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December 12, 2008
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Where did all the bullets go?

Not long ago, the New York Times carried an article that revealed one of law enforcement’s deepest, darkest secrets. Though most agencies are loathe to admit it (and some do not even track it), the vast majority of the bullets police officers fire in the line of duty miss their intended target.

I was not surprised to find striking similarity in the results reported by Los Angeles on the left coast and New York City on the right. I found almost identical numbers ten years ago when analyzing the shooting results of a large mid-western agency. And to prove that the situation is apparently little changed from a hundred years ago, consider this Theodore Roosevelt quote from when he was the New York City Police Commissioner: "It is wonderful, in the event of a street fight, how few bullets seem to hit the men they are aimed at."

How bad is it? Well, both NYPD and LAPD give hit-rates that hover around 30 percent. In the article, New York claimed a 34 percent hit rate, while LA listed a 31 percent hit rate last year. But, upon a closer read, you will find that even these low numbers misstate the real facts. You see, these 30 percent hit rates include shots fired at dogs, cars, and even police suicides, which tragically run about 100 percent hits. During 1999 in New York, only 13 percent of the bullets fired during police gunfights struck home. During 2006, NYPD’s gunfight hit rate was a much better 30 percent, but we don’t have enough information to know if this was a maintainable improvement or just a statistical variation.

So, even when we take the best “spin” on the best numbers, about 70 percent of the bullets police officers fire strike something they didn’t want to shoot. Luckily, there is an awful lot of stuff in our jurisdictions that can catch errant bullets with minimal bad consequences. While NYPD no longer tabulates information on things unintentionally shot, in 1996 five innocent bystanders were wounded there by police gunfire.

Realistically, we cannot expect street officers armed with handguns to approach the sniper’s goal of “one shot, one kill.” But, when you consider that the average distance of a police gunfight is well under 7 yards, often less than 10 feet, we must ask ourselves what the hell is going on?

I’d be willing to bet most of these officers could easily hit a man-sized target 100 percent of the time at 10 feet on the firing range. The answer is both simple and complex. The difference between the 100 percent hit-rate on the training range and the 13 percent gunfight hit-rate can be boiled down to one easy statement: Nobody’s shooting at you on the training range.

From a trainer’s point of view, therein lies the problem. For the first several decades of police firearms training, standing still while shooting at a stationary paper target was thought to be good enough. With some agencies, training has changed little since the 1930's.

Adding realism to our training, such as moving targets and movement of the shooters is a distinct improvement, but still isn’t enough. In order to truly train an officer to gunfight, we have to, well, put them in a gunfight. I work at a highly militaristic police academy where trainees march in groups, square their corners, and wear you out with their “Good Morning Sir’s” in the hallway. But, if we had ‘em load up and square off in the parking lot at high noon, the washout rate would be even higher!

Someone once said that experience is something you get ... right after you need it. While we cannot truly put our officers in a gunfight during training, we can trick their mind into thinking we have. The first method of realistic gunfight training is the computer simulator. Most of us have had a run or two against the “on-screen” adversaries. If done correctly, the simulators can generate enough realism to induce “stress inoculation,” the training method that produces a pseudo experience real enough to be stored on an officer’s hard drive for future reference. The best new simulators allow for weapon malfunctions to teach clearing techniques under stress and even allow the instructor to punish the trainee with hostile paintball fire if they fail to use available cover properly.

The closest we can come to a real gunfight is force-on-force training where both participants use weapons firing non-lethal projectiles. Paint munitions hurt when they hit and leave a paint mark to prevent the “you didn’t hit me” response we all remember from playing “war” with cap guns as a kid (at least those of us over 40 remember cap guns!).

A disadvantage to using paint marking cartridges is the high cost of both the weapons and ammunition and the need for full face protection, which hinders both vision and hearing. Some training groups are now using realistic air-soft weapons which are often exact replicas of our duty weapons, much more affordable and don’t require the same degree of protective gear - while still stinging the recipient. Whatever type of non-lethal projectile weapon you choose, it is the realism of facing a human target that gives us the huge training benefit. No simulator can ever give the degree of interaction and infinite variables you will face when another human is throwing “lead” in your direction.

When aggravating factors such as darkness, moving targets and real return fire are a part of the gunfight equation, the police hit rate on the street will never approach 100 percent. But, if your agency makes aggressive use of both cutting-edge computer simulators and sensibly designed force-on-force training scenarios, you should see a hit rate far better than the 11-13 percent figure quoted in research papers.

The primary reason we want officers to land more hits in a gunfight is, simply, for them to win the fight and go home safe. The secondary reason for wanting more hits is the “little lawyer” I like to say is attached to each bullet or buckshot pellet. Problem #1 is winning the fight. Problem #2 is winning the legal and administrative aftermath of using deadly force. Make sure you take things in their proper order. Don’t let concerns over Problem #2 degrade your effectiveness at handling Problem #1.

First, go home safe!

About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

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