It was early New Year’s morning 2006. The phone rang jolting me out of a sound sleep. The gruff voice on the other end of the phone was then Task Force Commander Bill Valko.

Commander Valko was a veteran Waukegan cop who had seen just about everything bad you could see in police work. We held a common bond in that we were both from Chicago eventually relocating to the “burbs.” Bill would call me “Humboldt Park” referring to my old stomping grounds on Chicago’s west side.

“We’ve got an OIS (Officer Involved Shooting) in Beach Park that’s a real cluster.”

Beach Park is a suburb located in Northern Lake County that borders Waukegan on the south and Zion on the north in the Lake County Sheriff’s jurisdiction.

As was the practice during my early years with the Task Force we were always directed to the requesting agency’s police station, in this case Zion. The practice of not having a visual perspective of the scene made it difficult to interview individuals. We changed that practice years later when I took over command of the Task Force.

When I arrived at Zion I was directed into a large room off the main lobby that was set up like an outdated college lecture hall. This room was previously used as court room and city hall meetings. As I looked around I could see a spattering of investigators that were beginning to drift in.

As soon as enough investigators arrived Valko began to brief us. Just after 2 a.m., Winthrop Harbor police responded to a domestic disturbance call at a home. A woman told police her husband had beaten her and her teenage son, threatened them with a gun and locked himself in a bathroom. Prior to police arriving the man fled in a vehicle possibly heading towards a home in Beach Park armed with a sawed off shotgun intent on shooting his own brother. Lake County Sheriff’s Officers, Winthrop Harbor and Zion Police Departments joined in the effort to locate the suspect.

The offender eventually crashed on to the front lawn of his intended target in Beach Park with officers hot on his tail. As he exited his car the first responding officer saw that he was wielding a shotgun. The offender pointed the weapon at a Zion police sergeant that was first on the scene. The sergeant fired four rounds in rapid succession striking the offender three times in the lower portion of his body shattering his pelvis and inflicting two other less devastating wounds.

The offender was taken into custody and transported to a nearby hospital surviving his wounds and eventually being charged with multiple felonies.

One of the many issues the sergeant had to deal with, aside from being the shooting officer, was he was also the watch commander. Under “normal” circumstances the watch commander would take charge of the scene, insure medical personnel checked the officer, secure the officers weapon and request the Lake County Major Crime Task Force.

The immediate aftermath of a shooting in and of itself affects an officer both physically and mentally. The decision making process is challenged. Physiological changes including elevated adrenaline, heart rate and blood pressure are common. Many officers in investigations I’ve been involved in described auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, actually seeing the bullets they have fired or that have been fired at them in slow motion, recalling firing only two or three shots when in actuality they discharged an entire thirty round rifle magazine.

A study conducted by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Bruce K. Siddle indicates that officers who encounter an extremely stressful situation will consistently exhibit difficulty in transferring information into long term memory. Particular memory related phenomenon in traumatic situations include:

  1. During the actual incident there is usually a “sensory overload” combined with a “fixation” on some particular aspect of the critical incident, often to the exclusion of all else.
  2. Immediately after the incident, “post-incident amnesia” will often result in a failure to remember the majority of the information observed in the incident.
  3. After a healthy night’s sleep there is usually a “memory recovery” which will result in remembering the majority of what occurred, and this memory is probably the most “pure.”
  4. Within 72 hours the final and most complete form of memory will occur, but it will be at least partially “reconstructed” (and therefore somewhat “contaminated”) after the inevitable process of integrating available information from all other sources (media).

The minutes and hours after an OIS are extremely important to the officer’s mental and physical well being. As a police chief my responsibility is to insure the officer is treated in a dignified non-accusatory manner. Appropriate medical attention, notification of family and support are essential. My role is complex in that I also have a duty to the community to ensure a non-biased, independent and transparent investigation. An error in judgment or perception of bias could have long term negative effects on the officer, the department and the community.

It was unfortunate that this officer who risked his life and in all probability saved a life was treated more as a suspect than a hero by his own department. The officer was transported to a local hospital because of elevated blood pressure.

The chief of police and one of two deputy chiefs at the time came to the hospital ordering the officer to submit blood and urine tests, promptly leaving without saying a word. Neither one acknowledged the incident, asked about his well being or offered any assistance. No debriefing ever occurred or was offered. Fortunately both of these command officers are long gone.

The officers audio microphone and in car video was activated during the incident providing insight into the officers decision making processes. Considering the situation, the officer effectively handled the incident until other command personnel arrived. His ability to control his emotions may have been attributed to his advance training as a SWAT officer and his experience as a veteran officer.

It was unfortunate that in this case the agency command staff began making poor decisions regarding the officer that would leave him bitter for many years.

To his credit, he eventually joined the Task Force as an evidence technician eventually being promoted to chief evidence technician and to rank of lieutenant in his own agency.

Now retired, the officer became a part of an in service training initiative we began, to educate member agencies about our investigative process when dealing with officer involved shootings. The intent of the training was designed to provide agencies with an overview of our investigative process, therefore, in theory lessening the stress, anxiety and fear of the unknown. He has spoken to numerous command officers and frontline officers about his personal experience and lessons learned.

As an independent investigative unit our sole responsibility is to gather facts in an unbiased manner and present them to the States Attorney’s Office for final findings. As human beings and police officers we can only offer our experience and knowledge.

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Sources:

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Bruce K. Siddle, Critical Incident Amnesia: The Physiological Basis and the Implications of Memory Loss During Extreme Survival Stress Situations

The Firearms Instructor: The Official Journal of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, Issue 31 / Aug 2001

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Chief George Filenko, retired commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force, current chief of police Village of Round Lake Park, Illinois; has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Discovery ID etc., public speaker, lecturer.