Never forget that when you shoot someone, however necessarily and justifiably, you look an awful lot like a killer and he looks an awful lot like a victim. The stereotype can take hold quickly if you don’t act to let the authorities – from the first responding officer to the designated lead investigator – know what happened. The old saying “You only get one chance to make a first impression” is absolutely true here.
Decades ago, I developed a five-point checklist of things I feel the righteous shooter needs to establish as soon as possible in the aftermath. It has been widely adopted, sometimes with attribution and sometimes without, and is now recommended by entities ranging from the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network to the US Concealed Carry Association. I’m rather proud of that.
- Establish the active dynamic. That is, let the authorities know immediately what happened here. If you have harmed someone in self-defense, always remember that the active dynamic is not what you did to him, it’s what he was trying to do to you or another victim. The active dynamic is his action that forced your lawful response. It’s not, “I shot him.” It’s, “This man tried to kill me.” Or, “This man attacked my wife.” Whatever it was that led to your use of force.This makes it clear that the guy on the ground doing a convincing imitation of a victim is in fact the criminal perpetrator. It makes it clear that you, the person with the smoking gun who just shot someone, are in fact the intended victim. If one or more of your attackers has left the scene, explain that now, and give their description. It’s going to be hard for people to see you as the innocent party if you failed to let police know that a violent criminal was at large.
- Advise the police that you will sign the complaint. There are two roles open in this particular play: victim and perpetrator. As noted, appearances can create mistaken role reversal if things aren’t immediately clarified. By making a statement to the police to the effect of “I will sign the complaint,” you reinforce the fact that you are the victim-complainant, the good guy or gal, and the person you’re signing the complaint on is the bad guy who forced you to harm him in legitimate defense of self or others. (Note: I would not advise using the phrase “I will press charges.” The reason is that legal terminology varies slightly jurisdiction to jurisdiction. While in many jurisdictions it is indeed the complainant who presses charges, there are some places where the local terminology is such that the prosecutor “presses charges.” If you inadvertently find yourself in one of those places and say “I will press charges,” it sounds to the police as if you have delusions of being the elected chief prosecutor, and you won’t be off to a good start. “I will sign the complaint” is neutral and universal.)
- Point out the evidence. The scene will be chaotic. Witnesses will be trampling the scene. So will paramedics and police officers. I’ve seen cases of the bad guy’s gun being picked up by his accomplice or by a well-meaning neighbor who didn’t want to leave it where a child could find it. I’ve seen spent casings kicked away from their original resting place, or picked up in the treads of emergency personnel’s boots or the wheels of an ambulance gurney, thus altering the dimensions of the shooting scene and making it look like something it wasn’t. The sooner you point out the evidence to the first responding officers, the more likely it is to be secured. When you’ve done the right thing, evidence helps you.
- Point out the witnesses. Witnesses worry about having to lose time from work to testify in court, or being the target for vengeance by criminals. A lot of them “don’t want to get involved.” Once they leave the scene unidentified, their testimony that would have helped to prove your innocence leaves with them. Point out the witnesses to the police at the first opportunity. (Some have asked, “What if the witness is a friend of the attacker and lies about what happened?” The fact is, he was going to do that anyway, so you haven’t lost anything. However, your having pointed him out to the police can be seen as an indication that you believed in your own innocence, or you wouldn’t have steered the police to him, and that can’t hurt.)
- Politely decline further questioning until you have consulted an attorney. Studies show that, in the immediate aftermath of a life-threatening encounter, we may forget some things or get some details wrong. The questions to you will come at random as they occur to the officer, and you will answer them in the same order; in reviewing the cop’s notes and his recollection of the discussion later, this can create the false illusion that you were giving a narrative of events in the order in which they occurred, which of course is not the case. But later, when you do narrate events in the sequence of their occurrence, it creates a false perception that you have changed your story. Often, very frightening things that happened are blocked in short term memory by a subconscious that doesn’t want to recall them; when you mention something later that you didn’t mention at the scene, it sounds made up. You don’t want to answer detailed questions as to exact words spoken, distances, or time frames. None of us are human tape recorders. The tunnel vision that afflicts well over half of people caught up in something like a gunfight creates the literal optical illusion that things and people appear closer and larger than they are. If your memory tells you your attacker was six feet away when you shot him but he turns out to have been six yards away, you sound like a liar. Tachypsychia is likewise very common, the sense of things going into slow motion. It seemed to you as if the fight took a whole minute, and you say so, but a security camera shows it was actually only ten seconds, and now you look like a liar. The involved victim who had to fight for his or her very survival is the worst possible witness for measuring things in feet or inches, or counting how many shots were fired.
Experts recommend 24 to 48 hours between one of these “critical incidents,” as they are now euphemistically called in the emergency services, and when the participant is subjected to a detailed debriefing. The Force Science Institute recommends “one full sleep cycle.”
This is why my recommendation – practical advice, not legal advice – is to establish the active dynamic, indicate that you’ll sign the complaint, point out evidence and witnesses known to you…and then stop. Be polite. Do not raise your voice. I for one would answer subsequent questions with, “Officer, you’ll have my full cooperation after I’ve spoken with counsel.”
Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt of Massad Ayoob's Deadly Force: Understanding Your Right to Self Defense.