Prone suspects: Deadly in an instant (revisited)

Findings from a Force Science Institute study reveal that even before the object coming into view can be recognized as a gun, a shot is off


One week ago — December 15, 2010, the St. Paul (Minn.) Police Department awarded medals of valor to seven of its officers. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that four of the officers received medals for coming to the aid of a family trapped by live power lines. The three others were recognized for their actions on the night of Dec. 8, 2009, in an incident that left one of the medal recipients — Officer Adam Bailey — with a gunshot wound to his leg.

The original call was a shots fired in the parking lot of an apartment complex. Officers from St. Paul PD arrived to find a whole lot of blood — but no victim. Moments later word came over the radio that the victim — 24-year-old Dwight Raymond Tate — had bled out at the scene of a traffic collision that occurred as he was being transported by his friends to a nearby hospital.

Now it was a homicide.

Several hours later, word came in that the suspect — 19-year-old Romell Hill — was still in the apartment complex on Maryland Avenue in which the shooting had happened, and was in the process of intimidating potential witnesses. Moving from their position in the hallway outside the ground-floor apartment in which the suspect was hiding, several cops made entry. The suspect immediately bailed out a window and fled.

Among the officers on the scene were Officers Stephen Bobrowski, Thomas Weinzettel, and the aforementioned Bailey, who had taken up position outside the building. When the suspect ran, they were there to drop him. Bobrowski deployed his TASER, putting Hill on the sidewalk.

With Officers Bobrowski and Weinzettel covering, and the suspect’s arms tucked underneath his proned-out body, Bailey approached from the direction of the suspects head. As Bailey began to work toward securing the hands, Hill raised up from a prone position, getting off one shot before Bailey and his cover officers returned fire.

Officer Bailey survived — the suspect did not — but it could have turned out much differently. As has been previously reported in this space, prone suspects can be deadly in an instant. Earlier this year, I wrote a column on the groundbreaking effort by the Hillsboro (Ore.), Police Department and the Force Science Research Center to better understand the nature of this threat. Two weeks ago, FSRC released a follow-up paper in which Dr. Bill Lewinski and his team revealed that:

• Suspects lying flat with hands hidden under chest or waist can produce and fire a gun at an approaching officer faster than any human being can react
• The angle sometimes advocated as the safest for approaching a prone subject appears, in fact, to be potentially the most dangerous

“In testing five different angles of weapon exposure and attack,” read the FSRC paper, “FSI researchers discovered that the overall average time that elapses between the instant a prone suspect's first movement can be seen and the discharge of his pointed weapon is less than two thirds of a second. One subject in one of the firing postures monitored was able to move so fast that the gun in his hand could not be detected until the moment it discharged.”

Most worrisome is the fact that the fastest subjects produced their weapon from under their chest, firing upward and ahead — identical to the motion in the above incident involving Officer Bailey and the proned-out Hill — which is the “line of approach taught by some trainers as being the most protective for officers,” said Force Science.

Educating the Unwashed Masses
PoliceOne Member Rich Von Voigt, a retired detective with the Riverhead (N.Y.) Police Department, says that he’s pleased that science and research — such as the work done by FSRC — are moving in favor of law enforcement.

“We police officers have been responding and reacting from behind the curve for much too long and have been blamed unjustly for what some my perceive as brutal and unjustified force,” Von Voigt told me in our cross-country email conversation. “Police officers are involved in life-and-death decision-making situations and unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of a ‘do-over’ if we get it wrong. We don’t have a referee to stop the fight in the middle of a shoot-don’t-shoot situation. It has always been, and always will be, our call, and right or wrong our decision to act is always on us and our training. The average — or even better-then-average — police officer just can’t react to a threat in the timeframe given in this experiment. That being said, I’m glad FSRC is giving us a fighting chance in court in order to at least justify our seemingly-hasty response to use what appears to some to be excessive force. We need to inform our union attorneys of these findings so that we may be prepared to respond with hard facts as to why one of our own used the force he or she did to effect the arrest — or demise — of a subject.”

Kyle Lamb, President of Viking Tactics and a PoliceOne contributor, agrees. “Liability has taken over so many police departments and trainers in this county that we are training our officers to fail,” Lamb told me as I prepared this column. “A good example is the prone shooting that is discussed in this [research]. Officers have not been able to defend themselves because of uneducated managers and citizens. Bill Lewinski is doing great work in determining what can be done to eliminate needless officer deaths.”

Lamb said further that Lewinski is “educating everyone that suspects are being shot because they are a threat, they are being restrained because they are non-compliant. Officers are the good guys. That point is being lost across America and we all must get out there and educate.”

Training for Feigned Compliance
PoliceOne Columnist Dan Marcou, who wrote the excellent sidebar to this column, said in that piece that, “You must prepare for resistance or assault after feigned compliance.” Marcou wrote, “No matter what position you put someone in, it still comes down to this: ‘Account for the hands, watch the hands, control the hands.’ This is because the hands kill. So your hands have to be more prepared to be more deadly than your adversary.”

Von Voigt reinforced that thinking as he said, “Our officers need to get this information and it must be seen, practiced, and instilled in them to use extreme caution when dealing with fleeing subjects. In some cases when the suspect is told to get down he or she may get down very fast and extremely willingly (caution flag) or they may just keep going until you catch them and attempt to get them down (hands on) another extreme caution flag, You are now going hands on and up close and personal. Dangerous to say the least — two guns may be in the mix, theirs and yours. I certainly can't argue with science, but I sure can agree that in the law enforcement community we are behind the curve in more ways then one.”

“We must be realistic about our training,” added Lamb. “A little blood in training prevents loss of life in war. And by the way, this is a WAR! When paint-marking rounds are used, role players and officers are so bundled up and protected that they cannot feel pain and they cannot see the sights on their carbine because protective gear will not allow it. So we as leaders are saying two things. We don’t want anyone to get hurt during training.  Killed in the street is OK, but please don’t get hurt during training.  And: while out in the street in a confrontation, don’t use your sights. Let’s get real. Don’t train officers to fail, train them to win every encounter.”

In the Force Science News transmission containing their most recent finings, Dr. Lewinski summed up the matter thusly: “If hidden hands are not controlled immediately and the suspect is armed and decides to shoot, an officer is likely faced with an insurmountable challenge to react fast enough to prevent what could be a fatal attack.”

In effect, if those hands are hidden under a proned-out subject, officers cannot assume compliance. In fact, quite the opposite is true — those hidden hands are a warning sign of potential, if not probable, non-compliance!

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor in Chief of PoliceOne, responsible for setting the editorial direction of the website and managing the planned editorial features by our roster of expert writers. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 800 feature articles and tactical tips on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA). Even in his "spare" time, he is active in his support for the law enforcement community, contributing his time and talents toward police-related charitable events as well as participating in force-on-force training, search-and-rescue training, and other scenario-based training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

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