Why can’t you just aim for the leg?  How many times have you heard that question from the public, the media or even a family member or friend?  Television and film consistently show action heroes flying through the air and rolling end over end while firing several rounds at a moving target with a 100% hit ratio.  If they can do it, why can’t we?

Hollywood is much different than reality, but we encounter many people on a daily basis who are surprised to find out we don’t have the technology they watch everyday on CSI.  So why are we surprised to hear people complain that we had the option to “wound” someone and chose not to do it?

Many factors must be considered when addressing public perceptions, but the answer is actually pretty simple.  You just have to look at the human body.

When you picture the human body’s exterior, you can see a head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs.  If you look at this from the target acquisition perspective what is the largest target that you can find in that group?  If you said torso, you are correct.  The largest target area on an individual is the torso and should, ideally, be the easiest to hit.  The reason we aim for the largest target is mainly due to stress, believe it or not.  Stress can mean many things to many different people.

In the law enforcement world, the stress we worry about the most involves lethal force encounters.  It is the same stress that soldiers experience in combat and is, in essence, combat stress.  This stress has many effects on the brain, all of which contribute directly to our physical condition.

One response to stress in combat is tunnel vision; the inability to use your peripheral vision.  Another response to stress is auditory exclusion, defined as a temporary loss of hearing and is, in some cases, called “tunnel hearing.”

The loss of fine motor skills is a devastating effect of stress.  This can cause an officer to lose the ability to clear weapon malfunctions.  This has also been blamed for the inability to drop a ticket book during a lethal force encounter.  All of these physiological responses can be deadly to officers in lethal force encounters.  Training can illustrate a number of different effective counter measures to these dangerous responses.

Range training is fundamental and absolutely necessary for police officers.  The more training we get, the better we will perform under stress.  The training we receive not only prepares us for lethal force encounters; it also helps us to develop muscle memory.

Muscle memory is essential to performing under stress.  Whether it is a magazine exchange, a malfunction clearance or sight picture development, it is vital to maintaining the skills necessary to overcome stress.  The only way to develop this muscle memory is repetition over time.

Many police departments only have one range event per year and that is the annual qualification.  Although it is probably the minimum requirement, I implore you to re-examine your training standards so that you can provide your officers with the needed tools to overcome stress.  Let’s talk about the statistics that demonstrate why you should train hard and train often.

Ample research was conducted by Dr. Bill Lewinski with Force Science Institute and Tom Aveni with the Police Policy Study Council on officer-involved shootings[1].  According to this research, the best-trained officers involved in shootings only hit their target 64 of the time in daylight encounters.

This percentage drops to 45% in diminished light encounters.  If 77% of officer involved shootings occur in a diminished light encounter, that means that three-fourth’s of the time, highly trained officers are missing their targets 55% of the time.  These are highly trained officers that train with their firearms several times a year.

Let’s go back to the public perception of “Why can’t you just wound them?”  Stress has a lot to do with it.  Even the officers with a high level of training can only hit their targets 64% of the time and the target they are aiming at, the torso, is the largest target available to them.

If you take all of these factors I’ve reviewed into consideration, it would be extremely difficult to aim at an arm or leg during times of stress and many, if not all, of the rounds fired would miss their intended target.  Since we don’t want random bullets flying through the air toward the masses, we minimize the process involved in these encounters.  This is why we aim for the largest target available to us in order to stop a suspect’s engagement.

Jacob Eubanks has been a police officer for 13 years and currently holds the rank of Corporal with his department.  Jacob is a use of force instructor and holds TCOLE licenses as an Instructor and Firearms Instructor.  Jacob is certified as both a 1911 and AR-15/M16 armorer and is currently assigned to criminal investigations.

Dr. Bill Lewinski; Force Science Institute Newsletter #23 with Tom Aveni; Police Policy Study Council