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Critics say new Dallas policy will allow police to make up cover stories for officer-involved shootings

By Travis Gettys
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 10:52 EDT
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Police with guns drawn search for a suspect in Watertown, Massachusetts early on April 19, 2013 (Getty Images_AFP, Mario Tama)
 
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The Dallas Police Department will require any officer who’s involved in a police shooting to wait 72 hours before giving a statement about the shooting.

Chief David Brown quietly issued the policy change last month, several weeks after surveillance video was released that showed an officer shooting a mentally ill suspect for no apparent reason, contradicting another officer’s testimony that led to a felony charge against the victim.

“It is my belief that this decision will improve the investigation of our most critical incidents,” said Brown in an email statement.

Under the new policy, officers who fire their weapon or witness the gunfire may watch any available videos before giving their statements – and they must wait at least three full days to do that.

Previously, officers who witnessed a shooting would typically be required to speak with police investigator within hours of the incident and officers who fired their guns usually spoke right away, although they weren’t required to do so.

An attorney for the recent shooting victim said the waiting period will allow officers to make up excuses for their actions in unjustified shootings, but memory experts agree with the police chief.

Alexis Artwohl, a behavior consultant for law enforcement agencies around the county, said research shows that officers need rest before they can accurately recall traumatic events.

“They are not passive observers watching something from an easy chair,” Artwhol said. “They are at the scene where life-and-death decisions are being made, and they’re an integral part of it. So of course they are going to be impacted.”

Brown told The Dallas Morning News that the policy was based in part on his own experience after being shot at.

“It wasn’t until two or three days later to where I remembered it accurately,” Brown said.

The Dallas Police Association has asked to allow witnessing officers to view available video before making a statement, just as officers who fired their weapons had been permitted, but the Oct. 14 shooting of Bobby Bennett spurred the chief’s decision.

Bennett was charged with aggravated assault of a public servant after officers said he raise a knife in an aggressive manner, but the charge was dropped when a neighbor’s surveillance video showed Bennett, who did have a knife, rolled away from officers in a swivel chair.

The video also showed that Bennett kept his hands at his side and never moved his feet.

Officer Cardan Spencer was fired after the video surfaced and his partner, Officer Christopher Watson, was suspended for 15 days.

Bennett’s attorney said the policy change was “maddening” because it treated police officers differently from other witnesses.

“No other witness is told, ‘Here, you have three days to get back to us, and, by the way, here is a copy of all the video of the incident so you can get your story straight,’” said attorney Don Tittle.

But Artwhol said officers treat civilian witnesses differently because police may not always be able to find those witnesses again, while that usually isn’t true of officers.

“I don’t know of a single case of an officer disappearing after an officer-involved shooting,” she said.

But Tittle dismissed the memory studies cited by Artwohl and the police department.

“This whole memory claim, that somehow because of the stressful situation, their memories are faulty — that may be true,” Tittle said. “But why is it that their memories are always faulty in a way that covers for another police officer?”

[Image via Agence France-Presse]

 
 
 
 
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