Special Force Science series: Why shooting to wound doesn't make sense scientifically, legally or tactically

Part 1 of a 2-part Force Science News series

Recently, national media reported that a New York state senator had introduced legislation that would force police officers using deadly force to try to shoot violent suspects in the arms or legs to stop them.

His proposed law would have required that officers stop firing at an attacker as soon as a threat is neutralized, or face felony charges of second-degree manslaughter.

In an explanatory memorandum accompanying his shoot-to-wound bill, Sen. David Paterson, a Democrat and anti-capital punishment advocate from Harlem, states: "There is no justification for terminating another's life when a less extreme measure may accomplish the same objective."

Shortly after word of the proposed legislation hit law enforcement circles and the full ramifications of the proposal were understood, John Grebert, executive director of the NYS Association of Chiefs of Police, met with the Senator, who decided to pull the bill. That decision came 5 years after the bill was first introduced.

This situation had some wondering if mandatory shooting to wound is going to be the next "cause" taken up by civil rights activists in other states as well?

Paterson, the state senate's minority leader, said he proposed the legislation in response to the acquittal of 4 NYPD officers charged criminally in the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Diallo was gunned down in a fusillade of 41 rounds. Nineteen bullets struck Diallo when he was challenged by police in the high-crime Bronx area and reached for what officers thought was a weapon but turned out to be his wallet.

Shooting just to wound a suspect as an initial response to perceived threats would "safeguard the public," Paterson said.

His bill, which was co-sponsored by 6 other senators, would have required that officers use deadly force "with the intent to stop, rather than kill," a subject who is believed to be "using unlawful force." The officer should use "only the minimum amount of force necessary" to stop the suspect's flight or resistance, the bill specified.

In his supportive memorandum, Peterson explained that "an officer would have to try to shoot a suspect in the arm or the leg….Further, the number of times an officer shoots a person should not exceed the minimal number necessary to stop the person. If one shot accomplishes the purpose, it is neither necessary nor appropriate for an officer to empty his barrel. The bill is intended to limit the use of force to the minimal amount needed."

Paterson has tried before--unsuccessfully--to get such legislation enacted. He's currently running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer, NY's attorney general, who was said not to favor the proposed legislation.

Neither did NY-based police associations, to put it mildly. Outraged police spokesmen described Paterson's bill variously as "lunacy," "very ill-conceived" and dangerous to the lives of officers and innocent civilians.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, concured. "Senator Paterson does not understand any of the issues of performance psychology and performance skill," he says bluntly. "He apparently has been trained by TV to think that officers have lots of time and are able to do amazing things when they are confronted with life-threatening dangers.

"In reality, most deadly encounters unfold very rapidly and very dramatically. Shooting to wound is rarely an option. Given the training most officers have, they are lucky to put bullets into center mass without trying to hit limbs that can be moved faster and more radically than larger parts of the body. Paterson's proposal is almost beyond commentary."

Although Sen. Paterson withdrew his bill, the sentiment behind it seems to remain firmly embedded in many civilian psyches.

"When I encounter civilian response to officer-involved shootings, it's very often 'Why didn't they just shoot him in the leg?'" says Lewinski. "When civilians judge police shooting deaths--on juries, on review boards, in the media, in the community--this same argument is often brought forward. Shooting to wound is naively regarded as a reasonable means of stopping dangerous behavior.

"In reality, this thinking is a result of 'training by Hollywood,' in which movie and TV cops are able to do anything to control the outcomes of events that serves the director's dramatic interests. It reflects a misconception of real-life dynamics and ends up imposing unrealistic expectations of skill on real-life officers."

In this first part of a 2-part series, Force Science News offers a "position paper" on why shooting to wound is neither practical nor desirable as a performance standard. We hope this information proves useful to you in addressing any shoot-to-wound advocacy that may arise in your jurisdiction.


Sen. Paterson said his proposed legislation was motivated by the fatal shooting in New York City of Amadou Diallo, who was struck by 19 bullets when officers mistakenly thought he was reaching for a weapon as they approached him for questioning. Paterson believed that shooting an arm or leg would tend to stop a suspect's threatening actions, precluding the need to shoot to the head or chest, where death is more probable. By requiring only the least amount of force needed to control a suspect he apparently hoped to reduce the likelihood of "excessive" shots being fired.

Studies by the Force Science Research Center reveal some of the practical problems with these positions. Lewinski explains some of the basics of human dynamics and anatomy and the relative risks of misses and hits:

"Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. For example, an average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second. He can move his hand from his hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second.

"The average officer pulling the trigger as fast as he can on a Glock, one of the fastest-cycling semiautos, requires 1/4 second to discharge each round.

"There is no way an officer can react, track, shoot and reliably hit a threatening suspect's forearm or a weapon in a suspect's hand in the time spans involved.

"Even if the suspect held his weapon arm steady for half a second or more, an accurate hit would be highly unlikely, and in police shootings the suspect and his weapon are seldom stationary. Plus, the officer himself may be moving as he shoots.

"The upper arms move more slowly than the lower arms and hands. But shooting at the upper arms, there's a greater chance you're going to hit the suspect's brachial artery or center mass, areas with a high probability of fatality. Then where does shooting only to wound come in?

"Legs tend initially to move slower than arms and to maintain more static positions. However, areas of the lower trunk and upper thigh are rich with vascularity. A suspect who's hit there can bleed out in seconds if one of the major arteries is severed, so again shooting just to wound may not result in just wounding.

"On the other hand, if an officer manages to take a suspect's legs out non-fatally, that still leaves the offender's hands free to shoot. His ability to threaten lives hasn't necessarily been stopped."

As to preventing so-called "overkill" from shots that are fired after a threat is neutralized, Lewinski offers these observations:

"Twenty years ago officers were trained to 'shoot then assess.' They fired 1 or 2 rounds, then stopped to see the effect. This required 1/4 to 1/2 second, during which time the suspect could keep firing, if he hadn't been incapacitated.

"Now they're taught to 'shoot and assess,' to judge the effect of their shots as they continue to fire, an on-going process. This allows the officer to continually defend himself, but because the brain is trying to do 2 things at once--shoot and assess--a very significant change in the offender's behavior needs to take place in order for the officer to recognize the change of circumstances.

"A suspect falling to the ground from being shot would be a significant change. But by analyzing the way people fall, we've determined that it takes 2/3 of a second to a full second or more for a person to crumple to the ground from a standing position. And that is when they've been hit in a motor center that produces instant loss of muscle tension.

"While an officer is noticing this change, he is going to continue firing if he is shooting as fast as he can under the stress of trying to save his life. On average, from the time an officer perceives a change in stimulus to the time he is able to process that and actually stop firing, 2 to 3 additional rounds will be expended.

"Shooting beyond the moment a threat is neutralized is not a willful, malicious action in most cases. It's an involuntary factor of human dynamics.

"Given what science tells us about armed encounters, Sen. Paterson's proposals are fantasies. They would hold officers to super-human performance and punish them criminally for being unable to achieve it."

Read Part 2

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