When Dallas Police Chief David Brown quietly changed department policy to give cops who open fire on suspects three full days before making a statement, the rationale was that studies show that the stress an officer experiences during such an event can negatively affect their immediate recollection of it.
It's true that studies have shown that and that the research has become little short of dogma in some law enforcement circles. But as Radley Balko pointed out yesterday in the Washington Post, there's also much research showing the opposite.
Last September, Jeff Noble, a retired deputy chief with the Irvine, California, police department and University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoffrey Alpert performed an analysis of existing scholarship for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Their conclusion? Giving cops "cooling off periods" is a bad idea.
They say this for two reasons, both of which are more or less intuitive. One is that giving officers several days to replay -- and, consciously or not, revise -- an incident in their minds seems to harm their recall. The research on the subject is still in its infancy, but generally backs this up.
Take a 2012 study conducted by Alpert and others in which groups of officers were put through active-shooter simulations, including a school shooting and a terrorist attack. Some of the officers were asked to write a report of the event at the end of the day, then again three days later. The others were asked to write their recollections only after three days had passed.
Here's Noble and Alpert:
The researchers recognized that the studies involved simulations that could not completely replicate the stressors of an actual incident and that none of the officers were tired, injured, or otherwise impaired. However, the results offered insight on stress and memory -- that the officers reporting on the threat immediately after it occurred had sharper recollections than those who shared their memories only after a few days had passed.
The other part is that such cooling off periods are deeply unfair.
"Now you have this dichotomy where police are treating themselves one way and treating everyone else in the world another way," Noble tells Unfair Park.
"We would never in law enforcement allow a suspect, who may have also undergone a stressful event, to have two or three days to collect their thoughts," he adds. They're asked to provide details as soon as possible.
If, as Brown argues, officers give a more accurate account of events after three days, then it follows that it would be in the interest of justice to give the same leeway to suspects.
Despite all of this, Noble estimates that a large majority of U.S. police departments give officers cooling-off periods ranging from a few hours to several days.
"I think that police officers, like anybody in any group, they're going to latch onto what benefits them the most," Noble says.
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In their paper, Noble and Alpert suggest departments employ cognitive interviewing techniques in the wake of use-of-force incidents. Allow officers to tell their story while it's still fresh, with minimal interference. (Noble reads plenty of transcripts of police interrogators helping one of their own with leading questions.) Some contradictions might emerge several days later (perhaps what happened with DPD officer Christopher Watson, whose partner shot a mentally ill man in Rylie), but that's a natural part of the process.
That said, "the reality is most police officers who are educated enough won't give a statement right after an incident," Noble says. "They have a perfect right to invoke the Fifth Amendment."
It's just that the agency that's supposed to be investigating their actions probably shouldn't be doing that for them.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.