April 9, 2022

Rendering aid after a police shooting: turning policy into action


Dear PERF members,

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times published an article about how some LAPD officers failed to follow department policy and immediately render aid to individuals shot by police. I think this story could have been written about any number of police agencies across the United States.

Like the LAPD, most departments have policies directing officers to provide first aid to individuals who have been injured as a result of police actions. Rendering aid was one of the 30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force that PERF published in 2016, and it has been widely embraced by police chiefs who recognize that the sanctity of life is at the core of what police do.

But having a sound policy is one thing. Making sure the policy is consistently followed can be challenging – especially when the policy involves something as complicated as rendering first aid after a use-of-force incident.

Transitioning from defender to guardian

Part of this stems from the complex human emotions that are involved in these situations. One minute, you have an officer who is confronted with a potentially deadly threat and takes action to neutralize that threat. The next minute, you’re asking that officer to pivot and save the life of the very person who was just threatening theirs.

When I spoke to LAPD Chief Mike Moore last week, he summed up the situation perfectly. “The officer transitions from a defender to a guardian,” he said. “He or she is moving from a role where they just used deadly force to save their own life or the life of a partner or community member. Then, within moments, they transition to rendering aid to this person.”

I know of no other profession that has such a high expectation of pivoting from defending your life one minute to then saving another life the next. Even the most mature and experienced police professional might find it difficult to instantly make this emotional transition – from viewing a person as an adversary to viewing them as someone to be saved.

Plus, there are very real officer and public safety concerns in many of these encounters. This past week, I spoke with a few chiefs about the issue of rendering aid, and all of them said that it is prudent for officers to go slowly when approaching someone who has been shot or injured, out of fear that the person may still be a danger.

Of course, the proliferation of video – both body-worn cameras and cell phone video shot by citizens – has brought this issue to the forefront. Video provides a new perspective on police shootings because it captures both the incident itself and what happens afterwards. When the public watches some of these videos, they often wonder why the police just stood around, seemingly indifferent to the injured person. Those types of images can undermine public trust in the police.

Take, for example, the common policy of handcuffing someone who has been shot. The public looks at those images and wonders why the police would need to handcuff someone, especially in cases where the police misjudged the danger by thinking the person had a gun when they didn’t or when it was a suicide-by-cop situation. Is it time to reassess that police procedure when the subject no longer poses a threat?

So what can police chiefs and sheriffs do to maintain trust and ensure that their policies on rendering first aid are carried out effectively and consistently?

Scenario-based training on rendering aid

One obvious place to start is with training that covers both the mechanics of providing first aid, and how and when it can be done safely.  

The general trend in recent years has been to get the police out of the business of providing first aid (and sometimes even transportation) to injured persons and instead rely on EMTs. But if departments are serious about rendering aid, they need to make sure they are giving their officers the proper training and equipment, including such life-saving tools as tourniquets and blood-clotting bandages. I don’t think many of today's cops know what is expected of them in rendering first aid because their departments haven’t adequately trained and equipped them.

But training needs to go beyond the correct procedure for applying a tourniquet or gauze. It also has to cover the agency’s policy on rendering aid and how the department expects officers to carry out the policy.

Dan Slaughter, the police chief in Clearwater, FL, brought up an excellent point in this regard. Most scenario-based training stops after an officer has taken action, such as deploying a Taser or firing their service weapon. What if training scenarios continued all the way through the aftermath of a shooting, with officers being expected to safely approach a subject and appropriately render first aid? Officers perform as they have been trained, so we should be using realistic scenarios to train them on how to render first aid following a use-of-force incident.

Changing culture by recognizing life-saving efforts

But there’s an even bigger issue that goes beyond policy and training, and that is changing culture.

When I talked with Andy Mills, chief in Palm Springs, CA, he said that some officers may feel indifferent toward the person who has just been shot -- that it’s not their job to render aid. Those feelings may be reinforced by their peers and even supervisors who came of age in policing at a time when sanctity of life and rendering aid were foreign concepts. Andy said this is where leadership becomes so important and why he regularly talks to his officers about the sanctity of life.

Changing the culture must be a priority for all police chiefs and sheriffs. One important step they can take is to recognize officers who engage in life-saving efforts and share their stories within the agency and the community. The LAPD created the Preservation of Life Medal in 2016 to recognize officers who go above and beyond to preserve life during a dangerous incident. Other agencies have similar recognitions.

Volusia County, FL Sheriff Mike Chitwood told me of a recent incident where his officers were fired upon and had to return fire, striking the suspect. Officers who had just been targeted wound up working to save the shooter’s life. Mike made sure to recognize all the officers involved.

Actions such as these send a powerful message that the agency’s core mission is to protect life, even the life of someone who has threatened police officers and the public. This is how attitudes begin to shift and culture begins to change.

When PERF released our 30 Guiding Principles, I think we underestimated just how complex and challenging it would be to implement the principle on rendering first aid. It sounded simple on paper, but the real world tells a more complicated story.

That is why it is incumbent upon police chiefs and sheriffs to tackle this issue head on – by creating strong policies, providing excellent training and equipment, and making a concerted effort to change culture. This is how policing is changing. We are recognizing that being willing to step into a dangerous situation and risk your life is valiant, but that being willing to save the life of that same person defines what it means to be a good cop.

Reminder about PERF’s Annual Meeting

What has your agency done around duty to render first aid? This is another topic for discussion at the PERF Annual Meeting, May 31-June 3, in San Francisco. If you haven’t done so already, I hope you will register and attend. Click here for details.

Have a safe weekend.