Shooting center mass: The dangers of denial
In the third and final part of this three-part series, PoliceOne Contributor Roy Bedard looks at police deadly force training in the United States
Even with about three-quarters of a million police officers working the streets of America — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — few will ever actually exercise their highest level of authority. With all of the deadly threats presented to police officers, America can typically expect only between 300-400 incidents of law enforcement officers firing their weapons at persons annually. Incredibly, it is estimated that in America, less than 12 percent of police officers will ever draw and fire their weapons at another person — in the entire course of their career!
If this number seems extraordinarily low to you, consider that in most western European countries, the career totals for shots fired at people hover around one to five percent. In Latin America, the number is higher, but still is remarkably low in comparison to the United States. In Asia, police use of deadly force is virtually non-existent. Certainly these numbers do not mean that most police officials never face deadly threats — indeed, nearly every police official who makes a career in law enforcement will face multiple incidents where the use of deadly force would have been justified and appropriate. Recent research indicates that a full 92 percent of police officers can recount a situation were they could have used deadly force and yet chose not to do so.
Still, when law enforcement recruits enter the profession they immediately begin preparing for the possibility that one day they may be confronted with the need to kill — or be killed. Nearly all blocks of instruction are laced with this common theme. There are many internal and external variables which must be addressed in order to give clarity during that critical moment; how to control stress, how to react to changing circumstances, how to push on and finish the fight even if you are the first to receive a wound.
When officers recite the “we don’t shoot to kill” mantra — and believe it — we may reasonably conclude that they are not properly prepared to take a human life. Deluding officers into actually believing that police are not supposed to kill — or are even allowed to kill — creates a deadly mental block that will most likely surface in that critical moment of truth — when ending a life for the sake of the greater good may be necessary.
Further, the mantra sends the wrong message to the community. That message indicates that whenever a subject is killed at the hands of a law enforcement officer, then something must have been done wrong, for surely law enforcement does not shoot to kill — they only shoot to stop.
For most informed citizens it is an academic certainty that shooting to kill is not something police do (talk about ammunition for civil rights attorneys and fuel for media persecution!). Should law enforcement officers actually expect to be held to a standard lower than the very one which THEY have created?
Recall the last time that a shooting occurred in your hometown — or in a town within your local TV station’s broadcast area. Is it any wonder that someone asked — and they ALWAYS ask — “Why didn’t the police shoot the subject in the leg or arm — why did they have to shoot him in chest? Why didn’t they try to stop him instead of killing him?”
Last week I wrote about a conversation I’d had with a police trainer in the Czech Republic. I tried to imagine a circumstance where an officer would intentionally leg shoot someone in police work. I thought about subject/officer factors whereby an aggressive subject who is unarmed but is so much larger than the police official that shooting them may be a justified response.
The hurdle to get over is whether this subject is SO large that the officer could justify killing them because their size and apparent strength would be considered in and of itself — deadly. Regardless of this factor, the paper would probably report, ‘Officer Shoots Unarmed Citizen,’ and the agency would struggle to explain the ambiguous variable.
In training we grab students out of their seats and pair them off, a really big one and a really small one. We kind of shrug our shoulders and say, “OK — I guess with these two students this one would be justified in killing that one, you know it’s a grey area.”
Someone almost always shouts out, “I’d rather be tried by twelve then carried by six!” What can you say to that? Our training has been reduced to a flip of the coin.
I thought about short-range weapons that only pose an imminent deadly threat in the close quarters. Not firearms but sticks, knives, bottles, rocks. The standard US response to a subject approaching with one of these weapons is to shoot center mass. We not only stop the threat, we usually kill the threat. But a leg shot…that can stop a subject from advancing and mitigate the threat of the close range weapon. We already teach officers how to move and shoot. Move forward, move backwards, move and shoot.
Keep the distance, fire at the legs, drop the bad-guy — is it possible? Is it reasonable?
The purpose of sharing this experience is not to push an agenda but rather to present an opportunity to think once again about our policing methodologies. By thinking about it again we will either see a need to change, or gain stronger resolve in our current commitment. There are so many things that we have stopped thinking about in police work because we have grown comfortable in our methods and manners. But like everything in history, yesterday’s certainties usually become tomorrow’s superstitions.
The argument has been made that we don’t shoot to kill, because if we did, we would continue firing even after the threat has stopped. Time and again officers empty their magazines into suspects, firing until the weapon runs dry. It’s common where suspects are filled with dozens of bullets when the smoke clears. We are aware that “over-shoot” is a survival instinct bought on by high arousal and extreme stress — it is something that we can explain but also something that invariably casts doubt on our training methods.
America is a strange place. Police officers and their agencies are constantly under the threat of lawsuits and this is different than in most other parts of the world. Adopting more difficult policies raises the level of responsibility and ultimately the officer’s accountability. Where the civil courts allow failed responsibilities to be paid out in monetary premiums, no one is eager to lay down their own minefield. Damned if you do — damned if you don’t as the saying goes.
This is probably why American police are reluctant to adopt policies that suggest that shooting in certain scenarios might be intended only to wound, for fear that a wounding shot might accidentally kill. No, it is better for a killing shot to accidentally wound. American police routinely adopt policies that plan for the worst, and hope for the best.
Center mass shots will likely remain the only target area taught and supported by training in the United States. If we don’t have a justification to kill, then we simply teach to not shoot. We prefer a model where we aren’t forced to account so much for accuracy, rather our mission is to describe the elements of using deadly force. We prefer that our accountability virtually end at the squeeze of the trigger.
If the bullet hits and kills, that’s OK — if it doesn’t kill, perhaps that’s better?