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Three Keys to an Effective Use of Force Investigation

About 2% of all police interactions in 2018 resulted in threatened or actual nonlethal use of force, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But even 2% represents a large number —1.3 million — perceived or actual uses of force. And it’s important that law enforcement agencies review each and every one.

“Of course, we don’t mean to suggest in any way that for every minor use of force there’s going to be a 1,000-page investigation,” said Arif Alikhan, president of TacLogix Inc., a policy and technology consultancy to public safety agencies, during Axon’s recent Use of Force Reporting and Internal Affairs Investigations webinar. “You have to scale. [The investigation you conduct] depends on the nature of the incident. Did the suspect get hurt? Did the officer get hurt? And obviously, if there was deadly force, you’re going to have a lot more involved.”

 

Still, every use of force incident deserves review, and there are certain steps you should take to ensure yours get their due diligence. These are the three keys to an effective use of force investigation.

1.    Implement a process

It can be tempting during a use of force investigation to focus solely on the actual force and what led up to it. But for your officers and your organization to get the most benefit from use of force reviews, you need to be thorough. And the best way to ensure thoroughness every time is to have a process in place.

 

“It’s so important to have a system, a process in place to make sure that you’re getting all the information that you can to learn not just whether [a use of force] was in or out of policy but what happened and why,” Alikhan says.

 

But don’t stop there. You’ll also want to formalize what happens after an investigation.

 

Consider what your review and adjudication process looks like, how you will capture the relevant demographic and statistical information you gathered during your investigation, and most importantly, how you’ll ensure what’s learned gets shared with the involved officer(s) and the department.

 

Every use of force has the potential to be a learning tool that not only brings light to issues that need to be resolved, but also exemplifies what your officers are doing right. What did your officer do to de-escalate the situation so that a higher use of force wasn’t needed? How did the technique chosen contribute to the safety of the other officers on scene and the surrounding public? Could the situation have been resolved with a lower level of force or none at all?

 

“There’s a lot to learn, both good and bad,” Alikhan says. “Maybe there’s something wrong with the equipment. Maybe there’s something wrong with the tactics and how somebody approaches a house or how you position your car. But are you using [these investigations] as opportunities to learn and to improve officer safety and potentially prevent something dangerous from happening in the future, even if everything went right this time?”

2.    Keep it timely

Use of force investigations should begin immediately following an incident and should be completed as swiftly as possible. Timely use of force investigations are important for the safety of your officers and citizenry.

 

“We've heard from many agencies that when they uncover an officer displaying tremendous restraint and superb de-escalation tactics, they want to turn that into an example as quickly as possible for other officers to learn from,” says Bryan Wheeler, vice president of productivity at Axon. “Conversely, agencies have told us they don’t want to wait too long to intervene when an officer is acting out of compliance with regards to use of force policy. The sooner the agency knows the officer was out of compliance, the sooner they can give the officer the proper training and support they need to act within policy.”

 

Not conducting your use of force investigations in a timely manner also opens you up to the public making up their own narrative about what happened.

 

“What you really don’t want is for it to be six months later when you release your findings and it’s too late. Your community has already tried the situation in the court of public opinion,” Wheeler says.  

3.    Use the right technology

With the amount of digital evidence available today, it’s cumbersome to conduct use of force investigations on paper. But whether you’re relying on a simple spreadsheet or using robust IA software, you need to find a way to stay organized.

 

“You’ve got to be able to collect all that information and hopefully be able to put it in one place that somebody who’s reviewing the incident gets the full picture of what’s going on,” Alikhan says.

 

The right technology will not only ensure an effective investigation but also save you time.

 

“We understand agencies tend to be understaffed, and time is super valuable,” Wheeler says. “That’s why our IA software, Axon Standards, is dynamic, leading users through use of force investigations in a way that respects their time. We also understand that a use of force reporting tool should be deeply integrated with your digital evidence management system, which is why Axon Standards integrates seamlessly with Evidence.com. In so doing, we give agencies the superpowers to quickly find the right evidence, and within that evidence, go directly to relevant moments.”
 

Axon knows the importance of efficient, effective use of force investigations. That’s why our products are specifically designed to improve some of the biggest challenges facing use of force investigations — from cumbersome workflows to disjointed evidence management. Whether it’s body camera video, in-car camera video or citizen cell phone video, Axon Evidence and Axon Standards help agencies capture, organize and access digital evidence in use of force investigations for the best possible outcomes.

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Contact Axon to learn more about how Axon Standards can help your agency conduct more effective and efficient use of force investigations.