Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Reality-Based Shooting

This shooting in New Orleans gives me the opportunity to address something that has bothered me for a very long time. And that is the public's perception of when officers are legally within their rights to use deadly force. To shoot a subject.

So I am going to give a quick lesson. I'm not going to bore you with a long legal explanation of why this shoot was a good one, i.e. legal and justified. If you want one I recommend this excellent site. It provides a detailed analysis of deadly force and the circumstances in which officers are justified in using it.

What I do want to speak to is some of the ideas people have about incidents like this.
1) The officers should have tried to talk him into surrendering.

They tried. As in many incidents of this type, they ordered him to drop the knife and surrender numerous times. He refused and from what I can see, got even more agitated. All law enforcement agencies teach their officers to try to deescalate situations like this. To try to talk the people down so to speak. But it didn't work in this situation.

2) The officers should have used non-lethal methods to subdue him.

Again, they tried. They used pepper-spray on him but that did not work. Unfortunately that is often the case with extremely agitated subjects. They did not "taze" him. Not all agencies use tazers and I don't know if NOPD does, but my guess is they would have tried it if they had them. Unfortunately, there have been a few deaths involving tazers and the predictable lawsuits have made many agencies either stop using them or restrict their use.

3) The officers should have shot him in the leg.

Virtually all law enforcement agencies teach their officers to shoot center mass. Center mass being the area from the waist up to the shoulders. The reason for this is simple -- it is the largest part of the body and the easiest to hit. This is especially important when the officer's adrenaline is at its peak and shooting a gun accurately at a moving target is much more difficult than at the firing range. No agency that I know of teaches its officers to shoot at limbs. And no agency teaches its officers to shoot to wound. In fact, you don't shoot to kill or shoot to wound. You shoot to stop. You shoot to stop the action that caused you to shoot in the first place. Unfortunately that sometimes results in the death of the subject, which is unfortunate, but certainly not the fault of the officer.

Shooting at a small target in such a tense situation is inviting a miss, and contrary to what you see in the movies, bullets tend to travel quite a distance past the target. And sooner or later they are going to hit something and that something could be an innocent bystander. So officers shoot at the biggest target. Make sense? Good.

4) The officers should have shot the knife out of his hand.

See the answer to number three. This is not the Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. No trick shooting is allowed. That is for Bruce Willis movies.

5) The officers should have tried to disarm him.

Are you crazy? Do you know what a knife can do to a body. You want officers to try to physically restrain and disarm a knife-wielding crazy man knowing that one swipe could kill them or result in serious bodily harm? A cut so deep it tears into nerves and muscle and major arteries. Sorry, not gonna do it. Cops are NOT paid to die or incur seriously bodily harm just so the bad guy doesn't get hurt. It isn't in the contract, folks. Yeah, they are paid to take their fair share of bumps and bruises. And the public should expect that of them. It's part of the job and all cops know this. But no cop is required to die or lose the use of a limb just to save the bad guy from harm. I know damn near all officers would give their lives to protect the innocent, but when it comes to them or the bad guy, the bad guy is going down.

6) The officers shot him when he couldn't hurt them. He only had a knife and they had guns.

There is an old saying - never bring a knife to a gun fight. All agencies recognize that a subject with a knife is a potential deadly force situation. While this guy may not have been a threat with the knife at 100 feet, the closer he came to the officers the greater threat he posed. Once the officers developed a reasonable belief that he posed a threat of death or serious bodily harm to themselves or others they were within the law to shoot. He doesn't have to be stabbing the officer for that point to have been reached. Any move towards the officer might be justification and it appears this was the case here.

Not convinced? Try this test. Have a friend stand about 20 feet away from you and suddenly charge you with no warning. You will see that he can close the distance between you in a second or two, touching you almost before you can react in any way. Now imagine your friend had a knife and was attacking you. Could you have stopped him before you were stabbed? Even with your gun out and pointed at them? Could you have fired quickly and accurately, while tensing for the onslaught? And remember the bad guys normally don't just fall down and die immediately. You might get off one or even two shots and he still might reach you, swinging that knife down into your chest or across your face.

It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye, folks.
Anyway, I think that covers my major points. The problem here as I see it it that the public has gained a warped perception of these types of situations from TV and movies. They think officers can shoot knives out of hands at 100 yards and that people can be stabbed, shot, thrown through plate-glass windows, run over by cars, and still go dancing with their wives or husbands later that night. It just doesn't work that way in real life.