Responding To The “Good Shoot”: Do I really need a lawyer?
It happens more often than not. A LEO is forced to use deadly force and the facts of the events leading to the shooting and the shooting itself clearly support a lawful, appropriate application of force. The criminal investigators interview witnesses who support the use of deadly force and the administrative investigation reveals no violation of departmental policy or state or federal law. This should not surprise anyone as LEOs in the United States are exposed to a tremendous number of training opportunities after they complete training academies. Judgmental use of deadly force classes and simulators as well as role play training leads to this result.
When I speak with and train LEOs, especially about the use of deadly force, I often hear this question, “Why would I need a lawyer if the use of deadly force was clearly justified?” This question strikes at the heart of the use of deadly force in our society. A shooting is a seizure. Every use of force by a LEO is an application of government authority. Therefore, every use of force and every shooting raises issues of constitutional import and courts justifiably take the LEO’s actions seriously.
Let’s look at the United States Supreme Court’s (USSC) opinion in Graham v. Connor, 490 US 386 (1989). This case sets out the standards applied to the use of force to control, arrest, and seize a person. In short, the USSC stated that the use of force by a LEO will be evaluated objectively according to the reasonableness test of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, the USSC also discussed the perceptions of the LEO in a use of force case. This analysis is critical to this blog post.
Put simply, it is important to protect yourself after an OIS. The opportunity to retain and involve counsel is often presented through a narrow window because the effectiveness of the attorney will be limited after some point. I have been involved in many situations representing LEOs where I was limited in the options available and some options were foreclosed completely due to the actions of the LEO before I was involved. In more than one situation, the LEO lost all rights to pursue justice and remedies in the courts. I discussed these situations in a previous post.
Finally, the attorney is able to objectively evaluate the facts of the incident and confirm the appropriateness of your actions. It seems obvious that you will likely believe that every use of deadly force was objectively reasonable because you made the decision. The role of the lawyer is to determine if facts outside your knowledge may create an alternative version of events. For instance, when you focused upon the suspect’s chest after looking at the gun in his hand, do you miss the fact that the suspect dropped the gun after the second of your five shots? Due to auditory exclusion, were you unable to hear the neighbors of a 15-year-old screaming that the gun in his hand was a toy? Due to low light conditions, were you unable to see that the object in the suspect’s hand was a cellphone and not a firearm? While these and other facts may not change the fact that the shooting was justified, an attorney is able to monitor these facts to ensure that your statement of your perceptions are accurate and support your decision to use deadly force.
The presence of an attorney at the scene of an OIS can benefit the LEO in many ways. While some LEOs are concerned about how this will appear to their chain of command, through proper education, this fear should be rendered moot. I know from experience. I have been with many agency heads who have told me I would be among the first people called to the scene if they were involved in an OIS. The lawful application of deadly force is never easy to watch on a video or listen to when the LEO relates what occurred. Remember that the use of deadly force is often subjected to scrutiny by individuals who are untrained and others who are suspicious of every OIS at the outset. An attorney is the only person on the scene of and during the investigation of an OIS who is focused solely on protecting the LEO. You are entitled to counsel. Protect yourself. Stay safe.