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Shot in the Back!

One common misconception that is probably becoming something of an urban legend in the media is that an officer shooting an assailant in the back has committed some heinous crime. This is most often brought up in high-profile incidents. In its wisdom, the media or other activists decide to make the entry point of the bullet in a deceased individual, the condemning factor and proof of officer wrongdoing. I rarely hear common sense in these issues until someone like Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute comes forward. Bill and his organization have done scientific studies to explain how our reaction time would very possibly make us hit a subject in the back when we initiate the action facing an assailant! Many Chuck Remsburg Calibre Press Newsline articles have addressed this very subject over the years, explaining a lot of autopsy results released to the public.

But what about intentionally shooting someone in the back? Does a bad guy get to shoot at us or commit a violent crime and just run away? Does the fact that our only shot is a back-shot stop our hand? Does the Supreme Court say we can't shoot fleeing dangerous suspects? Here's what the court wrote in Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985):

“The use of deadly force to prevent the escape of all felony suspects, whatever the circumstances, is constitutionally unreasonable. It is not better that all felony suspects die than that they escape. Where the suspect poses no immediate threat to the officer and no threat to others, the harm resulting from failing to apprehend him does not justify the use of deadly force to do so. It is no doubt unfortunate when a suspect who is in sight escapes, but the fact that the police arrive a little late or are a little slower afoot does not always justify killing the suspect. A police officer may not seize an unarmed, nondangerous suspect by shooting him dead. The Tennessee statute is unconstitutional insofar as it authorizes the use of deadly force against such fleeing suspects.

"It is not, however, unconstitutional on its face. Where the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force. Thus, if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used if necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning has been given. As applied in such circumstances, the Tennessee statute would pass constitutional muster.”

It would appear that an officer has a duty to protect the community by preventing a violent suspect from escaping. Worse, I fear officers might fail to properly defend themselves because they see a suspect running to a point of cover, and think they have to wait for him to turn and assault before they can fire. I recently heard an FBI expert speak on one of the networks. He gave an example of a suspect getting shot in the back, saying this could happen as he was running from one point of cover to another. Wow, I was stunned to hear this on a national broadcast. It started me thinking about how we train in firearms use.

Do you ever shoot at targets that even look like real people? And, have you shot at any targets that look like people standing to the side or running away? If you are a firearms instructor, commander, sheriff, chief or director, ask your staff whether your people are fully aware of their legal options to defend themselves. Know when your officers can use deadly force against a fleeing or maneuvering suspect. Know what their authorities and obligations are in dealing with violent fleeing suspects.

We are truly concerned with the sharp rise in officer deaths in 2007. Now is a good time to re-examine our training and policies. We need to make sure that we don't have artifacts or mental speed bumps built into either that might reduce our officers' chance of winning armed confrontations.

Stay safe!

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