Dallas Police Make Concession On Shooting Waiting Periods, But (Small) Protests Will Continue

Friday night, finally, the Next Generation Action Network canceled a rally.

Friday's event was canceled, officially, because of rain. Still, at the time the cancellation happened, Free Speech Friday had just 22 RSVPs on Facebook. The advocacy group's "Free Speech Friday" event at Belo Garden would've been its third protest in downtown Dallas since five Dallas police officers were killed on July 7, following another protest put on by the group. Since the shootings, Next Generation Action Network founder Dominique Alexander and his group have continued to put on events downtown despite a request from Dallas Police Chief David Brown to move the protests elsewhere.

Alexander himself was arrested for outstanding traffic tickets following a run-in with police at Dallas City Hall. Thursday night, the night before the group's latest protest was scheduled to happen, the Dallas Police Department made an apparent concession on one of the demands Next Generation Action Network has made from DPD, changing department policy on officer statements after cop shootings.

Despite Next Generation Action Network drawing the response from DPD it wanted, it was going to be the third event in a row hosted by the group to see declining attendance. The July 7 protest drew more than 1,000 people. A July 29 event drew maybe 200 and an August 10 event drew fewer than 100.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Alexander and Next Generation Action Network have pressed the Dallas City Council and DPD with a list of 25 demands for reform. The first thing pushed on the list is an end to a DPD policy that allows officers 72 hours before facing questions from DPD investigators following being involved in a shooting. Thursday, Chief Brown and the department agreed to the demand, issuing a statement saying that officers will be afforded only the same protections afforded civilians in the event of a shooting.

The practical effect of the DPD policy change may be small. Officers involved in shootings, since they retain their Miranda rights, can refuse to answer questions if they so choose. Cops can be compelled to give a statement to DPD's internal affairs division, but that statement could not be used against them in any subsequent criminal proceeding.

Kim Cole, Next Generation Action Network's legal adviser, is irked. “What we wanted to do was minimize that time frame, not increase it,” Cole said at a Friday press conference. “And that is what Dallas Police has effectively done with their brand new policy. Thank you, Dallas police, now the officer will not ever have to make a statement.”

Cole said that DPD's response to her organization's demands shows that the department is not serious about reform.

Brown instituted the 72-hour waiting period in November 2013, following the shooting of Bobby Bennett by officer Carden Spencer. In the immediate aftermath of that shooting, Spencer and his partner gave conflicting accounts about what happened. Spencer's partner, Christopher Watson, said that Bennett walked toward Spencer holding a knife in an aggressive manner before Spencer shot him. Spencer did not give a statement at the scene, but when he talked to investigators the next day, he did not mention Bennett raising the knife or taking steps toward him. 

Video from a neighbor's surveillance camera showed that Spencer first rolled away from officers in a swivel chair, before standing up. He never came toward Spencer and Watson or lifted his arms before he was shot.

Brown said at a news conference after the shooting that he himself had experienced memory problems after being shot at, that it took "two or three days" for him to remember what had happened accurately.

The chief's 2013 move brought DPD policy in line with the desires of the city's police associations. It mandated that any officer involved in a shooting not face any questions for three days and be allowed to watch any body cam or other footage of the shooting before making a statement.

The science behind allowing cops a few days before questioning is largely found in the research of Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute and professor emeritus of law enforcement at Minnesota State University at Mankato. Lewinski suggests that sleep, especially, is essentially for cops to appropriately consolidate memories after a shooting. After a high adrenaline situation like a shootout, according to Lewinski's research, it can take at least 48 hours for cops to be able to answer questions appropriately.

"There is little doubt that incidents of an intensely personal and emotional nature can be more accurately remembered and reported on after a good sleep cycle," Lewinski writes. "But — after a critical law enforcement incident, quality REM and slow wave sleep generally occurs two nights out, not the night — or the time of sleep — immediately following a gunfight or other high-stress situation."

There is, however, a vast body of conflicting research, much of which has been collected in a study by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Samuel Walker, that suggest that the memory of "central details," the stuff investigators are most interested in, is actually better in the immediate aftermath of extreme adrenaline and stress.

The Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center found in an extensive study of Portland, Oregon police shootings that occurred between 1997 and 2003, that, in order to get the most accurate description of what happened during the shooting, both separating officers from other witnesses to prevent collusion and getting statements as soon as possible after the shooting was best. "Police officers should be treated in the same fashion as similarly traumatized civilians, such as those who have been the victims of violent crime," the study says. "As a general rule, Homicide investigators interview civilians involved in, or witnessing, a shooting or in-custody death incident as soon as possible, regardless of their emotional state."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young