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Shoot to kill or shoot to wound?

The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions

I know law enforcement shoots neither to wound nor kill. But the rest of the public doesn’t necessarily understand that. Should the profession be doing more to remedy this?

A bit of background...

Law enforcement’s use of deadly force has received a lot of attention recently in my home state of Alaska. As of July this year, there had been seven police-involved shootings.

That might not sound like many in some parts of the country and it’s not necessarily a lot for Alaska. But by July 2011, there had only been two officer-involved shootings in the state.

I think there’s also been a cluster effect that has brought more attention on my hometown than shootings in the rest of the state. Three of the seven shootings took place in the city where I live and two of them, both fatal, occurred less than a month apart. One of those had the media, the community, the police and politicians all humming — and not the same tune.

In recounting briefly the fatal shooting that sparked the most reaction, it’s not my purpose to examine it tactically or legally. The officer has been cleared of any criminal wrong doing. My intent is to provide context for the public response and then discuss how we might improve the public’s understanding of law enforcement’s use of deadly force.

The Shooting and the Fallout
On June 9, Shane Tasi was fatally shot after approaching an officer to within striking distance, swinging a broom stick more than three feet long, and refusing the officer’s commands to drop it.

The 911 calls before the shooting reported a man hitting cars and attacking a dog. Another 911 call helped police pinpoint Tasi’s whereabouts in an apartment building where witnesses reported screaming and windows breaking.

In the wake of the shooting, demonstrators marched near police headquarters to protest what they called a “shoot to kill” policy. One protester suggested a state law mandating less-than-lethal force by police.

This kind of legislation has been raised at least twice in New York — also in the aftermath of fatal shootings. Most recently, in 2010, two Brooklyn assembly members introduced a “minimum force” bill that would require officers to “shoot a suspect in the arm or leg” and to use firearms “with the intent to stop, not to kill.”

Following the protest and continued media coverage in my home town, the police department and city officials held a town hall meeting to discuss officers’ use of firearms when confronting dangerous individuals and to answer questions

The Mayor announced, “I think I speak for everyone involved that we do not like meeting under these circumstances.”

After the meeting, the Police Chief told a reporter he was surprised that discussion focused on questions he thought the department had already addressed

“Questions like, 'Why are you shooting to kill?' I was hoping some of that we had gotten past, but apparently we haven't,” the Chief said. “I hoped there would be more discussion on where we can go from here.”

How to Get Out Front
I wish the public were simply clueless about police use of force. They’re not. Much of their understanding is informed by movies, TV, and internet and video games.

This isn’t new.

Vice President Joe Biden quipped that the proposed Brooklyn bill might better be called the “John Wayne Bill” because of the unrealistic, movie-like sharpshooting skills it would require of officers.

John Wayne has been dead more than 30 years. So, in an era of community-oriented policing why hasn’t law enforcement become more proactive about providing realistic information?

As I experienced the shootings and their aftermath in my hometown, I couldn’t help think that the police, politicians and public might have met under different circumstances than the Mayor lamented. The town hall meeting was put on by the municipality’s Community Police Relations Task Force. The Task Force originated in 1981 after another fatal police shooting involving an ethnic minority.

Tasi was Polynesian.

The Task Force is supposed to be a liaison between ethnic minority communities and the police department and provide a forum for input and constructive dialog between them. Ethnic minority citizens are a majority of the task force’s membership. Given the group’s mandate to meet monthly, that’s more than 30 years of monthly meetings

What communication has taken place between the department and Task Force members about the science and rationale for shooting to stop the threat and the dangerous wrong-headedness of shooting to wound or disarm? If any, why weren’t ethnic minority task force members speaking up in answer to the naïve question, “Why shoot to kill?”  

After my city’s town hall meeting, members of the Polynesian community and the Police Chief agreed the meeting helped begin a dialogue with police and the greater community. Why does such a dialogue so often seem to begin only in the emotionally charged aftermath of a deadly use of force?

There’s plenty of objective, scientific support for why shooting to wound doesn’t make sense — tactically or legally. Force Science News has a cogent, very readable position paper setting out such support. 

My home town’s Task Force website has a link to publications. Why not post the Force Science News position paper on the website? How about the department dialoguing with the task force about the tactics, science and U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor so well laid out in the position paper? How about your agency taking similar proactive, educational steps?  

Why not post the position paper on police department websites? Why not teach it at Citizen Police Academies? The Citizen Police Academy curricula I could find online appear to address use of force legal justifications but not the scientific support for tactically shooting to stop the threat.

I’m asking these questions sincerely.

There may be reasons not to use these forums to educate the public on its police department’s use of force policy rationales. I’m trusting readers to point them out.

Jeff Chudwin has a great suggestion for converting proponents of a “shoot to wound” agenda. Jeff is a Police Chief in Illinois and President of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association. He’s also a former prosecutor and has been a firearms, use-of-force and emergency-response trainer for more than 25 years.

Chief Chudwin notes that most advocates of a shoot to wound agenda have little understanding about human dynamics, ballistics, tactics, force legalities or the realities officers face on the street. But he’s found they can be “enlightened” when they experience force decision-making scenarios on a firearms simulator. Why not enlighten a local reporter or task force member, or two?

Such enlightenment in Alaska might include asking citizens if they were being attacked by a bear, would they shoot to wound or shoot to stop the threat. Nobody wants to have to kill the bear (outside of hunting season).

Proactive education can be effective. Look at the changes we’ve seen in community, political, and police views of drunken driving, child abuse and domestic violence enforcement since John Wayne died.

Why Get Out Front?
I’m not questioning any law enforcement agency’s use of force training or policies. But I am advocating doing more to educate the public about the policies and their rationales. Sir Robert Peel — considered the Father of Modern Policing — understood the importance of the public’s understanding when he stated:

“The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”

Law enforcement cannot afford to leave the public’s understanding to Hollywood, TV, and video and Internet games. As Freedom Rider John Lewis said about the fight for civil rights, If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

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