In my last column I threw out the hat asking for reader suggestions for future topics. I was not disappointed. This is the first column in a series that hopes to answer just a few of those relevant questions.
One such reader, Whatever 1214 (where do you all get these names, anyway?) asked for an explanation on “Shoot, Don’t Shoot” scenarios taught in the police academy and why is there no specific training to shoot weapons out of the hands of attackers. I have been answering a variation on these questions on a routine basis for over twenty years. Keeping in mind that I am not an instructor in “Use of Force” or “Response to Resistance” as it is now called, I’ll take a crack at answering.
Generally speaking, the police academy is the first location where a new recruit will explore the topic of deadly force. When they graduate and join the patrol staff as trainees, us older guys usually hear about the latest in defensive tactics, legal precedents and procedures. However, not much seems to have changed on the use of deadly force. Though a few legal precedents have either cleared or muddied the water on a few specific scenarios, the ethical and technical mindset for using deadly force in any form remains constant.
Academy training on the topic will come in many forms, including simulated exercises and firing range events. But I have found the most valuable training to be in the form of open discussion, like the following:
Consider a scenario of a 911 call of a suspicious subject holding what might be a weapon. You arrive and see a man who appears to match the subject’s description holding a dark object in his hand–might be a gun, might not–then he raises it up higher despite your verbal commands to drop it. Do you shoot?
The answer? Not enough information. We don’t live in a two-dimensional world, so there will always be more information that must be considered. In the above instance I would need answers to several questions before committing to a course of action.
What else did the caller describe about the subject’s actions? Was the caller anonymous or was it a person who gave a name and a great deal of descriptive information? Was the subject known to the caller? Did the subject have a history of gun violence? Has there been a record of weapons at this location in the past? Is there a way to provide better lighting so that the possibility of a weapon can be verified? Are all officers and innocent civilians out of any possible line of fire?
The questions can go on and on and on. With each one another layer of information can create more questions or provide a consistent and actionable response for a cop caught up in this scenario. But now let’s throw a twist as we continue with the scenario–the subject drops the object, which is now clearly visible as a gun, and raises his hands. Do you shoot?
The answer to that question is reached by responding to this question: is the subject an imminent threat to you or any other person? By imminent we are referring to a space of time so short that it would preclude the ability to take cover, handcuff the subject, remove the weapon, etc. In most cases that’s a few seconds or less. By most standards, a subject with his hands raised and weapon grounded is not an imminent threat.
Back to the scenario because it’s changing again. Now the subject drops his hands, reaches down for the weapon and begins to raise it. At this point we have already gotten quite a bit of information: by initially dropping the weapon and raising his hands there is an indication that he recognizes our expectations and the consequences; the subject’s possession of an actual firearm has been confirmed; by reaching for the weapon a second time the subject has indicated an increasing threat towards police and anyone else on the scene.
Absent more information, the scenario is quickly devolving towards the use of deadly force. This type of scenario, as well as many others, is part of the ongoing training regimen at the police academy. With annual training, cops continue to stay current on this important issue throughout their careers.
Then there was the question of target selection, or “Why don’t you just shoot the gun out of his hand?” The answer must again be obtained by yet another question, namely, what is the purpose of using deadly force? Is it to kill? Is it to disarm someone?
No and no. Whether a police officer is using a patrol car, a firearm or his or her bare hands in a deadly hand-to-hand brawl, the reason for using force capable of killing another human being is simply to remove the threat. That threat must rise to the level that, were a police officer to fail in removing that threat, it would be clear to a reasonable person (i.e. a jury) that someone was about to be seriously hurt or killed by the subject’s next action.
So, if I were to make the decision to shoot the knife or gun out of an attacker’s hand, I would need to be willing to bet the life of the person in danger on the outcome of my marksmanship. Marksmanship skills of all police officers are routinely tested to a high level of proficiency, but I am not willing to bet anyone’s life, including my own, on the outcome of a shot whose degree of difficulty has been elevated to such a ridiculous extent during an extremely tense situation.
To review, deadly force is a response to an imminent threat of serious bodily harm or death; the event can be fluid and require instantaneous re-evaluation; it should be dealt with by removing the threat.
It sounds so simple when it’s summed up like that, but preparing to use deadly force is not simple, easy or pleasant. It is a necessary part of the job of law enforcement professionals.