Blue Line


August 10, 2015  By Joel Johnston

Confident of your ability to handle yourself after a critical force incident? Consider the following scenario:

You are a lone officer dispatched to deal with a young, violent male suspect who has threatened others. You talk to him and advise him he’s under arrest. He violently attacks you and manages to snatch your gun from its holster. The fight for your life, and for the lives of everyone around you, is on.

You immediately engage the assailant, even though he is bigger and stronger than you and somehow manage to regain control of your gun. The suspect continues to attack, so you fire û twice. The suspect falls and ends up dead. You can’t believe what happened û the whole thing was over in less than ten seconds. You were never trained for this scenario; in fact, your trainers told you your equipment would prevent such an incident from ever occurring.

You call for an ambulance.


Soon you are ushered into an interview room and ordered to provide a statement. Still in a state of shock and disbelief and suffering from post critical incident and survival stress effects, you try to reconstruct what happened as uninvolved, unaffected investigators ask you questions. They alternately apply a combination of psychological tactics and pressure, logic and common sense to an uncommon occurrence, as they’ve been trained to do. You can’t explain what happened so your mind begins to fill in the blanks.

You are charged with manslaughter because of what you said, yet you know that what you did was the only way to survive. You are subsequently tried and convicted, lose your job and are sent to jail. You still know in your heart that you did the right thing; the alternative would have been to die and have everyone in that environment compromised in the same fashion.

Things like this have happened to good police officers in tense, uncertain, rapidly evolving, chaotic, life-threatening situations where they won the short battle for survival but lost the five to ten-year legal war. Other police officers lost the battle for survival and were heralded as heroes, with full police honour-guard funerals and civic ceremonies. The truth is, neither is more heroic than the other. Heroes win and survive and heroes lose and die. We need to revisit how we handle surviving heroes.

It’s important to distinguish between police-involved and citizen-involved shootings, stabbings or assaults. Police officers are sworn to uphold the law and are regularly asked to deal with difficult situations û they have a duty to act. They must instantly assess the behaviour of the person(s) they are dealing with; if they are cooperative, or resistive but pose no physical threat to anyone else, that means talking to them and trying to convince them to voluntarily comply.

If a person’s behaviour is threatening however, police have no option but to respond using the variety of force response options they are equipped with û it’s almost as though there is an expectation that, from time to time, officers may have to use them. Disengagement is rarely a viable option due to reaction time, proximity to the threat, duty to act, etc. If police do respond with physical force, they don’t try to escape but remain on scene to provide or call for medical aid, leave their name and complete follow-up reports.

It’s inappropriate to compare police-involved deadly force encounters with civilian crimes of violence. They are simply not the same. Generally, police involved incidents lack criminal intent, do not manifest themselves in the same manner as criminal events, the aftermath is handled differently and there are no efforts to escape accountability.

Officers should not be treated like criminal suspects during the investigation process. Certainly a thorough investigation must occur û but the goal must be to obtain the most complete, accurate information about the encounter as possible.

Research has shown that a statement provided by an involved officer immediately after a deadly force encounter will be fraught with inaccuracies that will forevermore compromise the integrity of any investigation and the legal survival of the officer. It is a scientific fact that the officer will not be able to provide the most complete and accurate statement possible until some 72 hours later, after two full sleep periods.

Citizens are afforded the right to retain and instruct counsel without delay, and these are often people who have purposefully committed a violent crime, attempted to escape detection and either had time to conjure up a story about ‘what happened’ or simply and directly deny any involvement.

Police have the right û the duty really û not to speak or write in detail about an incident at a time when they are not physically, psychologically or emotionally capable of providing the most accurate and complete details.

According to research and recommendations from medical experts, an involved officer should provide only a cursory preliminary report after a deadly force encounter û that is, ‘I was on duty, attended a call and “X” was the outcome’ û period. In fact, all of this information would be obtainable from other sources (duty rosters, dispatch information, hospital records, etc.).

Officer-involved shooting/use of force investigators do their job as they have been trained and most don’t know how survival stress, which frequently occurs after a critical incident, can affect memory accuracy. The notion of compelled or coerced statements should not even be a consideration at this juncture of an investigation. The concept of obtaining a ‘pure statement’ û one that hasn’t been contaminated by conversation with others û simply is not accurate under such circumstances and cannot be obtained from an involved officer post-critical incident.

An immediate statement will be affected by probable psychological trauma, critical incident amnesia, memory distortion and an officer’s desire to say what they think makes sense û in essence, to fill in the blanks where necessary. The statement may be immediate but will be anything but pure.

Dr. Alexis Artwohl, a renowned clinical and police psychologist and author of conducted research in 2002 on perceptual and memory distortions in law enforcement deadly force encounters. She found that 52 per cent of officers experienced partial memory loss of the event, 46 per cent weren’t able to remember some of their own actions and 21 per cent had memory distortions in what they saw, heard, or experienced during the event.

“Contaminating their performance and memory are the intrusive, distracting thoughts that 26 per cent of the officers had in the midst of a deadly force encounter,” wrote Artwohl. “Even in the midst of doing what they needed to do to survive, officers found they were distracted. In itself, this is not unusual and is the equivalent of ‘seeing your life flash before your eyes.’ I have found three types of memory problems to occur in lethal force encounters.

“The final memory problem exemplifies another interesting aspect of lethal force encounters. The only way law enforcement officers can face this kind of threat is if they believe they can control or manage the threat at some level. They need to have the power to control the unknown. For an officer who cannot remember what happened, that control is not possible. For some of those officers, unconsciously, it is better to create a fictional fact about what might have happened than to live with the unknown.”

Artwohl’s research has been validated by numerous other related anecdotal and formal research studies, including work by police psychologists Dr. Roger Solomon and Dr. Kevin Gilmartin. A 1998 LASD research study by Dr. Honig and Dr. Roland found that 90 per cent of involved officers experience perceptual distortion, for example.

Artwohl offers specialized research-based training for OIS investigators, including:

ò The psychology of combat and the dynamics of violent encounters

ò The psychological impact of use of force incidents on the community, the agency and individual officers and how to minimize negative responses to these events

ò Research on factors that impact witness recall and statements after critical incidents

ò A review of detailed recommendations for supervisors, managers and investigators on how to handle participants and witnesses on-scene and afterward

ò Enhancing the ability to develop individualized investigative procedures to handle witnesses and take statements

ò How to protect yourself/staff from the psychological damage of investigating traumatic events

She has reviewed research from the areas of psychology, sociology, law enforcement, investigations and her own experience talking with critical incident victims and hundreds of officers involved in shootings. She has also spoken with investigators, attorneys, union officials and command staff.

This type of information is critical for OIS investigators if they truly want to accurately, fairly and thoroughly investigate high-level officer-involved use of force incidents. Protecting the community is at the core of the police mandate and that calls for a proper and thorough examination of what occurred in any given deadly force encounter. A fair and objective process for the involved officer will allow him or her to provide the most accurate statement possible.

The research and known effects of critical incident amnesia and memory distortion has led to the following recommendations for officers who have been involved in a deadly force encounter:

ò Any initial report should be verbal only and labelled as preliminary; it should relate only cursory facts of public record

ò A supplemental report should not be provided until after the first sleep period (a person’s ability to remember will increase by 50 to 90 per cent during this time)

ò A final report should not be provided until after the second sleep period (a person will not be able to completely remember until then)

ò An involved officer should be isolated as much as possible during this period to prevent memory contamination

We owe it to our community, the subject and officer and their families to obtain the most complete, accurate account of what happened during a deadly force encounter. This cannot be rushed. Officers need to protect themselves, while some agencies need to learn processes that will enhance their deadly force investigations. This will best protect the community, provide the truth to grieving families and ensure that involved officers have the opportunity to provide as complete and accurate details as possible after being involved in a deadly force encounter.

<<< BIO BOX >>>

Joel Johnston is a retired 28 year Vancouver police officer, with 20 years full time experience in use of force and emergency response. He has been a frequent contributor to Blue Line Magazine. This story originally ran in the September 2005 edition. Joel can be reached by email at or check the web page at

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