Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Driving a Desk

Before last June, there hadn't been an officer-involved shooting in Miami Beach, FL since 2003. In a single week in June, there were two. But that's not what makes this situation noteworthy. What's noteworthy is that the same police officer, Officer Adam Tavss, was involved in both shootings, which occurred just 4 days apart. Tavss was taken off the street for 72 hours following the first shooting. The families of both of the dead men are asking the Justice Department to investigate the situation, and why Tavss was allowed back on the street so quickly.

It might be a good idea, then, to review the thinking behind taking an officer off the street when there has been an officer-involved shooting. After all, if we don't understand why someone is taken off the street, it's hard to assess when they should go back. There are a number of reasons.
  • Avoiding Lawsuits: There is a general understanding that if a police officer who has just shot someone shoots someone else, the department is opening itself up to legal scrutiny. That is exactly what happened in this case. Pragmatically, departments like to play it safe.
  • The Officer Isn't Safe: Officers involved in a shooting, or any other traumatic incident, may experience memory loss, slow cognitive processing, depression and impaired decision making, just to name a few reactions. The person most at risk from this is the officer him or herself, since thinking slowly can be deadly on the street.
  • Make Sure the Officer Isn't Trigger Happy: It is possible, although unlikely, that the officer really has impaired judgement to begin with, and that the first shooting was completely unjustified. The last thing you want is to put him back on the street and let him do it again.
  • The Officer Might Scare Too Easily: If the officer is traumatized by the first shooting, which probably occurred because his life was in danger, he may be at a heightened state of alert and more likely to perceive that his life is in danger than someone who hasn't been through that. This may cause him to make the decision to use lethal force at a time when someone else would not.
Based on this, you might think that officers involved in a shooting should never be put back on the street, for their own safety as well as for others. But that really isn't the case. Stress symptoms go away with time. How much time differs from person to person, and not everyone is truly impacted at all. What we do know, however, is that officers who are taken off the street are at increased suicide risk. They are traumatized, and they are not able to do something that is a key part of their identity.

Officer Tavss is under investigation, as is the department. A thorough investigation is always warranted when someone is killed, and it's worth asking whether Officer Tavss was ready to go back on the street when he did. But it bears remembering that keeping officers off the street after a shooting isn't just to prevent additional shootings, it's to protect the officer himself. It's always possible that the second incident was just a horrible coincidence, and still a justified shooting.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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