For statistical perspective the most recent FBI annual crime report is that 48 officers were feloniously killed. In contrast police officers shot and killed 403 (three additional suspects were killed by police using something other than a firearm) in the same period. In that same reporting year 261 persons were justifiably killed by civilians, 215 by firearms.
In the context of millions of officer-citizen contacts daily across the nation, the number of lethal encounters resulting in the death of an officer or suspect is statistically small. Eighty percent of officers report being in a deadly force confrontation in which they had to decide whether or not to pull the trigger. By raw numbers police officers do a stunningly effective job of dealing with potentially deadly encounters without killing offenders. Even so, the impact of those police deaths on families, agencies, and the social fabric and American psyche is immeasurable and unacceptable.
Researchers have known for decades that soldiers have a reluctance to kill even in the heat of battle. Military training has changed to create both a mindset and skill base to increase kill ratios. The question of whether law enforcement should be killing more people than they currently are has dramatic social and ethical implications for a free society. The answer to that question in terms of tactics and officer survival is that police officers should be shooting more often and more effectively.
Why aren’t cops killing more bad guys?
Lack of Warrior Spirit — Some trainers and supervisors believe that aggressive characteristics necessary for surviving intense, highly physical encounters are intentionally selected out by current recruitment and testing methods. Dr. Alexis Artwohl, co-author of Deadly Force Encounters suggests that the warrior spirit is actually alive and well in American culture. Research by Ron Borsch, manager of South East Area Regional Law Enforcement Training Academy in Bedford, Ohio reveals that a significant number of active shooters are stopped by unarmed civilians initiating action on their own. Artwohl cites evidence that 90 percent of people are highly resilient and able to respond effectively to unusual circumstances. Regardless of the any deficiency in the recruits they can be trained for effectiveness.
Discomfort with Firearm — Vicki Farnam, longtime firearms trainer and author of Teaching Women to Shoot: A Law Enforcement Instructor's Guide, states that her experience tells her that many officers do not “have a relationship with their weapon.” Although Farnam’s specialty is training female shooters, with fewer American boys growing up around guns the weak gun relationship is not limited to females.
Ignorance of Biology — Artwohl expressed concerns about expectations that officers exceed human capacity and operate outside the rules of physics when it comes to responding to deadly force encounters. Research on reaction and response time shows how quickly events unfold. Officers may be unaware of the level of preparation needed to respond to danger signs. Police officer and longtime trainer Joe Ferrara urges trainers to recognize how officers can increase efficiencies to reduce their response time by even fractions of a second that might provide a life-saving edge in an armed encounter.
Ambush — Brian McKenna, author of Officer Down! Lessons from the Streets, expressed frustration with the idea that since ambush situations are random and unpredictable that there is nothing we can do about them. McKenna believes that ambushes are under-reported in officer murder statistics because of reporting methodologies. Richard Fairburn, author of Building a Better Gunfighter, is among many firearms trainers who believe that better training with ambush situations in mind can help officers survive these kinds of attacks.
Fear of the Aftermath — John Bostain, a senior instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, believes that police officers should be thoroughly trained on post-shooting protocol. A level of comfort with the realities of officer involved shootings could reduce hesitation. Both Bostain and Artwohl cited statistics showing overwhelmingly favorable outcomes for officers who kill offenders, both legally and emotionally despite the common perception that shooting a suspect has universally disastrous consequences. Surveys show that lag time in deciding to shoot is correlated to fears of these kinds of consequences.
Misunderstanding of the Law — Bostain and McKenna believe that officers are hesitant to shoot because of fears that they are not legally justified. Bostain cited clear Supreme Court guidelines, including Graham V. Connor, that bear little resemblance to common false beliefs that minimum force options must be exhausted before escalating to more effective responses.
Negotiation Culture — McKenna noted that there is a common practice of issuing repeated verbal commands prior to using deadly force. He postulated that the practice comes from a misreading of Tennessee V. Garner and the policies that arose from that watershed decision. Officers who face deadly adversaries and refrain from shooting are often rewarded for their restraint. Even in situations where observers would agree it was foolish to take the risk of not making decisive aggressive intervention, restraint is valued over lawful force options. Force instructors seldom use the word “kill,” deferring to euphemisms like “neutralize the threat,” “take care of the situation,” and “we don’t shoot to kill we shoot to stop the threat.”
Segmented Training — McKenna urges firearms trainers and arrest control tactics instructors to merge their training. He observed that the separation of these two disciplines results in inconsistent training messages to officers.
Uncomfortable Distances — Ferrara related a case where an officer faced an armed man who stood behind an eight year-old boy. Even though the target was exposed from just above the waistline the officer was afraid to take the shot. Better marksmanship for distance shooting can be accomplished according to former Ft. Worth firearms trainer Dorcia Meador. Meador’s department is credited with an 88 percent shot placement compared to what Fairburn cites as a national rate of less than 30 percent. McKenna reports that very close combat encounters are common and close range shooting training does not address the dynamics of real world encounters.
Lack of Research Data — Other than the FBI studies on murders of police officers there is a deep lack of national data on officer encounters. While an officer’s murder is studied in detail and reported to a national database, killings by police officers are not. Encounters where shots are not fired or where there is no lethal outcome occur in the vacuum of their own agency reports. In other words, we only study the failures and not the successes.
Acceptance of Violence Against Officers — Offenders who assault officers are poorly prosecuted. This reflects a cultural attitude that officers are expected to take the brunt of violent behavior as part of the job rather than treating officers as crime victims from law breakers who fail to lawfully submit to arrest. Even within the police subculture there is a level of acceptance of battery against officers that may influence officer attitudes in dealing with “minor” violence that may be a precursor to a deadly attack.
Training for officer survival can reduce the success of attacks on police officers. Essential components are better training based on the discovered realities from research and the education of officers in the realities of their professional imperative to kill when circumstances dictate a lethal response.