I was fortunate to shoot a lot of competition when I was working with the Cobb County Police. I shot traditional bullseye matches, PPC, IPSC, IDPA, three gun, and NRA Action Pistol. I even shot the Bianchi Cup three times! It was a blast.
Sometimes, especially with IPSC competition, the course of fire was different each time. No two matches were really the same! Now this added to the adrenaline rush and the pressure! You can imagine that a bunch of “type A” competitive adrenaline junkies were always looking for any advantage! Of course the first person through the course of fire at these matches was either the guinea pig or the hero and the last person through always thought he had an advantage. Truth be known, the courses of fire were tough whether you were the first or last one to pull the trigger.
Just as with those matches, we all look for opportunities to get a leg up on the competition and, at the same time, prove our worth. The LEOs I know are no different than those anxious shooters hoping they would make a good showing. Like the competitors hoping to learn from the experience of others, there is a case pending in Seminole County, Florida that every LEO should follow and from which there are many lessons to be learned.
The Zimmerman trial is the culmination of much media coverage, commentary, and speculation. On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman fired a shot that he believed was justified and necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death. This trial, however long it will last, is the next step in the process where an impartial jury will determine the facts, apply the relevant law, and render a verdict. That verdict will have many repercussions in a case that has divided many in our country.
When you look at the facts of the Zimmerman case, it is not all that dissimilar from many officer involved shootings (OIS). Mr. Zimmerman made a decision that night. His decision to use deadly force as a civilian involves the same legal analysis as the use of force by any LEO. I have been honored to represent many LEOs who were placed in that situation. For those LEOs, the emotions are still raw today and they are thankful that they survived.
LEOs should consider the degree of scrutiny surrounding this case. Some of this is logical. Our society values life and liberty, both of which are taken from a person who is shot and killed during a confrontation. This level of inquiry should be expected from the court system which examines the actions of individuals under the microscope of the law. However, the courts are only one arena for the examination of the use of deadly force.
The media attention on this case has been amazing. It is difficult to imagine a news outlet that has not featured this case! Some of the coverage is no doubt due to the belief that the use of force was racially motivated. However, this is also not unusual for an OIS. I believe this case holds a lesson for all LEOs regarding the media. You and your department should expect this level of attention following every OIS.
The next arena for scrutiny has been the public in general. This is also not unusual. People find themselves wondering about the death of one person and the fact that life can end in an instant. Most people are largely uninformed about the laws surrounding the use of deadly force. However, this lack of knowledge extends far beyond the use of deadly force. During recent radio interviews, I have fielded questions from callers who have no idea what rights a private citizen has regarding the observation and reporting of suspicious activity. Although the trainer in me wants to raise awareness, a ten-minute radio interview is hardly enough time to go into the depths of Terry v. Ohio. The inability to understand the law is magnified when you add the fact that the general public is unaware of law enforcement procedures.
One other important lesson of this case is the degree to which the public and the media have come to rely upon dash cameras and surveillance video. Recent witnesses testified that the surveillance video equipment in place in Mr. Zimmerman’s neighborhood was not working on the night in question.
I am amazed that the fact that this case will likely hinge on Mr. Zimmerman’s credibility is now seen as somewhat unusual in our society. From someone like me who did not “grow up” with in-car video, this is not unusual. However, to a society that has come to check YouTube for video on any news story, it is hard to imagine that there is no “silent witness” to provide an objective view of the events that led to the death of Trayvon Martin. Will your version of events be enough to carry the burden of your defense if your video does not capture an OIS?
George Zimmerman also gave a statement to LEOs within 24 hours of the events. He did so without an attorney and even participated in a “scene walk-through” that was captured on video. The detectives allowed Zimmerman to walk them through the events and interviewed him extensively. Mr. Zimmerman also participated in and passed a lie detector test via voice stress analysis. His cooperation with law enforcement will no doubt play well with a jury. This is a critical lesson for LEOs when deciding whether or not to make a statement to criminal investigators after an OIS.
Finally, it is important to remember that George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, but the trial of this case began on June 24, 2013. How much of the memory of witnesses has eroded over that 16-month period? Will they recall the critical facts? Will they be able to recall the events of a night marked by rain and darkness? In a real sense, George Zimmerman’s life may depend upon it. LEOs must remember to document any use of force in detail. Insist that everyone who was on the scene pick up a pen and kill a tree! If you end up in a criminal or civil court, the details matter. If you do not write them down, you will forget them.
It is too easy to dismiss the events of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman because Zimmerman was not a LEO, and I believe LEOs do so at their own risk. Do you know who you would call immediately after an OIS? Do you have the contact numbers for an attorney who will respond to the scene of an OIS on a 24-hour basis? Have you made arrangements for the attorney to get to you on the scene of an OIS? What is your personal and departmental plan to respond to media inquiries? Have you prepared your family for the intense media focus that will likely follow your use of deadly force? Are you prepared to defend your actions before a jury if the DVR in your vehicle fails and you must rely upon your word and personal credibility to justify your actions?
Just like those shooters lined up and ready to go through a strange course of fire, you must prepare for your time under the microscope. You can prepare every day well before you are called upon to use deadly force. The street is not a pistol match. There are no prizes; only winners and losers. Train to win.
Lance LoRusso is an attorney, former LEO and founder of LoRusso Law Firm, PC in Marietta, Georgia. He is the General Counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police and author of a blog, www.bluelinelawyer.com. He speaks at many conferences for law enforcement on use of force, responses to critical incident, and other topics of interest to law enforcement. His book on critical incidents entitled, “When Cops Kill: The Aftermath of a Critical Incident” is available through www.whencopskill.com. Profits from this book will support law enforcement charities such as www.huntingforheroes.org. You can follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (bluelinelawyer or lancelorusso).