Expanding Research on Investigations of Officer-Involved Shootings: An Experimental Evaluation of Question Timing on Police Officers’ Memory Recall

Date01 July 2022
Published date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 7, July 2022, 1031 –1049.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/00938548211035824
Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions
© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
An Experimental Evaluation of Question Timing
on Police Officers’ Memory Recall
University of South Carolina
Griffith University
University of South Carolina
Griffith University
The timing of an investigation after an officer-involved shooting (OIS) is influenced by conflicting forces. The public
demands expedited resolution, but police officers are provided several protections that can delay investigations of their
actions. This study conducts a randomized experiment to determine the impact of question timing after an OIS on the accu-
racy of police officers’ memory recall. Officers were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The treatment group completed
a questionnaire after participating in a live-action, active shooter training scenario and again 2 days later, whereas the control
group only completed the questionnaire 2 days later. Our findings suggest the timing of interviews after training did not
influence officers’ recall of the scenario. There is little empirical understanding of how police officers reconstruct OIS events;
further interdisciplinary research can help clarify these cognitive processes. This research could strengthen a traditional
pathway to provide accountability for officers through investigations.
Keywords: officer-involved shooting; investigations; memory recall; use of force; randomized experiment
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We are grateful to have collaborated with Leon Lott, Chris Cowan, and the Richland
County Sheriff’s Department. In addition, we would like to thank Zachary Kierstead and Ryan Brown for their
invaluable research assistance with this project. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed
to Cory Schnell, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, 1305 Greene
St., Columbia, SC 29208; e-mail: schnellc@mailbox.sc.edu.
1035824CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211035824Criminal Justice and BehaviorSchnell et al. / Officer-Involved Shootings and Memory Recall
Officer-involved shootings (OIS) have a substantial impact on police–community rela-
tionships (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). Several high-profile
incidents over the past decade have reignited public criticism of police agencies’ use of
force practices and policies. These incidents are difficult to investigate for several reasons,
including they often rely on officers’ recollections of these traumatic events (see Hatch &
Dickson, 2007). The adoption of body-worn cameras (BWCs) became a leading policy
solution to address this problem by offering a more objective perspective of these incidents
(Lum et al., 2019). While watching what happened through the lens of a camera is helpful
to reconstruct events, prevailing legal precedence for OIS still prioritizes officers’ percep-
tions of events as the primary consideration for the justification of use of force (see Graham
v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 1989). Footage from a BWC provides a limited view of police–
civilian encounters and has been described as “watching a baseball game through a straw”
(see Alpert & McLean, 2018, p. 4). In addition, not all police agencies have deployed BWCs
and there are various practical concerns about this technology such as cost-effectiveness
(Miller et al., 2014).
Police officers’ decisions are evaluated based on the totality of circumstances surrounding
OIS incidents. This includes the context of several situational factors from the officer’s cog-
nitive or decision-making perspective at the time of the incident. Using this vantage point
provides various challenges given that officers’ perceptions may be skewed during these
incidents (see Klinger, 2007; Klinger & Brunson, 2009; Stoughton et al., 2020). Officers
make split-second, life-or-death decisions with limited information and could be motivated
to tell a more favorable account of their decisions to minimize personal liability. As such, it
is crucial to continue to understand the psychological context of officers’ perceptions from
their point of view instead of relying exclusively on video recordings as a “one-size fits all”
solution to investigate these complicated incidents. Today, millions of people can instantly
watch videos of OIS recorded by witnesses and shared on social media platforms. These
videos prompt the public to ask numerous questions about these incidents, including one of
the most essential, “What were the police officers thinking?” Unfortunately, there is a short-
age of rigorous research on the reliability of police officers’ memory in the aftermath of OIS.
While police officers are a unique population that receives specialized training due to their
frequent exposure to stressful situations (see Vredeveldt & van Koppen, 2016), there is an
overwhelming body of research that raises questions about the reliability of all eyewitness’
memory (Morgan et al., 2004; Toglia et al., 2017; Yuille & Cutshall, 1986).
The timing of investigations after OIS has emerged as a critical issue. There is public
pressure in high-profile cases to offer an expedited resolution to these investigations
(Phillips, 2018). This demand is counterbalanced by policies created through collective
bargaining agreements with police unions to delay investigations, providing officers a “bill
of rights” that guides their legal representation (Keenan & Walker, 2004). These differences
can create two distinct tracks for investigations and there is little understanding whether
these counteracting forces influence the underlying efficacy of investigations. Even beyond
these factors, there is no consensus from practitioners or researchers on the optimal time to
interview police officers after an OIS for the purpose of memory recall (see Lewinski et al.,
2016). Because many OIS incidents do not receive media coverage or additional video evi-
dence, improving the traditional investigatory framework of police agencies offers a crucial

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