4 Myths Related to Officer Involved Shootings

There are many misconceptions related to officer involved shootings, but this feature will cover four myths related to the use of deadly force.

Professional Perspective

Joseph Loughlin and Kate Flora presented the bulk of this overview, while Law Enforcement Today staff added some perspective. Loughlin and Flora’s work was published in the New York Post.

The woman with the advanced Harvard degree says, “Why did the cops shoot him so many times? Why not just wound him?”

The sophisticated lawyer, describing a mentally ill man charging the police with a knife asks, “Why didn’t they just shoot the knife out of his hand like they used to?” The guy at the gym says, “But he had his hands up!” The “expert” tells an audience of police officers, “It was just a small screwdriver.”

Untrained and Uninformed

Unfortunately for officers encountering these circumstances, thousands of comments like these are made by untrained civilians who are uninformed and in the dark regarding the realities of police work. Sadly, they are educated by what they see in the news, movies, TV and social media. And they are content with their misguided “education.”

Yet the reality as that too often, reporters, politicians, community leaders and activists who assume they know what happened leap to judgment, immediately proclaiming officers as trigger-happy, racist or failing to resolve the situation with less lethal means.

Human Dynamics are Overlooked

Moreover, what is too often overlooked in all the furor and outrage are the facts of the incident, the reality of human dynamics and how police are trained. According to the report, 95 percent of officers go through their entire careers without discharging their weapons.

Contrary to public image, officers do not seek to “gun-down” violators of the law. Furthermore, they do everything in their power to avoid it at all costs, often times to their own peril.

Hence, there are about 34,000 arrests each day in this country and well over 10 million a year, and in many of those arrests suspects are taken into custody safely even when many are extremely violent. Only a very small number result in shots fired, reported Loughlin and Flora.

Is it possible for us to pause and consider the realities for our police officers when they are involved in a shooting incident? Their book “Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings” was written to provide citizens with a glimpse into the police world and the experience of officers in deadly force encounters.

Myths Related to Officer Involved Shootings

Loughlin and Flora identify myths that most police officers will immediately confirm:

Hands up, don’t shoot?

Police officers are trained — training that is quickly reinforced by the realities of the job — to be cautious of the subject with hands in the air. No one is truly secure until they are in cuffs. What may look like surrender to an untrained observer is frequently a ploy to lure the officer close enough for an attack. Or, when gunshots are exchanged, what looks like surrender may be the involuntary response of a subject who has been shot.

Why not shoot to wound?

In the world of policing, officers shoot not to kill and not to wound but to stop the threat. Threats are not stopped with a limb shot, even if it could be accurately delivered, which is a myth by itself. (See below.)

Furthermore, a single round usually does not stop the threat. Rarely, except in the world of fiction, does a single bullet knock someone down; particularly when desperation and/or drugs are involved.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, had been shot nine times, several of those wounds fatal, and he continued to toss bombs and shoot at the Watertown police. A person who has been knocked down remains a threat. Those who would have the officer “just shoot him in the knee” miss an important fact. Even assuming the officer can successfully hit that small, moving target, the subject still has both hands free to continue shooting.

Can’t police shoot the weapon out of a subject’s hands?

Many shooting events are sudden, surprising and evolve in seconds. In those seconds, while the subject has a weapon out and is shooting, the responding officer has to form the intention to respond, draw the weapon, ascertain that there are no innocents in the line of fire and then return fire — often while being fired upon. Drugs, rage, adrenaline and mental illness often fuel those subjects. Individuals do not stand there and present themselves like a silhouette. A twisting, turning, violent human being makes it impossible to just shoot someone in the leg or arm.

Most citizens with firearms training are accustomed to target shooting. Very few have encountered combat, or a tactical response. The difference between the two is monumental. During target shooting, a person’s breathing is controlled and no one is trying to hurt or kill you. Moreover, the target is stationary, and the shooter can take a long period of time to acquire target acquisition, control breathing, and then squeeze off a round into an immovable silhouette. All of these factors are absent in a combat or tactical shooting.

How can an unarmed person be so dangerous?

“Unarmed” doesn’t have the same meaning to a police officer. Nearly 40,000 police officers were assaulted in 2015 with hands, fists or feet. This figure astonishingly increased to more than 57,000 in 2016. “Unarmed” assailants kill more than 3,000 people every year. “Unarmed” persons killed 11 percent of all officers murdered in the line of duty from 2013 to 2015. And far too often overlooked? In every encounter with a police officer, “unarmed” simply doesn’t apply — the officer’s gun is always available.

Furthermore, the press typically refers to the driver using a vehicle to assault others as “unarmed.” Yet, police officers view the car as a 3000 lb. weapon, and traffic fatalities support this reality.

Let’s bring the facts into clear focus to create better understandings nationwide about the police and the realities they face, often in impossible situations. Before jumping to conclusions about a deadly force incident, consider the police officers’ reality and their perspective.

New Book

Of further note, Joseph K. Loughlin is a former assistant chief of police in Portland, Maine. Kate Clark Flora writes true crime and police procedurals. Their book “Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths about Police Shootings” is available on Amazon.