Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

When to use deadly force? Good question

Post by Brian O'Neill on Aug. 3, 2011 at 10:52 pm with 11 Comments »
August 4, 2011 8:08 am

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.

Leave a comment Comments → 11
  1. Not to mention that it is a lot easier to fire at the center of mass (torso) than it is to hit a limb.
    Brian, i enjoy your articles, very thought provoking

  2. scott0962 says:

    Someone actually asked why police aren’t trained to shoot weapons out of suspect’s hands? That’s just mind boggling.

    My response would have been something along the lines of: “I suggest you turn off the television, put down the video game controller, take off the 3D movie glasses and get to a firing range and learn how to shoot a gun then sign up for some shooting competitions so you can begin to understand the difference between Hollywood special effects and reality!”

    Your answer was much better, Brian.

  3. Brian, in your scenario the verbal commands for the suspect to, “drop what was in their hand” was complied with by the suspect. Why were no follow-up commands given to, “get on the ground” so the suspect could be handcuffed to minimize the chance that lethal force had to be used?

    Do you believe that one of the tools Law Enforcement uses is communicating with the public, including suspects has been overlooked in this scenario?

  4. Brian O'Neill says:


    If I had gone into great detail on this scenario it would have been a 5000 word dissertation. I was trying to answer the shoot-don’t shoot question, and I feel a tangent into verbal commands could have been distracting from this point. Verbal commands would be an important part of the scenario, but so are many other aspects I left out for the sake of brevity.

  5. Dear Brian,

    I understand. My point was, in some cases, the ability of LE to use their communication skills to end confrontations in non-violent fashion seems to have decreased as the technology for less-lethal, (but, still possibly lethal) options have become available to officers.

    Thank you for your thoughtful writings.


  6. Whatever1214 says:

    Scott0962…. I suggested this topic for Brian to explore. I did not ask him to explain why police were not trained to shoot a weapon out of someones hand, I asked him to explain why they don’t. I spent 10 years in law enforcement and was, at one time, an instructor at the police academy. I know why police don’t shoot to wound or use warning shots or try to shoot a weapon out of someones hand.

    After any story in the TNT about a police shooting there are always comments from readers asking why the police did not shoot to wound or shoot the gun out of the guys hand. I thought it would be informative if Brian went into detail and explained the reason for the training.

  7. OlderGuy says:

    Well done, sir. In discussions I’ve heard many people express thoughts and ideas about what police/military should or should not do that have been so heavily tainted by the unreality of TV. I often hear people talk about shooting guns out of hands – something that is almost impossible for even the above average marksman. But it’s easy to do on TV when you’re shooting blanks, have a special effects crew backing you and have the opportunity for multiple retakes. Let’s not even touch people’s expectations of DNA/fingerprint tests in 5 minutes or less.

    I look forward to your future articles.

  8. geeterpontiac says:

    Good piece.

    Along the same lines (law enforcement) you might gather some info on how our law enforcement agencies view people taking videos of their activities.

    Many of us would love to heard what they have to say.

  9. BlaineCGarver says:

    Sometimes I think that if the bad guys had a reasonable expectation of being hurt while plying their trade, they might pick another line of work.

  10. leehallfae says:

    Good question and a good answer by Brian O’Neill.

  11. Outstandingly illuminating thanks, I’m sure your trusty audience would likely want more articles similar to this carry on the excellent hard work.

We welcome comments. Please keep them civil, short and to the point. ALL CAPS, spam, obscene, profane, abusive and off topic comments will be deleted. Repeat offenders will be blocked. Thanks for taking part and abiding by these simple rules.

JavaScript is required to post comments.

Follow the comments on this post with RSS 2.0