Over the last few years, policing in the U.S. has become more difficult and much more stressful. Many Americans believe that law enforcement officers are electing to use lethal force without appropriate justification, and that perception is causing a festering of doubt in our judicial system.
This growing lack of faith in the judicial review of use-of-force investigations, I believe, contributes to the targeting of law enforcement professionals and places a great number of officers in harm’s way. Consider these chilling figures: According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, of the 264 law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty during 2020, six were ambush-style attacks on unsuspecting officers. In 2018, 11 officer deaths were attributed to ambush.
To help navigate our way out of this dangerous trend and rebuild the public’s faith in the judicial review of local use-of-force investigations, I offer a few recommendations:
- Expedite the ability to present forensic data at grand jury proceedings by accurately and objectively documenting the scene with a high-definition surveying-grade 3D laser scanner.
- Provide involved officers and witnesses a presentation tool to improve comprehension of the 3D spatial relationships of physical evidence during oral testimony.
- Educate the public on every use-of-force investigation by presenting summaries of case facts and demonstrating the level of independent review applied to investigate the use of deadly force.
All three of these goals can be accomplished through Leica’s TruView 3D visualization software. As I travel around the country training forensic professionals on how to deploy their new Leica ScanStations and software, I recognize I have a greater mission beyond the operation of the scanning equipment: I’m aiding officers who are involved in these very stressful, life-changing deadly force events. Let me tell you why this is important to me:
My personal story
Back in 1994, I was field-training an experienced officer who came up to the Portland Police Bureau from the LAPD. On our last night working together, we received a call in southeast Portland from a man complaining that a woman had parked her camper in the empty lot next to his house and was causing his family anxiety.
When my partner and I arrived, the woman was sitting in her camper. I could tell by her behavior—she was slamming her hands down and talking to herself—that she was obviously mentally distressed and in crisis. To avoid aggravating her more, we stepped out of her view and into the man’s garage, which was about 20 feet from her camper. There, the complainant informed us that the woman claimed to have the owner’s permission to camp out on the empty lot. All we knew was that she was a transient camping on somebody’s property. At first, our victim tried to be helpful and allowed her to run a power cord from his house. However, he said the woman was now threatening his kids to not go into her trailer because she had rigged a gun in there. “She just needs to go away,” was the complainant’s request.
We were on the scene for about a half-hour talking with the family and discussing creative ways to get her to move on to a different spot or locate a family member to assist. We decided to write a note explaining that she had to leave the lot, and if she didn’t, she could receive a citation for trespassing in the second degree. We figured that was the best strategy—leave a note and come back later to deal with it when she was calmer. The complainant was good with that solution, so we placed the note on her windshield and exited safely.
As we got to our patrol car, the woman stepped out of her camper, ripped up the note and came at us from behind some bushes. As she rounded the corner of the bushes, she was pointing a handgun at us. We defended ourselves from her rapid approach. I fired three times. My partner fired once. We called for cover; our cover car arrived; we positioned ourselves behind our patrol car; and my partner and I followed our post-shooting procedure, quickly did our tactical reloads, and provided medical aid while the ambulance was en route. Sadly, she died on the way to the hospital. The gun ended up being a replica metal handgun that looked real to both of us.
Fast forward to the judicial review of our use of deadly force. My partner and I are now at a standard grand jury hearing. What resources did we have to explain our observations and actions? Back in 1994, there were no 3D scanners to provide detailed diagrams or visual aids of distance relationships to help me explain how and when I chose to use deadly force. Instead, I used a large sheet of paper to draw the scene for the grand jury.
Even today, many times, the first opportunity that an officer-involved in a deadly force event can review any crime scene images is at the grand jury hearing. Having been in those shoes, I know it’s critical to do whatever we can to make it not only easier for officers to explain their actions and reduce their stress but also to provide a tool that allows the presentation to be done more accurately.
In my case, the grand jury and the bureau’s use-of-force review panel concluded that it was a suicide-by-cop and within policy. (Portland has had tremendous trouble with suicidal mentally ill people forcing police to engage them so they don’t have to take their own lives.) It was trying times back in ’94, and to be blunt, it has not stopped. Suicide-by-cop is a huge issue around the nation that has changed many officers’ lives.
Giving officers the tools they need
Shortly after my shooting, I was promoted to the rank of criminalist in our Forensic Evidence Division. When we acquired a Leica ScanStation laser scanner in 2012, I recognized that the Leica TruView was the tool officers needed to clearly communicate what they were perceiving—the information at that moment—that was a threat to their life in use-of-force incidents.
The possibilities of the technology, together with my own incident, changed my forensic documentation mindset. When creating a scan plan, I’d ask myself, “Where is the TruView going to be best positioned to provide the panoramic image that will help that officer tell his or her story? How can a person unfamiliar with the scene quickly comprehend the various evidence items recovered? From what scan position will trajectories best be presented in the TruView?”
Today, as the Leica Public Safety Group training manager, that’s the perspective I introduce into my trainings. We’re going beyond simply producing a crime scene diagram. I need scan operators to put themselves in the spatial storytelling mindset—to think about the best way to quickly and clearly tell the story of what occurred forensically. For example, the approach officers took to a location might not be relevant to the evidence collected, but adding an extra scan down the block will help them communicate their actions to the grand jury and all the post internal and civilian use-of-force review hearings that will take place.
The value of 3D storytelling with TruView was externally validated at a recent training. I showed grand-jury versions of TruViews with scene data from real deadly force cases and explained how the 3D visualizations can be used in judicial proceedings. During the break, a criminalist who had been in seven officer-involved shootings came up to me and said, “Oh my God. It would’ve saved me so much trouble in my lawsuits after my shootings if this technology had been used.” That was one of those moments I realized how important visualization technology is to law enforcement.
Speeding delivery of data
When there is a use-of-force event, the faster police agencies can get accurate forensic data to the grand jury, the faster community tension surrounding the event can be addressed and diminished.
Laser scanning along with an evidence-enriched TruView help accomplish this goal. Within hours of scanning, a presentation-ready 3D virtual scene—including integrated photographs of relevant evidence, witness positions, recovered weapon locations, etc.—can be delivered to investigators, command staff, the district attorney and the grand jury.
Laser scanning technology is key to not only expediting the delivery of forensic data but also to a achieving a scientific approach to use-of-force investigations. The scanner is objective: This is the evidence at hand. The interpretation or relevance of that evidence in relation to testimony is left to the fact finders and the various governmental and civilian bodies that will be performing independent administrative reviews of deadly force incidents.
Building better community relationships
Efforts to provide transparency in the review of police-use-of-force cases have been tried. For example, some jurisdictions release confidential grand jury proceedings to give affected communities insight into how a legal decision was made to justify (or not justify) the use of deadly force. While I can’t advocate for the release of what traditionally have been secret hearings that allow witnesses to testify confidentially, providing an educational review of the difficult facts in use-of-force cases is a critical action that must be undertaken to rebuild community trust.
To build better community relations, I believe it’s very important to educate citizens on the realities of use-of-force for law enforcement officers. Action, reaction, distance, perceptions of threat—these are complicated human factors that many civilians don’t understand until they’re put in that scenario. At the same time, we have to recognize that the communities we need to reach are, in general, close-minded. Today’s social-media-driven society wants instant answers. The general public is not likely to read a grand jury transcript comprising seven hours of testimony. They want to hear about it in a manner of minutes like a TV news story or an episode of “The Forensic Files.”
Once again, that is where Leica’s TruView shines. It’s an ideal presentation tool for rapidly communicating spatial information. The TruView, which contains digital media hotlinks, enables an officer to summarize the key facts and forensic findings of an investigation, many times, in less than five minutes. And the TruView doesn’t require specialized technology. It can be displayed on any computer or fed to mobile devices via TruView Global.
>>RELATED: Explore a mock scene in TruView.
Increasing the number of community meetings around the topic of use-of-force shootings is one way to improve transparency. Using a TruView, the presenting law enforcement officers could walk community members through a scene and the process of conducting a deadly force investigation.
We must educate communities to avoid jumping to conclusions after a 10-minute Facebook investigation. Proactive presentations can help communities appreciate the value of a slow, methodical and thorough review of evidence and the efforts being taken across America to reduce future deadly force incidents (for example, by developing law-enforcement training tools from scan data).
3D visualizations are critical technology for use-of-force investigations. Having personally experienced this life-changing and very stressful event, I am, of course, especially impressed with the TruView’s ability to give involved officers an accurate and objective spatial storytelling tool that will reduce their stress while testifying. But I am also hopeful that this technology will help rebuild trust in the judicial review of police use-of-force incidents and create better—and safer—community relations throughout the United States.
For more information on how to improve your crime- and crash-scene documentation, please contact us.