By Ken Crane
In 2008, Calibre Press co-founder Charles Remsberg wrote a book called Blood Lessons in which he compiled 24 true-life accounts of police officers who were involved in harrowing life-and-death encounters. These accounts, told in the words of the involved officers are gut-wrenching, and in some instances, painful to read as they recount their stories in graphic detail to include brutal life-threatening injuries, the physical recovery, and the psychological aftermath.
As the title infers, the “Blood Lessons” shared by these officers were the result of violent encounters combined with their blood being spilled. The stories, painful as they might be, are told in the hopes that other officers can learn and avoid similar situations and pitfalls as they move through their careers.
As someone now retired, who spent three decades in law enforcement serving with a large municipal police agency, I’ve heard numerous police use of force accounts and, in many cases, have been a part of dynamic scenes involving use of force. Often things can and do go sideways, resulting in officer injury or death. I’ve also experienced the frustration many have after a major incident when information about what happened is almost non-existent or only spoken of in very general terms. Any time an officer is seriously injured or killed, it will prompt a natural response from co-workers wanting to know the details of the event. This is not because cops are obsessed with the macabre or grisly details. They simply want to know if there are lessons to be learned that can be used to keep themselves and others safe in similar circumstances down the road.
This is certainly not to say that every use of force is suspect or that there will automatically be a coverup afoot. However, when things go south resulting in injury or death to officers, involved agencies often seem to put a moratorium on the release of information within the organization.
Here are six reasons that come to mind on why law enforcement agencies might put a lid on the details of use of force events.
1. Dead Hero Syndrome: When an officer is injured or killed there is often an immediate rush by the public, media and the agency to confer hero status upon them, regardless of what the circumstances were. In all fairness, in most instances, actions taken by officers are indeed heroic. We all think of law enforcement as a noble and heroic profession, and it is. In the event of an officer’s death, the police department wants the community, the media, and the officer’s family to know the officer’s sacrifice was not in vain. Most agencies will not miss an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. Therefore, once the aftermath of the event has passed and an officer has been laid to rest, many agencies, rather than taking a pragmatic approach to debrief events within the confines of the department, might adopt an attitude of ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ rather than engage in candid, fact-based discussions that might reveal poor judgment on the part of officers or supervisors resulting in the death of an officer. That could, in turn, be seen as tarnishing the reputation of a dead hero. While some may agree this approach is best, I think it does a gross disservice to the men and women who, as painful as it might be, can learn valuable lessons from any mistakes made.
2. Liability/Litigation: Many agencies will cite the possibility of pending or potential litigation to lock down the actual facts surrounding a controversial use of force or an officer’s death. This could be legitimate or could be a convenient smokescreen to allow any controversy to subside, which effectively puts a lid on all but the most basic details surrounding the event. In some instances, this could last for years, which means passions cool, people move on, and memories fade.
3. Embarrassment: No one likes to be confronted with embarrassing circumstances whether it be an individual, a city, or a police agency. The innate need to save face can be a driving force in concealing or minimizing the facts surrounding an officer’s death or a particular use of force incident.
4. Protecting the Reputation of High-Profile Units: Most large police departments will have specialized units such as SWAT teams and fugitive apprehension details. These are the elite operatives of the department called in when violent felons need to be hunted down or things go south on a crime scene requiring people with specialized skillsets, equipment, and training. Officers within these details are often viewed as the tactical gurus of the department. They are the varsity squad. There are high expectations and high standards to be maintained by these units, yet they are not infallible. Despite their professionalism and expertise, even the best can make mistakes that result in the loss of an officer. When this occurs, there can be pressure to keep things on the down-low and put the reputation of a specialized unit ahead of the need to get hard details out to the men and women of the agency. Specialty units usually conduct detailed after-action debriefs, kept internal to the unit, that will be tightly compartmentalized; meaning any lessons learned are kept inside the unit. This is dangerous and promotes a misplaced, flawed ideology that essentially says, we can’t let the rest of the agency know that we are human and actually make mistakes like everybody else. The embarrassment factor previously mentioned can also play a large part in avoiding reputational damage to a specialized unit. Often, the only exterior indicators that something went bad might be a shakeup in leadership or the quiet transfer of personnel out of the unit. Actions such as these just add fuel to the rumor mill.
5. Protecting/Covering for Failed Supervision: It’s no secret within police departments that supervisors usually fall into one of two categories: good administrators or good tacticians. It can be rare to find one who excels in both areas. Unfortunately, it often seems good tacticians are in the minority. Therefore, when patrol officers have a situation go south on the street, a patrol supervisor will respond who might not be the first-round draft pick for controlling a rapidly unfolding, volatile scene. When injury or loss of life occurs as a result of bad tactical decisions tied to inept supervision, agencies may close ranks and look for ways to defend and gloss over poor judgment on the part of police managers. Sadly, it often seems there is a direct correlation between the level of protection put forth in relation to how high up the food chain the bad decision was made.
6. Multi-Agency Task Force: A multi-agency task force can perform stellar police work by bringing a myriad of police resources to bear to address large-scale criminal operations. When something goes bad on a multi-agency operation resulting in the death of an officer, things can turn ugly fast with fingers being pointed in multiple directions. It can create a volatile atmosphere among the involved entities if they seek ways to absolve themselves of blame and liability. This can make for bad blood and strained working relationships between agencies especially if one agency perceives their officer is dead or injured due to a failure on the part of another agency. If battle lines are drawn over who’s responsible for a bad call, it’s doubtful the unvarnished truth will ever come out and valuable lessons that might have come forth will likely never see the light of day.
It’s a bit odd that one of the new mantras we hear frequently from police administrators is the word “transparency.” Some Police Chiefs, in their zeal to demonstrate transparency, will often rush to judgment with pre-emptive press conferences as they throw officers under the bus before all the facts are known. These same Chiefs often show a lack of transparency when it comes to internal communications on critical incidents occurring within their own organizations. It seems they often put a lid on the ugly details of a tactical situation gone bad involving injured or killed officers if there is a perception that it might damage their reputation, could incur additional liability, might not be politically expedient, or could be viewed as tarnishing the image or reputation of the department.
When this happens, officers, hungering for information, are on their own in ferreting out tidbits of information, usually through locker room and parking lot scuttlebutt. Police departments are notorious rumor mills and the best antidote is getting fact-based information out as rapidly as possible.
Police agencies as a whole need to get better at disseminating information in a clinical, analytical format that examines the facts and focuses on the actions and decision points of a given event so informed discussion can follow on what went right or wrong, without maligning or disparaging the individuals involved.
One would think that those seriously injured or killed as a result of bad tactics or poor decision making would want others to know the truth in order to prevent someone from going down the same path. We owe them that much.
Blood lessons are of no use if they are kept top secret.