State Investigations of Officer-Involved Shooting Cases: Objectivity at the Expense of Transparency

By Rob Tufano | Published July 26, 2023

It is not uncommon for my phone to ring in the middle of the night. I have learned to sleep with one eye open, anticipating an urgent call from a police chief or city manager seeking crisis communications support following a critical incident likely to generate negative media exposure and impact community trust.

One of the more memorable calls came from an exasperated chief whose department was on the ropes following the in-custody death of a teenager who was arrested for an outstanding warrant.

A rookie cop was transporting the teen back to the station for arrest processing when a shot rang out from the back seat. The officer threw the car in park and darted to the back of the cruiser, only to discover the unresponsive teen had suffered a gunshot wound that would tragically claim his short life.

The local case was assigned to state investigators, as had been this city police department’s long-standing protocol. The officer provided a statement, handed over his service weapon to investigators, and was placed on administrative leave as the state investigated the circumstances.

Word of the shooting spread fast, as it often does. Local television journalists converged on the scene to deliver breaking news cut-ins and canvas the area for soundbites. They were soon joined by a gathering of concerned community members and irate social justice demonstrators, many of whom were demanding answers about how a handcuffed teenager wound up shot to death in the back of a police cruiser.

The response from the local police department was a common if not predictable one. “This is an active investigation being conducted by the state and we will refrain from providing any comment at this time”

How 1990s of them. Have we learned nothing from the past?

Demonstrators predictably, had little aversion to filling in the blanks left by police. They manufactured their own narrative, accusing the rookie cop of shooting the teen. The narrative started to trend on social media, motivating others to storm police headquarters. Tempers flared, small fires were set, and rocks were thrown.

The police chief realized that this was far from a garden variety demonstration. It was a powder keg.

He learned early through in-car video and other evidence gathered that the officer did not fire his weapon. A gun was recovered from the lap of the teen and it was determined that he shot himself, through either an accidental discharge or suicide attempt.

Having tangible evidence available to frame an accurate narrative so early was of tremendous benefit in squelching the false narrative and restoring order.

I began to develop the communications strategy and told the chief I was working on his messaging for a press conference. He stopped me dead in my tracks. “Press conference? Can’t do it. This is the state’s case and I’m not authorized to comment on it.” the chief explained.

Respectfully, I countered, “These demonstrators are not breaking the windows of the state police headquarters, they’re breaking your windows. This is your brand on the line, chief. We need to frame an accurate narrative, convey what the evidence revealed, and communicate fast.”

Good Intentions and Poor Outcomes

I didn’t need GPS to help me navigate that road. I have traveled it enough to know where it led and it is invariably a dead end, to transparency.

It is no big secret that state investigators rarely, if ever, publicly communicate following these critical events and are less than enamored with local police departments that do.

It is difficult to quantify the detrimental impact I have witnessed involving trust that this communication gap has had on police departments from the communities they serve.

Sure, there is no denying the benefits of requesting the state’s assistance to objectively conduct these investigations. It minimizes the perception of a conflict of interest.

Truth be told, authorizing departments to investigate their own who were involved in these critical incidents, never felt like the prudent decision to make in the first place. Just because departments could investigate their own, didn’t necessarily mean they should.

Society not only expects but deserves objectivity, that is not lost on me. But they also deserve transparency and accountability. The latter expectations are challenging to deliver when neither the state nor the local agency involved in an incident is inclined or authorized to publicly communicate.

This is a glaring gap that has not and will not serve the long-term interests of society or local police agencies that rely on community support and trust.

The void generates misinformation, mistrust, and leave communities feeling ignored, disrespected, and suspicious of the institutions that they grant enormous authority.

Striking a Balance

Now is the time for local police chiefs to sit down with their respective state counterparts and establish a memorandum of understanding related to public communication following officer-involved shootings and in-custody death investigations.

It is far more strategic to hammer out these expectations on the front end to minimize the potential public fallout on the back.

Few would argue that these types of critical incidents can severely undermine the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

Communicating following an incident should not be considered a hindrance, but rather a priority.

This engagement shows a willingness to acknowledge community concerns and work towards more positive interactions moving forward.

Communicating with the community promotes transparency and confidence in the investigative process while demonstrating a commitment to accountability.

Honest communication minimizes misinformation, provides better understanding, and allows agencies the opportunity to earn trust through their actions.

Demonstrating objectivity need not come at the expense of delivering transparency during critical incident investigations.

As a profession, we can walk and chew gum.

About the Author

Rob Tufano

Rob Tufano

Rob Tufano is a former NYPD cop turned television news crime reporter. He leverages that background now as a law enforcement communications strategist who provides public relations support to police agencies across three continents.

Rob has successfully managed communications during some of the country’s most high-profile law enforcement crises.

He is the driving force behind Tufano Media, one of the nation's premier law enforcement PR agencies.

Contact Rob at

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