Shooting center mass: Shooting to kill or to stop?
In part one of this three-part series, PoliceOne Contributor Roy Bedard examines the oft-used mantra in police deadly force training: "We don’t shoot to kill. We shoot to stop."
He tossed a cigar back and forth between his teeth as he spoke. Through the wrapper and into the binder, the two-toned stogy was soaked with saliva showing a greater effort to chew on it than smoke it. He stood in front of us on the line looking to see if everyone was paying attention. He turned, dropped his head and started to pace back and forth as he spoke.
“Center mass. It’s ‘operations central’ for your body, houses your heart, a most important muscle that sends blood to all parts of your frame. Your lungs are also here and they are necessary for the balanced exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. You got nerves, lots of nerves that pass through center mass. The vagus nerve for instance represents the golden highway of neurological life sustaining information between your brain and vital organs. This nerve is the master switch for heart rate and blood pressure. Turn off that switch, empty the pump of blood or puncture a lung and a person is likely to die—quickly. This folks is where we are going to put our bullets.”
Being a rookie police officer on the firing range was both exhilarating and intimidating. I remember the feeling of standing on the line, a .38 caliber S&W six shot revolver in my hand. I had practiced dry firing plenty but now my weapon’s cylinder was loaded with 158-grain semi-wad cutter rounds. Two speed loaders, which sat in a worn leather pouch on my belt offered me a full eighteen rounds of ammunition. I was flanked to the right and left by a dozen or so other rookie shooters. There was silence as we all waited for the range master’s commands. He climbed into the tower.
All of us gazed downrange at the paper targets that hung between metal frames. Through scratched safety glasses I could see a dark silhouette in the shape of a man emblazoned on the target before me. Even back in the mid 1980s, we were aware of the diminishing returns that bulls eye targets had in preparing one for actual combat situations. This is why we shot at man shaped silhouettes; it was psychological conditioning. To point at and shoot a person was an extremely complex ability going beyond simple marksmanship.
In the center of the dark silhouette there was a definitive white outline shaped like a giant coke bottle. It covered the center of the target. This outline caused my eyes to focus more deliberately at it. And there, in the center of the coke bottle there was another circle positioned exactly over where the heart would be if this were in fact a human being. In that circle, the only number I could clearly read from my distance was a large 5X. My eyes were immediately drawn to it. It was clear that this area was designated as more important than the rest of the figure, and it was here that I was expected to deliver my bullets.
There was a sudden crackling of the PA system and the range master began to speak.
“Two shots to the body, center mass...follow it with one to the head. The use of a firearm is deadly force, folks and your shots need to stop the threat. Remember, the ultimate responsibility for taking another human life is yours. No one else can make that decision for you. You have to be prepared both physically and mentally. To stop a deadly threat you have to know when and where to shoot. I want to see good target placement and a tight group on your chest shots. Are there any questions? OK... Is the line ready? The line is ready... on the command... draw and fire!”
More than 700,000 law enforcement officers currently working in the United States have been given this or similar instructions in the academy. In-service training follows suit striving to perfect these skills with advanced range training. Cops recognize that they are granted an incredible authority to kill, to take a life under certain well-defined circumstances. It is called ‘justifiable homicide’ when reasonable minds agree that shooting (and perhaps killing) another person is reasonable and necessary in defense of others. In accepting this possibility of killing, cops must also accept the possibility living with themselves after they have killed. For some, this may be the hardest part. The psychological backlash of killing has impaired the lives of untold scores of soldiers and police officers.
When the last volley of shots was fired the tower came back on.
“Lower your weapons and quickly scan your environment. When it is clear, holster your weapon. Now let’s move downrange and look at your shot placement. People, I want you to remember — we don’t shoot to kill... we shoot to stop!”
These words fell upon my ears as they have hundreds of thousands of other officers throughout the country. Though most reasonable people would not expect two shots to the chest and one in the head to result in a favorable outcome, an odd reversal of psychology conditions us to believe that when a person is shot by a law enforcement officer their untimely demise is never because they were killed, but rather because they died subsequent to being penetrated by bullets in vital areas. How odd a representation? Bertrand Russell once said, “Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never talk of killing for their country.”
They say there are two sides to every story. Surely cops know that headshots and center mass shots are likely to kill. This fact alone meets the statutory allowance defined for the use of deadly force. Is there a legitimate reason or purpose for not admitting then, that police shoot to kill? Here in the south, some of my police colleagues keep it simple when they describe acts of police involved shootings or other forms of deadly force.
The argument can be made that killing and stopping are merely a matter of semantics but words are only semantics if they mean the same thing and convey the same message. Surely where killing always means to stop, stopping can not nearly always mean to kill. They may be similar... but they are not the same.
Because stopping and killing are different things, is it not dangerous to tip-toe around this issue in what seems to be a perpetual state of denial? When we use deadly force, should it be surprising to anyone that one likely outcome is death?
In the next several weeks I will get deep into this issue, beginning on April 15th with part two. In that column I’ll tell you about a conversation I recently had with a police trainer in the Czech Republic. In part three — which will appear here on PoliceOne on Friday, April 22nd — I’ll return to the topic of police deadly force training here in the United States.