Details of a deadly shooting involving Hanahan police have slowly filtered out in the days since a suspect was killed in an exchange of gunfire with officers. But nearly a week after the incident, there is still no official police report detailing what happened.
Critics say that is too long and that it shows officers are treated differently than civilians in such situations.
The department and its supporters counter that it is more important to produce an accurate account of what happened than to expedite the release of information.
Hanahan Police Chief Mike Cochran said in an e-mail that the last officer involved in the shooting provided his statement on Friday. Cochran released additional details and dashboard video of the incident the same day, but indicated the official report will not be available until Monday.
“We cannot rush reports as they are the official record of what happened,” he stated.
Hanahan Police Lt. Michael Fowler said the accepted practice is “to give the involved officers two sleep cycles before they put anything on paper.”
Dot Scott, president of the NAACP’s Charleston Branch, said a citizen involved in a similar shooting death is not allowed to wait days before making a statement to investigators. She said it would be better for an officer to give a statement shortly after such an event when details are fresh in his mind.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said.
In similar situations, most area police departments have released their reports on officer-involved shootings within 24 hours of the incidents. But some also give the officers who fire their weapons time to decompress and gather their thoughts before giving detailed statements, a practice Cochran and others said is supported by research studies.
Charleston police used that approach in March after a shootout wounded both an officer and the suspect he was chasing in West Ashley. Police had an officer not involved in the shooting write the report about the incident and investigators later gathered a more complete statement from the wounded officer, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
“Generally, the more in-depth interview does not take until 24 or 48 hours after,” he said. “It’s pretty standard.”
Dr. Jackie Fish, an expert in criminology at Charleston Southern University, said law enforcement officers are just like any other person. They have a right to an attorney during questioning. The stress and anxiety after a shooting may require medical attention as well, she said.
Fish said that she favored delaying the release of a report to ensure that correct information about the incident is disseminated. She said the community was informed of the Hanahan shooting in a timely manner, as well as the ongoing State Law Enforcement Division investigation into the incident,
“Why would the public need more than that until we have the facts?” she said.
Two sleep cycles?
What is known is that suspect Travis Miller, 22, died at the scene of last Monday’s shooting from multiple gunshot wounds. Police said he was a passenger in a black BMW that led officers on a chase at about 11:40 p.m.
An officer attempted to pull the car over for having overly tinted windows, but the driver did not initially stop. Officers removed four occupants from the car and told them they were going to be patted down. That’s when a male passenger ran toward a nearby wooded area. Miller reportedly fired at officers, and shots were returned, police said. A SWAT team found Miller dead soon after, police said.
Cochran said it was his understanding that the state Freedom of Information Act gave police 10 days to produce the report.
But Jay Bender, attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, said the FOIA has no such timetable. In fact, the law requires that all police reports for the previous 14 days must be made available to the public upon request, without a waiting period, he said,
“I don’t know where he got this notion of 10 days. He’s making that up,” Bender said. “I do know that in the case of police-involved shooting, the longer this goes on, the less credibility any document produced by the department will have.”
Bender, who also represents The Post and Courier, said he had never heard of the research suggesting police benefit from giving officers two sleep cycles before taking a statement on shootings. “It sounds to me like it would be more detailed because they are giving them time to go behind the horse shed and get their stories straight,” he said.
Bill Rogers, the press association’s executive director, said in cases of officer-involved shootings it “is more important than ever to make that report available as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, there is an appearance of a cover-up.”
The issue of when it is best to interview an officer involved in a shooting was the subject of a 2010 study involving deputies from the Richland County Sheriff’s Office. Researchers found that deputies’ memories were sharper when asked to recount a high-stress incident immediately after it occurred rather than a few days later.
However, the study said there is no formula for handling such situations. “Putting pressure on officers by forcing them to recount a traumatic event too soon may result in incomplete and inaccurate information, possibly leading to grave errors in an investigation,” it states.
The study’s authors were Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Sgt. John Rivera of the Miami-Dade, Fla. Police Department.
The deputies, who were divided into two groups, participated in training exercises that involved live-fire simulation. One group responded to a terrorist attack in a school. Another was called to a classroom shooting.
The researchers tested memory in two categories. The first test gauged recall of the people and weapons involved. The second tested memory of the conditions under which the event occurred. Overall, deputies remembered more about the immediate threats than the environment the event occurred in.
The researchers noted that the officers’ memory of threats weakened slightly as time passed.
The researchers also noted that there is no law-enforcement-wide best practice or industry standard for determining how soon officers should be interviewed after a shooting.
The California-based Police Assessment Resource Center has recommended that officers who were involved in or witnessed a shooting be interviewed no later than a few hours after the event. The International Association of Chiefs of Police guidelines say that investigators should give officers time to recover after the incident before any detailed interviews. The recovery time could range from a few hours to overnight, the study stated.
The study stated that many agencies have implemented policies requiring officers to wait at least 24 hours before giving an interview or speaking to an investigator in an effort to produce more accurate and thorough statements.
“In this respect, these departments treat officers differently than they do suspects or civilian witnesses,” the study states.
“If agencies think that officers involved in a traumatic event provide better accounts after a waiting period, then why are witnesses and suspects interviewed as soon as possible after the incident?”
Mullen, of Charleston, said there isn’t a double-standard. He said witnesses are often afforded additional time as well, particularly if they are distraught, and suspects always have the option of not talking to officers or delaying a statement until an attorney is present.
“I don’t think suspects are thinking about sleep cycles,” he said. “But they do have the same opportunity to say ‘I don’t want to talk now,’ and we can’t make them talk to us.”