our brain but is stored in chunks in a variety of neural networks,” Lewinski said. “Given this, a variety of stimuli may be necessary to mine the fragments thoroughly.”
Cognitive interviewing, which encourages an officer to relive an event with all his senses, can be a highly effective tool. So can a walk-through at the scene and/or review of a video of the action, because these “place the officer back within the context of the incident and thus stimulate his ‘recognition recall.’
“An officer’s version of an incident will vary, depending on whether his statement is taken before, after, or without a walk-through or a viewing of a videotape of the incident.”
Even with the help of stimulation strategies, Lewinski cautioned, there will still be inevitable memory errors, particularly when an officer attempts to recall “information that was on the periphery of his attention during the incident, even if that information later turns out to be very important.”
Seeing on-scene video, while usually helpful in stimulating an officer’s memory, is no panacea, Lewinski stressed.
“A video recording is often considered a thorough and accurate record of the incident because it is rich with information, objective, and unbiased. However, video recordings, regardless of how good the lighting and quality of filming, are never a completely accurate reproduction of any incident.”
Among the limitations Lewinski cited:
- “Video cameras generally record only a portion of an incident and are bereft of the context of the event”;
- “Video is a 2-dimensional representation of an incident from a particular perspective and tends to distort distance and other associated with depth of field”;
- “Generally video does not faithfully record light levels and does not represent what a human being in the incident would perceive”;
- “A video does not present the incident as viewed through the officer’s eyes”; and
- “Video cameras recording at less than 10 frames per second can leave out significant aspects of an incident that occur at speeds faster than that.”
Despite these limitations, in Lewinski’s view, an officer seeing any available video recordings is vital in many cases, if a comprehensive mining of the officer’s memory is the goal.
A debatable factor is timing.
A “raw” statement taken from an officer without his viewing any video of the incident or experiencing other memory enhancers (like a walk-through) “may be a good record of his ‘state of mind’ before, during, and after the confrontation,” Lewinski said, “but it may not be a thorough, factual representation of what happened.”
Indeed, it could be “viewed more as a memory test with potential disciplinary and criminal consequences than a pursuit of the facts of the incident,” he said. “Internal Affairs investigators, criminal prosecutors, and plaintiffs’ attorneys exploit discrepancies in reports between participants and witnesses, and they can do the same when there is a discrepancy between the officer’s report and a videotape.
“The most enriched, complete, and factually accurate version of a high-stress encounter is most likely to occur after a walk-through and/or after the officer has had at least one opportunity to view an available video of the incident.”
Ideally, Lewinski believes, a video review should be permitted before an involved officer gives his official statement.
Currently, however, some departments and prosecutors are insistent on obtaining a “pure” statement to document an officer’s state of mind regarding the encounter as it evolved, before other stimuli, particularly a video review, are introduced.
Consequently, Lewinski proposed a compromise “middle-of-the-road” position, which at least assures that a video review becomes part of any force investigation early in the game.
If an agency is adamant about not showing an officer video prior to a statement being taken, Lewinski suggested that a video review be allowed soon after the interview and that the officer then be re-interviewed or given a chance to write an additional report at that time.
“This offers the officer a chance to comment on what he now understands about the incident compared to what he may have said in his original statement,” Lewinski told Force Science News. “This is not perfect, but it does offer a chance for additional mining of the officer’s memory and it is far better than having the officer ‘ambushed’ with the video much later, not having seen it at all.
“Where discrepancies exist, investigators need to be knowledgeable and sensitive enough, in the absence of other incriminating evidence, to explain to the officer, the administration, and the public how an officer’s perception of an incident can be vastly different from what’s seen on a video recording and still be legitimate.”
Whether the video is shown before or after the statement, it is important to “caution the officer on the limited accuracy of video recordings,” Lewinski told the group. “An officer who is unaware of the limitations and uncertain about the accuracy of his own memory may be influenced to change an otherwise accurate report.”
Lewinski also warned that “officers who have been through an extremely emotionally distressing incident may find a walk-through, a viewing of the video, and the giving of a statement to be too difficult to handle unless they have had some time to decompress.” (In previous transmissions, experts quoted in Force Science News have recommended that officers be allowed to rest for up to 48 hours after a critical incident before submitting to extensive interviewing.)
Lewinski told FSN that the representatives at the St. Paul meeting do not intend to formulate a joint policy on the video issue. Rather, they planned to individually evaluate their department’s position in light of his information and to help in spreading the word to other agencies.
As a part of his presentation, Lewinski included film clips and other materials from the Institute’s popular certification course on Force Science Analysis. During this unique 5-day training program, investigators learn how to assess controversial force encounters with scientific principles of biology, physiology, and psychology in mind, to gain a more accurate picture of the dynamics involved.