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Shut Up. Don’t Talk.

By Perri McPheeWe’ve all seen the police dramas on TV where the officer’s eyes narrow as he comes face to face with the suspect that he’s been hunting for the last 45 minutes.
After the suspect starts to shoot, the officer draws his weapon and fires two shots hitting the suspect square in the chest, taking him down for good. Backup then arrives and the officer is patted on the back for what is clearly a good shoot.
At the end of the hour, everyone goes home content, stable, and still employed.
This unfortunately, is not the way things really happen. In a lecture hosted by the Criminal Justice Club on Nov. 30, attorneys Michael McAndrews and Michael Lefebvre spoke to Castleton students and criminal justice professionals from the Vermont State Police, Fair Haven Police Department, the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about what officers can expect after their use of force.
Before becoming attorneys and advocates for police officer rights in critical incidents, both men served as police officers. McAndrews spent over 20 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, retiring with the rank of lieutenant after serving as the commanding officer for the recruit training academy as well as becoming a recognized expert in law enforcement liability and tactics in critical police incidents.
Lefebvre served 10 years as a police officer in Hartford, Conn. and had an essential role in creating and implementing an officer safety committee within his department. In addition, he served as the vice president of his local police union.
The attorneys told the story of Robert A. Murtha, an officer with the Hartford Police Department who shot at an individual who was charging him with a car. While the driver lived, the officer’s career did not. Unfortunately for Murtha, his recollection of the night’s events (as described in his statement to investigators) didn’t quite line up with what had been recorded by the video camera in the police cruiser.
McAndrews stressed that after being involved in a shooting, officers feel the need to talk about what they went through and believe so strongly that they remember exactly how things happened that they give statements to show their cooperation. Murtha hadn’t tried to lie about what had taken place. Instead, his brain couldn’t put all of the pieces together, so while he thought he had been struck by the car he had actually jumped away at the last second, falling and injuring himself.
The investigation that followed used the initial statement Murtha had made as evidence against him and his credibility.
This is where Lefebvre’s key strategies for officers come into play. He argues that officers need to have a plan of what they will do if they find themselves in this situation, much like the insurance policies that we have on our cars, homes, and even our lives.
First, he said, officers need to be prepared before they find themselves in these situations. They need to know their rights, know the policies of their department, and if necessary, advocate for reform of those policies so they are current and reasonable.
Next, he said officers should never underestimate the seriousness of the situation, as not only can they lose their jobs, but civil and criminal charges can be filed with the potential for substantial prison sentences.
The biggest part of this plan however, is to shut up, and don’t talk. This is not because the officer is guilty of anything, but because in order to effectively recollect what happened, the brain needs time to rest and process the information.
Both McAndrews and Lefebvre stress that while officers are receiving better and better training on conducting tactically sound shootings, they’re left hanging when those incidents actually take place.
While police officers and lawyers are often at odd’s with each other, these attorneys argue that for the sake of officers’ careers and their freedom, they should “shut up, and don’t talk”.