Imagine how policing could improve if instead of just investigating incidents to find blame, we also investigated incidents to learn how to avoid them happening in the first place

Early in 2024, body-worn camera footage was released showing a Florida deputy mistaking a falling acorn striking his vehicle with the sound of a gunshot. He then shot several rounds at the handcuffed and unarmed prisoner sitting in the patrol car. The video went viral both within and outside policing. Perhaps more tragic than the incident is the fact that the rest of the law enforcement industry won’t get a chance to learn why it happened nor how to prevent it from happening again.

Let’s first consider what we know about the incident and then discuss what is preventing us from learning from it.

YouTube video

Here’s what we know:

  • A deputy responded to a theft call. He patted down, handcuffed and secured the suspect in the back of his patrol car.
  • The victim (suspect’s girlfriend) showed responding deputies a photo of the suspect holding a silencer, suggesting he may have had access to firearms.
  • Upon determining there was PC for an arrest for theft, the deputy returned to his vehicle intending to conduct a full custody search of the suspect.
  • An acorn fell from a tree and struck the top of the patrol car causing a loud staccato sound.
  • The deputy later stated he thought the sound was a gunshot from a suppressed weapon. He also believed he had been shot because he felt an impact on his torso, and his legs suddenly lost their normal function.
  • In fact, the deputy had not been shot and the suspect was unarmed.
  • The agency concluded his shooting was an unreasonable use of force and was outside of their use-of-force policy.
  • The local prosecutor declined to file charges against the deputy.
  • The deputy resigned.

Source: Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Administrative Investigation report dated 1/5/24

Even an untrained observer could watch the video and find fault with the deputy’s response but that isn’t where our analysis should end. After watching the video, one astute poster on LinkedIn noted, “just blaming this on somebody not doing their job well enough… that’s like pointing at a laceration and proclaiming ‘Cut!’ OK, but like why, how, and what do we do about it?”

Exactly! What are we doing about it? Sadly, I am afraid the answer is nothing.

We must investigate the “why”

Law enforcement officers will watch the viral video, criticize the actions of the deputy and share silly memes of acorns on their social media feeds — but they will not learn a thing. The reason is that perhaps no investigation into the “why” will be conducted.

The deputy’s agency completed an investigation looking for policy violations and found them. The local prosecutor’s office completed an investigation looking for criminal violations and declined to charge the deputy. But who is investigating why this happened? Who is examining the human factors or whether training played a role? In plain terms, we may never get to know why this happened and how to avoid this happening again because no one may be asking why. The deputy himself is not incentivized to share his story with researchers, and neither is the agency because it will all be used against them in the inevitable civil lawsuit.

If this had been an aviation mishap, the authorities would come in and investigate the “why.” The investigation would culminate in a report that the aviation industry could read and learn from. There would be data on things like how many hours the pilot slept in the preceding nights. The industry would then use the findings to make changes in training and procedures. Wouldn’t it be amazing if law enforcement mishaps were studied like that instead of only being analyzed for fault? Just think of how much the profession could advance! Certainly, the other investigations (administrative and criminal) needed to be conducted but it’s tragic that those are where the investigations stop.

How can officers learn from this event?

So, what are officers left to do? Many officers have watched the video and posted their criticism on social media. They believe they would never have taken such action. But without a robust analysis of what occurred, how can any of us say for certain how things like priming, post-traumatic stress, sleep deprivation or any number of other factors might impact our decision-making?

Some commentors on social media posted things like, “This guy never should have been a cop! Why are they hiring people like this?” implying the deputy lacked the kind of mental acuity or stress tolerance needed to be a cop. Those same commentors may be shocked to learn the deputy in this case was a graduate of West Point, an officer in the US Army’s Special Forces and was twice deployed to tours in Afghanistan. Without knowing more, the deputy certainly seems like someone with the proper background to thrive in a high-stress environment.

Some commented that the deputy’s agency had dealt with several life-threatening incidents in the time preceding the shooting and suggested those incidents played a role.

Unfortunately, we may never get to know. We may never have a chance to learn from this incident beyond whatever assumptions can be gleaned simply from watching the video. Certainly, the video does tell us a lot and we can and should learn from it. But, if you were captured on video in a highly controversial shooting, I bet you would say that the video doesn’t tell the whole story.

The agency’s investigative report concluded that the deputy subjectively believed he had been shot but it wasn’t objectively reasonable for him to use deadly force. Wouldn’t it be good for the rest of us to know what factors caused the deputy to honestly believe he was shot, even believing his own legs were no longer functioning properly? This deputy, like every cop, is a human, with human performance capabilities, fallibilities and limitations. Because we all have brains, we must understand how those brains work and what causes our fallible brains to believe things that aren’t true. With any luck, this agency will be one of those very rare organizations that does take a look at the why and then allows the rest of us to learn from this mishap.

Final thoughts

When an important judicial decision is made it creates what is known as case law. Law enforcement officers are expected to read those new decisions and modify how they conduct themselves accordingly. To me it seems most case law decisions are about the use of force. Yet there is no similar system that allows officers to learn from non-judicial aspects of force encounters, and there are many. Imagine how policing could improve if instead of just investigating incidents to find blame, we also investigated incidents to learn how to avoid them happening in the first place.

Scott Savage recently retired from the Santa Clara Police Department after 24 years of service as a cop in California. He is the founder and CEO of the Savage Training Group. If you are tired of “check the box / death by PowerPoint” training, please check our training schedule and join us at an upcoming course date.
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