What we can learn from officer hand and arm injuries in gunfights

We’ve seen too many examples of officers being injured in the hands or arms during gunfights to ignore this common pattern of injury


As we start to learn more about the terrible attack on the Tree of Hope synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, some useful information is emerging about the law enforcement response to the active shooter [1] who claimed the lives of 11 victims. In particular, the wounds sustained by the responding officers illustrate a reality of gunfights that has significant implications on law enforcement training and preparations.

Blood lessons

Reports indicate that four officers were wounded in the response to the synagogue shooting, with one officer being shot seven times. That officer was saved by a tourniquet that was applied by a tactical EMS (TEMS) operator – who’s actually a SWAT-trained trauma doctor – which once again proves the value of a TEMS program, and the necessity for proper medical skills and equipment in the tactical environment. There are also indications that the officer’s ballistic helmet was instrumental in protecting him from a gunshot that could easily have been fatal.

Pittsburgh Police vehicles close the street adjacent to the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, before a Shabbat morning service is held on the street corner in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Police vehicles close the street adjacent to the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, before a Shabbat morning service is held on the street corner in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Perhaps what’s more interesting, however, are the reports that indicate three of the four wounded officers were wounded in the hands. Two officers reportedly received gunshot wounds to the hand, and one officer received a graze or shrapnel wound to the hand. Fortunately, they escaped more serious injuries, but the pattern of wounds to the hands is a significant piece of information that shouldn’t be ignored.

It’s all in the hands

If you’re a student of gunfights, you’ll recognize that the hand injuries received by these officers were not unusual. While I am unaware of any meaningful studies that could prove that claim, anecdotal evidence from a lifetime of reviewing police shootings indicates hand and arm injuries are actually quite common in police gunfights, as the recent Pittsburgh experience seems to indicate.

There are several possible reasons for the prevalence of hand and arm injuries in police gunfights:

  • Protective equipment: The use of soft and hard body armor – and, in the tactical environment, ballistic helmets and ballistic shields – provides valuable protection to some of the most critical areas of the body, but leaves the hands and arms unprotected from gunfire. The use of armor has no influence on where officers are actually struck by gunfire, of course, but it does change the nature of wounds received. An officer’s armor may limit the damage sustained from a gunshot to blunt trauma, whereas an unprotected hand or arm will suffer the full effect of a gunshot, and the injury will be more severe.
  • Close quarters battle: Because law enforcement officers are required to close with suspects to detain, control, question, search or arrest them, a significant number of police shootings occur at close distances, where the participants are within arm’s reach of each other. In these close quarters confrontations, physical struggles over the control of a gun will place hands and arms in close proximity to the muzzle, as officers try to deflect, grab, or otherwise control the weapon. Additionally, the startle reflex that naturally raises our hands to place them between ourselves and a quickly developing close-range threat (to either act as a shield, or prepare them for defensive striking and grappling), would place hands and arms in the line of fire from an ambush with a gun. All of these actions will naturally result in a higher probability of hand and arm injuries.
  • Shooting stance: The two- and one-handed shooting stances that we predominantly teach to officers place the gun – and thus, the hands and arms – in the center of the body. Even in the popular Weaver stance, where the upper body is slightly bladed to the target, the weapon is placed on the centerline of the body to facilitate acquiring the sights.

    Since shooters are taught – and have a natural tendency – to aim their fire at the center of the exposed target to enhance their probability of a hit, the gun, hands and arms naturally find themselves in the way of incoming fire. This is exacerbated by our natural, biologically programmed response to a close range threat – we square our bodies to it, in order to center the threat in our field of vision and place it where our body can mount the most effective defense. This natural response, coupled with the trained (and innate) tendency to raise the gun on target along the centerline of our own body, results in a high percentage of hand and arm hits when we take fire from an enemy that is aiming at the center of the target that is exposed to him.
  • Threat focus. Our bodies are programmed to focus our vision on the threat that is facing us, and undergo all kinds of physiological changes to make it happen during periods of extreme stress. This kind of threat focus enables us to track the threat and maneuver to avoid or attack it.

    In a gunfight, that threat is commonly perceived as the gun itself, not the person holding it. Many officers who have been involved in gunfights have later reported that their focus was primarily (or exclusively) on the gun in the suspect’s hand, because they knew it was the source of danger.

    When we shoot instinctively, without a conscious use of the sights, our rounds tend to hit where our eyes are focused. This principle actually forms the basis of several shooting “systems” that encourage such “instinctive shooting” for engaging close range threats with rapid gunfire. This natural tendency results in a frequent number of hand and arm hits when the shooter is focused on the gun in his opponent’s hand.

Implications for police firearms training

The implications for police officer firearms training and preparation are obvious. Police officers must be trained and ready to accomplish the following with only one hand/arm available (either primary or secondary):

  • Access and draw their handgun(s);
  • Access and deploy long guns;
  • Fire and reload all assigned weapons;
  • Clear stoppages on all assigned weapons to restore them to firing status;
  • Secure, sling, or reholster weapons when the threat no longer requires a weapon in the hand.

If your police firearms training program doesn’t adequately address these skills, then now is the time to make improvements to ensure your officers will be able to stay in the fight if an arm or hand becomes injured.

As part of this, the following considerations bear special attention:

  • Ensure that long gun racks and storage systems are compatible with one-hand access, to prevent a repeat of the tragic death of California Highway Patrol Officer William Freeman, who was unable to access his shotgun with an injured hand;
  • Ensure that retention devices on holsters and ammunition pouches can be manipulated with one hand (including the off-side) to provide access to the tools;
  • Ensure that holsters and ammunition pouches are carried in a location where they can be reached by the off-side hand;
  • Consider carrying a backup gun in a manner that ensures off-side access to a firearm, particularly if it will be faster than getting the primary duty gun out of the holster with the off-side hand.

Summary

We’ve seen too many examples of officers being injured in the hands or arms during gunfights to ignore this common pattern of injury. As such, all agencies and individual officers have a responsibility to ensure that the officer has the mindset, training, skills and equipment to prevail in a fight despite an injury to a hand or arm.

If you or your agency are not there yet, it’s time to get to work.

Be safe out there.

Footnote

1. Retired police officer and trainer Ron Borsch advocates for the use of the term Rapid Mass Murder (RMM) rather than “active shooter,” where RMM is defined as four or more people being killed in less than 20 minutes in a public location. “Active shooter is NOT interchangeable with active killer. By itself, the active killer term denotes both a crime, and includes murder by ANY means (even firearms),” writes Borsch. “Our protocol definition of active killer is: “One who attempts or commits Rapid Mass Murder.”

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