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August 22, 2014
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Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D. Passion for the Job
with Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D.

Ferguson's 6 top use-of-force questions: A cop's response

According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 2008, there roughly 765,000 sworn officers in the United States — and an absurdly small number ever fire their weapons outside of training

Due to the success of American policing, our citizenry is able to remain blissfully unaware of the terrible dynamics of encountering an attack or resistance. That success fortunately means that most people are safely protected from harm but it also means there are some common concerns and misconceptions about what it’s like to be attacked, and importantly, what it’s like to respond to an attack.

This is largely responsible for the chorus of questions about the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson. It probably makes it more likely that you’ll be asked these questions by the people you protect. 

If you find yourself in such a discussion, here are some facts you might use to generate deeper understanding for them.

1. “Why did the officer shoot him so many times?”
Shooting events are over far faster than most people think. According to a scientifically-validated study on reaction times, the time from a threat event to recognition of the threat (the decision making process) is 31/100 second. The mechanical action of pulling the trigger is as fast as 6/100 of a second. 

A decision to stop shooting uses the same mental process and, because of the multitude of sensory experiences the brain is processing, actually typically takes longer than the decision to shoot — closer to half a second. Since the trigger pull is still operating as fast as 6/100th of a second, it is entirely possible to fire many times within under two seconds.

Half of those trigger pulls might be completed after a visual input that a subject is no longer presenting a threat. 

Further, it can take over a second for a body to fall to the ground after being fatally shot. This means that a shooting incident can be over before you have the time you say “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.”

Even multiple shots don’t guarantee that a person will not continue to advance or attack.

This also means that a person with intent to shoot a police officer can fire a fatal shot far faster than an officer can draw, get on target, and fire if the officer is reacting to a weapon already displayed. An untrained person handling a firearm for the first time can easily fire three times in 1.5 seconds after they decide to shoot. 

Courts have consistently ruled that suspect behavior that appears to be consistent with an impending firearms attack is a reasonable basis for the officer to fire, whether or not a weapon is clearly visible. 

2. “He had a bullet wound on his hand. Doesn’t that mean his hands were up?”
Time is always an element in a physical confrontation. If you run any video and put an elapsed-time digital clock to it you’ll be amazed at the speed of life. 

Research has shown that a person fleeing the police can turn, fire, and turn back by the time an officer recognizes the threat and fires back, resulting in a shot to the back of the suspect. A shot in any part of the body where the subject is moving is dependent on the trajectory of the officer, the weapon, and the subject meeting at a tiny point of time in space. 

Unless a person is immobile and executed by shots from a shooter who is stationary, the entry point of any single bullet wound has limited capacity to reveal the exact movements in a dynamic situation. The whole forensic result must be carefully examined.

3. “What difference does it make if a person committed a crime if the officer contacting them didn’t know about it?”
If the person being contacted by the police knows he is a suspect in some criminal activity, it could have a significant effect on his behavior toward that officer.

Research on fear, aggression, and frustration dates back to the 1930s — the link between these emotions and behaviors is has been noted by organizations such as the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

The frustration-aggression link was clearly shown in the surveillance video in which when Brown repeatedly shoved the clerk who tried to interfere with his theft of cigars.

It matters little that the officer had no knowledge of the crime which took place 10 minutes before he contacted Brown and his accomplice. 

Brown knew full well and good about that crime, and having an officer contact him in such a short timeframe after the incident could very well have affected the decisions he made during that contact. 

4. “How is it fair to shoot an unarmed teenager?”
If a person is six feet and four inches tall, and weights almost 300 pounds, that person’s physical stature alone gives them the potential capacity to harm another person. 

In Missouri, the most recent annual murder total is 386 — of those, 106 were committed without a firearm. 

According to the FBI, in every year from 2008 to 2012, more people were murdered in the United States using only hands and feet than were murdered by persons armed with assault rifles. 

Weapon      2008     2009     2010     2011     2012
Rifles     380     351     367     332     322
Hands, fists, feet, etc. 875     817     769     751     678

 A police officer knows that every call is a ‘man with a gun’ call, because if he or she loses his weapon or other equipment, the situation can turn deadly for the officer. If the investigation concludes that the officer was defeating a gun grab, use of deadly force is quite reasonable. 

5. “What about all these shootings by police?”
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 2008, there are about 765,000 sworn police officers employed at the roughly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in America. How many people are shot and killed by those officers every year in the United States? 

According to FBI data, 410 Americans were justifiably killed by police. To put that into a little more context, note that civilians acting in self-defense killed 310 persons during that same time period.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics says that one in five persons over 12 years of age has a face- to- face police contact during the study year for a total of 45 million contacts. 

Force was reported by arrestees in less than one percent of those contacts. Of those who reported use of force, most self-reported that they had engaged in at least one of the following:

•    Threatening the officer
•    Interfering with the officer in the arrest of someone else
•    Arguing with the officer
•    Assaulting the officer
•    Possessing a weapon
•    Blocking an officer or interfering with his or her movement
•    Trying to escape or evade the officer
•    Resisting being handcuffed
•    Inciting bystanders to become involved
•    Trying to protect someone else from an officer
•    Drinking or using drugs at the time of the contact

6. “Why are the police militarized?” 
Ferguson Police Department has no tactical or armored vehicles in its inventory, and no SWAT team. No extraordinary equipment was in use by the officer who shot Michael Brown. The special equipment used in Ferguson was put in use only AFTER the violent response to the news of the shooting became evident. 

To claim that the gear and the vehicles caused the violence reverses the cause-effect sequence. The danger was obvious, and the appropriate equipment was brought to deal with the situation. 

Outside of a crowd-control context, there are many reasons why police need what some would define as “military” equipment.

If there is a school shooting and there is an injured child on the playground while the shooting is still active, do you want your police department to have the ability to rescue the child?  

If yes, that means the department will need an armored vehicle. 

Can you imagine a circumstance where a police officer would be assaulted by someone throwing a brick at him or her, or trying to hit them over the head? If so, they need a helmet. 

Would there ever be a time when an officer would be in a hazardous material environment and need a breathing mask? Then they need gas masks. 

We aren’t taking away fire trucks because they are too big or hardly ever used to their full, firefighting capacity — most fire service calls are medical in nature. 

It’s the same principle. 

There are a lot of questions related to the Ferguson situation that don’t yet have answers, and no one should pretend to know exactly what happened on August 9. But it is important that we educate the public about issues such as the use of force, the use of specialized equipment, and the dynamics of human performance during high-stress incidents. 

Let’s begin in earnest to have those conversations with our citizens. 


About the author

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy.. He is retired as Chief of Police for Adams State University in Colorado. Over his 30 year career in uniformed law enforcement and in criminal justice education Joel has served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor, and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and bachelors in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the US Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over fifty police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards including the Colorado POST curriculum committee as a subject matter expert.

Follow Joel on Twitter @ChiefShults.

Contact Joel Shults





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