logo for print

“Contagious Gunfire”: Fact or Fiction?

By Dr. Bill Lewinski
Executive Director
The Force Science Research Center

The New York Times headline for Nov. 27th read, "50 Shots Fired, and the Experts Offer a Theory". The alleged theory, which implicitly criticizes the performance of the officers and the New York City Police Department, is that the officers in this incident started to fire and fired the number of rounds they did chiefly because other officers present at the scene were also firing…..“contagious gunfire.”

This is a new term in law enforcement and when it began to gain recognition in the early 90’s was originally called “emotionally contagious gunfire.” It has also been referred to as a “mass reflexive response.”

This alleged phenomenon, which is now incorporated into the lexicon of law enforcement and which does not have a shred of research to support it, states that the officers fired because their partner(s) fired and the officers reacted spontaneously, irrationally and for no known legal reason.

In regard to this alleged phenomenon, a West Coast forensic psychiatrist has been quoted to say, “the other officers who become affected by the ‘contagion’ are responsible for panicking, becoming blinded by the outbursts of gunfire and not restraining themselves enough to assess the situation.”

The experts interviewed by the New York Times appeared to be influenced in their conclusion that it was “contagious gunfire,” because of the large number of rounds fired, the irregular number of rounds fired by the individual officers and the fact that the vehicle involved was only hit by approximately half of the rounds -- a high rate of inaccuracy which understandably raises questions about the officers “spraying and praying” because of panic.

Research done by FSRC and others indicates that each officer makes their own decision to shoot, fires the number of rounds they do and stops for their own reason, often unaware of the performance of others.

Sergeant Craig Stapp from Tempe P.D., a Force Science Research Center Advisory Board Member, has said, “You’ll see videos of a shooting where the officers are delaying and delaying in their shooting and then one will fire and then they all will fire.” Sgt. Stapp is accurate in his observation and this type of documented evidence leads the viewer to imagine or propose some type of group influence on the reaction of the officers who delayed firing until someone else did.

It then leads to the logical extension that the officers who fired later were reacting to the behavior of other officers, or worse, were reacting because of their own panic from guns being fired next to them.

What does the research say about this?

It is theoretically possible and reasonable that officers acting in an incident influence each other’s behavior. However, the explanation of the “contagious gunfire” idea is that the influence is reflexive or worse. It extends to the allegation that the officers fire and fire often because of a panic response that is irrationally based solely on the behavior of other officers.

This influence is supposed to occur at the moment of peak intensity in the encounter and assumes officers are capable of perceiving and being influenced by another officers’ behavior at this critical point in the incident.

The Force Science Research Center (FSRC) of which I am the executive director, has been focused intently on researching human performance in high stress situations, such as how and why officers both start and stop shooting as well as the ability of officers to see and process information or not see and process information because of their narrow focus of attention on a threatening circumstance.

This research my investigation of over 1,000 officer involved shootings indicates that for the most part, officers engaged in a shooting with other involved officers seldom can report on the behavior of those other officers and almost never can completely describe their own behavior let alone the behavior of other officers at the scene of a rapidly evolving, dynamic, complex shooting scene.

Research done by FSRC and others indicates that each officer makes their own decision to shoot, fires the number of rounds they do and stops for their own reason, often unaware of the performance of others. Or if they are aware of the response of others, it appears to be a confirmation of their own decision that the situation was urgently requiring the use of deadly force.

FSRC calls these types of shootings, involving multiple officers and frequently the discharge of many fired rounds as “synchronous shootings.” This means each officer acts independently but in concert with others in a shared life-threatening experience.

As Lt. Joe Hartshorn from LASD Homicide has observed, “If you have 10 deputies involved in a shooting, each deputy is having their own experience in that incident.” In the past these individual responses that occur in concert with that of other officers has also been referred to as a “bunch shooting.”

Further research on the demographics of “bunch” or “synchronous” shootings by Tom Aveni, from Police Policy Studies Council and a National Advisory Board member for FSRC, reveals that the opposite type of incident--single officer-involved shootings--usually result in the smallest number of rounds fired and the highest hit rate, as high as a 64% hit rate if the shootings occurred in daylight.

“Synchronous shootings” involved the greatest number of officers, the highest number of rounds fired and the lowest hit rates. They usually involved large metropolitan agencies. These larger agencies typically had two officer patrol cars or many single officer patrol cars able to respond quickly to an incident. They often had proactive street crime units that operated in teams that allowed a large number of officers to be present at or immediately respond to a scene. This means many officers with many guns and many bullets were present at or rapidly responding to these incidents.

Aveni’s research further illustrated that the involved suspect frequently used means that prolonged the gunfight. For instance, the subject used a long-barrel weapon forcing the gunfight to involve a “stand off” position for law enforcement, or the subject used a moving vehicle that the officer perceived to be a threat, either because of the direct use of the vehicle or because the subject was shooting from or behind the cover of the vehicle.

The vehicle then was being used by the subject as a weapon from which the subject also had some degree of protection or they were not visible to the officer because they were inside or beside the vehicle. The use of the vehicle or the long barreled weapon in a “stand-off” position increased the duration of the event, the number of rounds fired and the accuracy of the officers.

The officers in these incidents had hit rates as low as 9% with their volume of fire increasing to the realm of 45%. These incidences usually occurred and evolved rapidly, were visually complex and involved, and threatened more than one officer.

Many of these incidents occurred under extremely low light or very poor ambient light contributing to what Aveni calls “pandemonium” not “panic.” The scene was confusing, the action was complex and the officers were frequently unaware of the position or behavior of other officers at the scene. They were often glimpsing and able to report only part of the total picture of the incident.

FSRC’s research indicates that the individual perception of threat by each individual officer and the belief by that officer that their response was needed to stop the threat, were the chief reasons why the officers started shooting, stopped shooting and fired as many rounds as they did.

Frequently the officers who fired the least number of rounds were diverted in their attention from the original threat, so they didn’t see it immediately develop or they were scrambling for safety or trying to make decisions about what to do before they started to shoot. They engaged the action late, and fired fewer rounds than anyone else.

On the other end, the officer at the heart of the action or the one who perceived the greatest threat frequently fired at a faster rate and higher volume of fire than others, because of the direct threat value of the incident to them and the emotional intensity of the event to them. They often fired even after others had stopped – primarily because of their psychological or sometimes physical inability to detect significant changes in the threat.

These officers who perceived the greatest threat, rather than being focused on the threat, the behavior of the threat and shooting to directly stop that threat, were often psychologically recoiling from the sudden and direct danger to their lives. They were shooting to “save their life” rather than directly and intentionally shooting to stop the threat. This mean that they were less able to detect changes in the threat and frequently it took a dramatic change in the threat for them to notice any change at all that could result in their making the decision to stop shooting.

The term “contagious gunfire” or “mass reflexive response” has implications that the officers fired their weapons without a decision making process. That fact that officers can fire a weapon unintentionally is a reality in law enforcement. In fact it is called “unintentional discharge.” They have occurred in street encounters and have resulted in death.

They may also occur in “synchronous shootings.” Depending upon the reason, including “startle responses” the number of rounds fired because of this seldom exceeds two. Also, I do not doubt, as the experts propose, that the sound of gunfire will enhance the threat interpretation of any action that an officer is evaluating.

In FSRC’s recently completed London study, simply the sound of unexpected gunfire in a scenario – even if it wasn’t identified as gunfire by the officers - jumped the officers’ pulses to over 140 beats a minute, however we can’t connect this to any premature trigger response.

To make the assumption that this enhancement of an interpretation resulted in a contagion of panic and gunfire and is the primary reason why the shooting occurred in New York is irresponsible at this point. Further it results in an unproven hypothesis or guess by the media and the “experts” that is then turned into a scientific fact for the public that in turn fuels racial dissent and disharmony. It demeans the officers involved, the department and the community. The whole process is media driven and unconscionable.

The information contained in this article is not an explanation for the New York incident. The author does not know whether or not the New York City officers involved in this incident used an appropriate and legally defensible use of force. It simply illustrates that there is some research and information available to the law enforcement community that offers a scientific alternative to a “guess” about “contagious gunfire.”

It is also an encouragement to wait for the results of a fair, neutral and fact-finding investigation before jumping to a judgment about the behavior of fellow professionals.

A question left for the reader: Why has something as important as “contagious gunfire” that is simply hypothetical and unproven, yet has the potential for contributing to immense social unrest, not been extensively researched? We need the research so that it either can be dismissed as fiction or if it is real, law enforcement can then do the type of training that will minimize the chance it ever happens again?

Why do we know so little about officer-involved training and shootings but pretend that we know so much?

[Related article]

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2018 PoliceOne.com. All rights reserved.