Let’s Talk: Police Shootings (Part 2)

Let’s Talk: Police Shootings and Reflecting on Them — Part Two

Ed. Note: While the below article [of which I am excerpting key areas] was sent last year to over 3,000 police leaders across the country, I do not believe it has had the discussion it deserves. Here are two seasoned senior police officers from a large metropolitan police department attempting to struggle with what I believe is the crucial problem facing today’s police in America – the use of deadly force. These are experienced police leaders and what they are suggesting as to how police agencies should react should become part of policing’s “body of knowledge.”

The authors are Asst. Police Chief Timothy N. Oettmeier spent over 42 years with the Houston Police Department. During his career he rose through the ranks from Police Officer to Executive Assistant Chief of Police. During his career he served as the Director of Training, the city of Houston’s Inspector General, and as an Executive in charge of Patrol, Investigations, and Support Operations and Senior Police Officer Terry A. Bratton spent 39 years with the Houston Police Department. During his career he worked as a Police Officer and Senior Police Officer in Patrol Operations and in the Training Division. He is recognized in State and Federal court as an expert in use of force and officer involved shootings. He has done extensive training in these areas as well as in the use of tactical decision-making.

Read carefully what they have to say and then take steps to incorporate their suggestions into your police department whether you are a police or community leader.]


REFLECTIONS ON POLICE SHOOTINGS: A Look at How Agencies Should React – [Abbreviated and Continued]

Part 2

Timothy N. Oettmeier and Terry A. Bratton

March, 2017


  1. Overcome Serious Officer Safety Training Deficiencies

Having sound policies is one thing, being able to prudently and effectively convey them to police personnel is another entirely different challenge. The primary means of communicating this information is through training and education. Failure to provide timely, reliable, and valid training can be costly in many ways ranging from the loss of life, to sustaining injuries, to being held accountable for acts of vicarious liability (e.g., failure to supervise, failure to train, and negligent retention)…

Thus, it is incumbent upon police executives to take steps to ensure department personnel receive proper training, especially in those high-risk areas such as the use-of-force, mechanics of arrest, search and seizure, and so forth. With the advent of Davis v. Mason County 927 F. 2d 1473 (CA9 1991), police executives were placed on notice that it is not sufficient just to train personnel on how to perform various aspects of their job, but the training must include when the performance should be used. Herein lies the balancing challenge for police managers, supervisors, and trainers – how much time it takes to teach someone how to perform a skill versus how much time it takes to teach someone, when and under what circumstances that skill should be used…

The genesis of any tactical decision-making rests with how one is trained to think and act. At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two tactical training approaches being used in police agencies today: foundational and situational.

The foundational approach focuses on teaching a set of techniques that are universally applied to any incident. This makes it easier for trainers to administer and hypothetically easier for officers to remember. In today’s climate in which police officers are unsuspecting targets of ambushes, it would not be surprising to see agencies starting to drift toward using this approach exclusively.

Contrast this with a situational approach where officers are taught to match techniques to a given incident. Officers would be expected to differentiate which techniques they would use for various types of traffic stops, working with mentally impaired consumers, searching buildings, interacting with recalcitrant persons and so forth.

Neither of these approaches is necessarily incorrect when used; however, the mindset used by officers and anticipated reactions by targeted persons to the techniques used could be a concern. In other words, not every incident requires an assertive, aggressive approach to reach a successful conclusion. Knowing when to compensate for the uniqueness of situations and people is critical for establishing tactical superiority.

Tactical decision-making is important because it governs how officers conduct themselves at an incident. Determining which tactics to use is predicated on scene conditions, the presence of personnel at the scene, and the behavior of the person in question. There is no “continuum” or “pre-designated sequence” regulating which tactics officers should use for a given scene.

The intent of tactical superiority is to create a deterrent effect so the officer is in a position of influencing what occurs during an incident. It can also provide the officer a degree of protection depending on the circumstances encountered. It is in no way a foolproof means of bringing any scene to a successful closure, but used properly, it can increase the probability of bringing an incident to a peaceful resolution.

Tactical Techniques. There are several important tactical techniques officers should be using. It is important to note though that once any of these techniques are used officers should constantly be reassessing their situation before moving forward – and this could take only a matter of seconds (or longer depending on the nature of the situation) to be effective. The techniques listed below are not exhaustive but they merit a simple description for purposes of clarity:

  1. Assessing the scene. Officers must possess competent situational assessment skills to assess scene conditions (i.e., physical characteristics), identify the number and type of people present, perceive citizen behavior, identify threats, recognize the relevancy of distractions at the scene, and so forth…
  2. Gauging and maintaining a safe distance.  There is no general rule of thumb on what distance one should maintain, but more distance could provide even the slimmest of time for the officer to decide how to react to aggressive behavior…
  3. Use of adequate cover and / or concealment opportunities. One of the most critical pieces of information the officer can obtain during scene assessments is the availability of cover or concealment…
  4. Maintaining line of sight. Constantly viewing a person is crucial to maintaining officer safety as it can govern officer interaction and determine risk probabilities in approaching the person…
  5. Approaching a person. The tried and true method of always quickly confronting a person to assume control is not always the most advantageous tactic…
  6. Determining the need to tactically reposition oneself. Knowing when to back off and reassess one’s situation before moving forward is an essential tactic for maintaining one’s safety… Since situations are fluid, officers must be comfortable in altering their tactics accordingly. Repositioning oneself demonstrates patience; it buys time for the officer and allows them to reconsider their options.
  7. Use of time. Buying time can keep officers from making emotionally driven decisions that may jeopardize their safety or the person of interest. Time provides an opportunity for judgment and decisions based on information gleaned from observing someone…
  8. Knowing when and what types of command / directives to issue. Simply barking out orders at someone will not always bring about the desired effect. It surely will not be effective when communicating with a mental health consumer experiencing a crisis…
  9. Using de-escalation protocol. This protocol embraces several of the tactics already mentioned. A sample of techniques include: remaining calm; avoid overreacting; indicate a willingness to understand and help; allowing a person to ventilate; speaking simply and friendly; ask rather than order; do not default to forcing action unless absolutely necessary; etc…
  10. Deciding if to terminate a pursuit – foot or vehicle. Pursuits are one of toughest situations to manage. Many agencies have policies governing the management of vehicular pursuits, but we wonder if the same can be said about foot pursuits…

When we look at many police shootings, especially those of late, the tactical techniques used by officers can reasonably be questioned, even those used in situations where a shooting was deemed justifiable.

Furthermore, we suggest the amount of time dedicated to tactical decision- making training in many departments is woefully inadequate…

One need look no further than the Police Executive Research Forum’s (PERF) 2015 (August) report entitled: “Re-Engineering Training on Police Use of Force.” PERF conducted a survey of member agencies in the Spring of 2015, of which 280 responded revealing topics such as crisis intervention, use of force policy, de-escalation, communication skills were included in recruit and in-service training programs. But the presence of these topics provides no assurances the training is either sufficient or properly balanced in association with other courses offered

It is not uncommon practice for trainers to create “no-win” scenarios for recruits, even veteran officers as a way of making a point. These situations typically require officers to demonstrate that under justifiable circumstances, they will be able to defend themselves by using deadly force. What tends to get lost in this approach is the fear being instilled within officers…

A successful learning experience for each officer means he or she had an opportunity to participate in relevant training activities. We must not underestimate the value of officers watching their colleagues participate in scenarios different from the ones they were involved in, but the most effective learning comes from personal participation.

Further, participants should know there is seldom one right way to resolve problems within a scenario. Officers subjected to scenario-based training must walk away from the experience being able to distinguish preferred methods from less preferred methods of resolving non-compliant behavior under a variety of circumstances…

For scenario-based training to have value, officers must believe they were challenged to perform in a manner designed to enhance and preserve their safety and the safety of citizens. The question that must be asked is how frequent and intense these types of training are provided to officers during the course of their careers? The answer in many agencies may be far too few.

Firearm training is another core instructional area in need of attention. Firearms instructors have an extraordinarily difficult job of teaching recruits how to handle and shoot their weapons. Still, we must have assurances that if an officer is going to shoot, he or she will do so accurately…

Because of concerns about accurate shooting, it is safe to say in many agencies what gets lost is an emphasis in determining “when” to shoot and “what” can be done to reduce the necessity of shooting.

This may be attributed, in part, to the evaporation of an important training sequence in police academies today. Under “normal” circumstances, the officer’s primary response option is to use non-forceful means to resolve conflict. The exception to this approach is to use non-lethal methods, such as a baton, electronic control device, pepper spray, etc. The exception to the exception is using deadly force.

In examining training curricula, one should not be surprised to find more time being spent on the use of deadly force and the least amount of time on non- forceful protocols.

This has the potential of skewing officers into believing they are more apt to encounter situations where they will need to rely on using deadly force than not. This is further compounded when the use of computerized “shoot-don’t-shoot” software programs are incorporated into a curriculum. There are two significant issues with this approach.

First, it is not sufficiently interactive – the subjects projected do not behave spontaneously so the challenge of handling non-compliant behavior is non-existent. When you exclude spontaneity of a suspect, you automatically reduce opportunities to assess an officer’s decision-making ability…

Second, computer generated scenarios are predicated on only one primary decision, will the officer shoot or decide not to shoot? All other use of force options are off the table and do not apply; this includes negating an officer’s most effective tool – direct communication with a person.

And third, a high percentage of the scenarios presented are shoot situations, which precondition officers to overestimate the likelihood of the necessity to shoot. In actuality, the probability of the officer becoming involved in a shooting situation is extremely small…

A “shoot-don’t-shoot” training program has value, but it must be properly balanced with using other conflict resolution techniques. Ignoring this need to strike a balance in how officers are trained to cope with confrontations could be a contributing factor as to why these controversial shootings are occurring.

It is one thing for the officer to be in a position to justifiably use deadly force but not do so because of his or her ability to de-escalate the situation to the point where less-than-lethal force or no force is used to resolve the situation without jeopardizing their own safety of the safety of others.

Police executives are aware of their responsibility to assure the public they have properly prepared their officers to use force only in those instances when such a response if justified. The public is right to expect officers to know how to use such force. However, it is perhaps more important for each officer to know when that force is appropriate…

If police executives choose to rely on instructors who have extensive military experience, they need to ensure these trainers recognize and understand differences and adjust their conduct accordingly…

Continuity must exist between what is written and what is actually taught, how it is taught, and by whom, which is critical when a particular topic spans multiple training units (i.e., defensive tactics unit, firearms training unit, mental health unit, etc.). One must not forego the importance of having supervisors monitor each segment of an officer-safety training program, or elements thereof.

It would behoove police executives to be knowledgeable about all aspects of the training their officers, supervisors, and managers receive regarding tactical operation techniques. It is no longer sufficient to solely focus on how officer mechanics and rationale were used to justify why an officer shot someone; attention must also focus on actions taken by officers prior to having to discharge their firearm – astute officers will use and rely on what they were trained to do!

Police executives must be prepared to describe and demonstrate what they have done and are doing through their training efforts to help officers handle these types of incidents. If they do not or their efforts are minimal there must be consequences. The more the public knows about these facets of police work, the stronger accountability becomes.

  1. Establish and Publicize A Legitimate Post Shooting Intervention Protocol

One of the standard procedures for officers who have shot someone is for them to be temporarily reassigned to an administrative job for a set number of days. There is no standard length of time for the officer to remain away from his or her field assignment as it varies among departments, typically ranging from 3 – 5 days, some much longer.

There is value to this practice but in most cases it seldom reaches its potential. On the positive, the removal of the officer from a neighborhood, especially when a questionable shooting occurs, places the officer out of harms way and limits his or her potential to be a catalyst for disorder and unrest.

It also provides the officer time to cope with the psychological after effects of having shot another human being. Officers will react differently to this situation, which is the reason many police executives require involved officers to visit with a psychologist. It is incumbent upon the psychologist to determine when or if the officer is “fit for assignment” in his or her previous field duty. As there are multiple assignment options for officers, it should not always be assumed they will work in their previous capacity.

The real issue with any post shooting protocol is: “what are officers doing while on special administrative assignment?” Paper work, answering phones or similar make work assignments are tantamount to wasting a precious opportunity.

Many agencies have post-critical incident protocols that are used in conjunction with major department operations (i.e., huge sporting events, concert events, and the like), special weapons and tactics unit operations, even major undercover operations. These debriefing sessions are invaluable to an agency as they are designed to examine and critique an operation solely to look for ways to improve how future similar events will be handled. A similar approach must be established for officers who have been involved in incidents where they discharged their firearm.

The goal of this effort must be ensuring the officer has confidence in his or her ability to perform their job. Equally important, they must fully understand how their actions relate to the agency’s policy and the training they have been refreshed on.

This can be accomplished by exposing officers to a multitude of activities that will not only help them cope with the effects of a shooting incident, but will also prove beneficial to his or her colleagues. For example, at the very least, this protocol should include the following activities:

  1. Debriefing Session – the officer should have a chance to share his or her perceptions of the incident in question; thoughts about the investigation of the incident; personal critique of how the incident was handled; perception of other officers reaction to the incident; any lessons learned; suggestions for training, etc…
  2. Firearms Refresher – officers should be allowed to shoot the agency’s qualification course, not so much to determine if they could qualify, but more importantly, to allow range personnel to examine the officer’s shooting mechanics and weapon functionality… This session is important in determining if the shooting incident has adversely affected the officer’s ability to effectively use his weapon under varying degrees of stress.
  3. Crisis Intervention Training Refresher – ideally, this session should be conducted by personnel who have extensive experience with de- escalation techniques in response to non-compliant behavior… The importance of this session is to review other non-lethal and verbal response options to resolve a potentially volatile incident.
  4. Scenario Participation Session – this session should consist of administering a series of computer simulations (if available) – and most importantly – live, practical field scenarios. In both instances, the emphasis should be on an officer’s decision-making abilities versus his or her marksmanship. For example, officers should be challenged to:
  • Handle different types of incidents that cause the officer to use their situational awareness skills to assess scene conditions, perceive citizen behavior, and to determine what type of compliance techniques should be used for a given incident;
  •  Confront incidents where officers must use de-escalation techniques under non-stressful and stressful conditions; and
  •  When possible, resolve a highly stressful and emotional incident without resorting to using deadly force.

What should be avoided are simulations that result in the officer routinely being killed if any type of mistake is made. Officers do not need to be reminded of this outcome; otherwise they will predominantly be thinking and looking for the proverbial ambush situation, which minimizes using their abilities to focus on applying various tactical techniques. This may be extraordinarily difficult in some jurisdictions given the recent events where officers have been ambushed and killed.

  1. Ride Along – at the expense of a veteran officer feeling this would be demeaning to his or her ego and stature in the agency, it would be wise to have the officer ride with a colleague for a few days prior to returning to a regular assignment in a one-officer capacity. This allows the officer to ease back into a field assignment with the presence of a fellow officer… This is extremely important if the officer is experiencing any signs associated with post traumatic stress syndrome, which, if occurring, should be discussed further with a psychologist to determine what the best course of action would be for the officer’s assignments.
  2. Supervisor Debrief – one must not forget the important responsibility the officer’s supervisor has in helping the officer transition back to his or her assignment. There is an obligation on behalf of management to ensure supervisors know what to look for with respect to officer behavior and what not to do to inhibit one’s recovery attempts. The purpose of this session is impart information that will help the supervisor assist the officer… For this session to be successful, it is imperative supervisors are good listeners.
  3. Follow up Contacts – are in everyone’s best interest to touch base with the officer after having returned to his or her assignment. These should continue for a period of time and should include meeting with a psychologist, a mentor…

It would be naïve not to acknowledge the importance of aligning this protocol with any legal considerations associated with the incident in question. Officers and their legal representatives will be quick to distance themselves from any requirement in which the officer is “forced” to discuss any aspects of his or her situation (i.e., in a debriefing session) without the presence of legal counsel. This is not insurmountable as debriefing sessions can be similar to peer counseling regimens. It depends on the nature of the questions asked during the session and what the officer feels comfortable in discussing.

Police executives have an obligation to be held accountable for ensuring their agency has a comprehensive and practical post shooting intervention process that focuses on refreshing an officer’s abilities to handle dangerous situations. This should be viewed as a positive opportunity for officers to contribute their experiences for the benefit of others. Plus, it allows officers to refresh and refine their existing capabilities all for the purpose of enhancing their safety awareness.

Lastly, this protocol should be shared with the public, otherwise they are left to believe the reason an officer was moved was because he or she did something wrong, which may not be the case at all. But this does not mean all of the information shared during the protocol should be made available to the public (i.e., the use of specific police tactics). The public should understand officers would go through a process for specific reasons. This process represents a means of transparency for police executives to demonstrate their accountability to them (or lack thereof).

In Closing…

At this point, one might ask: “How do you make this work?” First and foremost, there is no one right way as every police department is different and every police chief and sheriff have varying opinions as to what they believe should be done. What gives us pause is the tendency to approach this issue on a piecemeal basis.

Adopting use of force principles; or modifying existing policies; or subjecting officers to a de-escalation training class in and of themselves may be legally prudent, but what assurances does one have the behavior of officers, supervisors, and managers will actually improve? It is important to acknowledge the gap that typically exists between what is said in a policy, what the training actually achieves, and how well officers, supervisors, and managers are able to demonstrate the relationship between the two. This would suggest the process of integrating policy with training is crucial.

Simply exposing employees to a “revised or existing policy” and subjecting them to a training class does not automatically equate to needed change. Policies should include perspectives from field personnel; otherwise they may stifle the very behavior targeted for improvement. Tactical decision-making cannot afford to be cumbersome especially in situations where every second may count. Protocols must be practiced repeatedly if officers are expected to perform them naturally, without hesitation.

These elements are key components of an overall process in which policy must be integrated with the design and implementation of training; and then, most importantly, training must be repeated over time. The training method must allow personnel to apply the necessary skill sets, articulate why they did so, and then be subjected to constructive critiques.

Keep in mind, supervisors and managers should be exposed to scenarios (role-play or case reviews) and be required to critique the demonstrated behavior of the officer(s). Just because one promotes to a supervisory or managerial position does not mean they know how to critically assess behavior. If we expect them to supervise behavior and manage events, they must receive adequate training that sets appropriate expectations.

To say police work is challenging is a massive understatement. As much as citizens want their police to be effective and successful, mistakes, based on questionable decision-making and ensuing action will be made. When these mistakes occur, especially serious ones resulting in the loss of life, accountability must stretch beyond just assessing blame or justifying actions taken.

Police executives must take a hard look at what they are doing to help officers cope with the rigors of recalcitrant behavior under extremely stressful conditions. They must be willing to critically assess officer decisions and resultant behavior during these incidents and not solely focus on if an officer was justified in discharging his or her weapon at someone. Police shootings are often justified, but seldom are police executives asked if the shooting was necessary. They are just not the same!

Accountability for police executives must expand beyond how these incidents are investigated. Public discussion must also move beyond arguing who should be responsible for investigating these incidents. These discussions are important but they divert attention away from factors that contribute to the outcome everyone hopes to avoid – unnecessary injury or death.

There is much that can be done to improve how these incidents are handled; but police executives must be willing to make the commitment to act. Failure to do so is not only shortsightedness but should also be considered unacceptable.


  • The article 43-page article in its entirety HERE.
  • And remember we don’t learn from experience — only by reflecting on that experience!