Considerations for evaluating officer-involved shootings

Every use-of-force incident must be examined as a unique event — no two are alike — but we may be able to apply a few general concepts in our ‘after-action’ analysis


Since we can anticipate virtually all shootings will be recorded in the foreseeable future, we had better learn to “fire for effect” and cease fire once the desired effect is achieved. At the same time, we must also recognize that there are physiological factors in any officer-involved shooting over which human beings have no control. 

As has been pointed out, it takes time to even perceive and process a change in the threat level presented by the subject. And during that time, an officer — who is engaged in continuous rapid fire, as their training requires for defending their lives — is still delivering rounds to the target. 

Police officers must justify their actions in every incident where deadly force is used — there are simply no exceptions. Further, we often must justify how much deadly force is applied. We must match those arguments with the science of human performance. This is a balancing act and every use-of-force incident must be examined as a unique event — no two are alike — but we may be able to apply some general concepts in our ‘after-action’ analysis. 

Stopping the Threat
I once had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. (Colonel) Marty Fackler, the U.S. Army surgeon who invented the field of study in terminal ballistics. The vastly better bullet performance we have today came from Fackler’s groundbreaking research at the Letterman Army Institute. 

Among the other things I learned from the good doctor is the only way — yes, the only way — to get an instant-stop reaction from a subject when you apply deadly force from a handgun is to disrupt the central nervous system (CNS), the brain, or upper spinal column. Even a .45 caliber hollow point bullet through the heart will leave an assailant with enough oxygen-charged blood flowing to his brain to fight on for 30 seconds, maybe longer. 

Another legend, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper, gave a lecture at Gunsite Ranch about a citizen who — when attacked by a determined assailant — had to empty all 13 rounds from his hi-cap .380 pistol to stop the threat against him. 

When the armed citizen was called before a grand jury, they indicted him for murder. 

Shooting a man two or three times could rationally be called self-defense, the grand jury said, but shooting the felon 13 times must certainly constitute murder.

Cooper was called as an expert witness to explain why it might legitimately take 13 rounds of .380 caliber full-metal-jacket to stop a “charging goblin” as he called the man. 

The citizen was exonerated, probably in large part due to Cooper’s testimony that despite the high number of rounds put into the attacker, he still posed a threat to the citizen. 

The first problem was surviving the fight. The second was surviving the aftermath (in this case, the prosecution). 

SCOTUS on Use of Force
I recently saw a dash cam video of a cop shooting an angry, threatening man armed with a big knife, well inside 21 feet. The subject fell to the ground after two rounds and dropped the knife. 

Never breaking a steady cadence, the officer advanced at a slow walk, continuing to pump in rounds — several after the threat was clearly neutralized. 

The suspect sealed his own fate when he took a knife to a gun fight. But we all know the problems such videos cause — citizens cry out about police use of force. 

Even where no videos exist, the autopsy will itemize the wounds and folks will ask, “Why did you have to shoot the guy so many times?” 

Once you start shooting, it’s critical to contemplate, “What effect am I trying to achieve?” 

In short, you are seeking to effect the cessation of whatever threat the attacker poses — you fire until he drops and can no longer fire his weapon or until he drops the knife or turns and runs away. 

You have the law on your side — Tennessee v. Garner allows police officers to continue using deadly force to prevent the escape of an armed and still-dangerous felon under clearly defined circumstances. 

Furthermore, in Garner the Court stated that deadly force may be used to prevent a subject’s escape if the officer has “probable cause to believe that the suspect pose[s] a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

Remember, SCOTUS has said the use of police deadly force is a Fourth Amendment seizure, and that a balancing test has to be applied which weighs the nature of the intrusion of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights against the government interests (public safety) which justified the intrusion.

Stopping Takes As Long As Starting
Perhaps we need to have an increased level of understanding about the decision making process after an officer has begun to use deadly force. 

Asking for decision-making under the extreme stress of a gunfight is problematic at best. The Force Science Institute just released some research on how effectively an officer can stop shooting once they start. 

“An officer’s ability to instantly stop pulling the trigger once a ‘stop shooting’ signal becomes evident is not always considered,” said a recent article from Force Science News. “Instead, the officer behind the gun may face harsh media criticism and daunting legal action alleging deliberate excessive force for firing ‘unnecessary’ extra rounds.”

Dr. Bill Lewinski said in that article, “Everything an officer does takes time. It takes time to perceive that a threat level has changed and it takes time to decide to stop shooting and to mechanically activate that decision. When officers are engaged in continuous rapid fire, as their training requires for defending their lives, the stopping process is more complex and generally takes longer.”

Even with a highly-trained officer, an extra shot or two is likely and I suspect the courts will understand. 

Problem number one always remains: win the fight and go home safe to your family. Problem number two — surviving the aftermath — is likely to be an ever-growing problem for law enforcement officers. 

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