The Overwhelming Number of Police Shootings Involve Armed Suspects


The Overwhelming Number of Police Shootings Involve Armed Suspects


The vast majority of police officers have never fired their guns.

The overwhelming number of police shootings involve armed suspects.


I think I counted 12,392,416 media references to police officers shooting and killing unarmed suspects. While obviously a tongue in cheek reference, it gets to the heart and soul of news reporting about the actions of law enforcement.

Any story or dataset is mired in nuance.

When I was a cop, we responded to a store burglar alarm knowing that virtually all alarms are false. As we approached the store, and as we cautiously peered through the glass for signs of movement, the officer I was with spotted two people on the roof immediately above us holding shiny objects that looked like handguns in the dim light.

We commanded them to freeze. What was supposed to be a routine call suddenly turned into a potentially deadly situation.

They were electricians. What could have been an evening with disastrous consequences was quickly and peacefully resolved.

Why tell this story? There are endless instances where cops instantaneously have to make decisions where you can’t discount the fact people “may” be carrying weapons, they are immediately above you, there “is” a burglar alarm in progress, but we had the presence of mind to end the situation without the use of force.

I would suggest that the vast majority of potentially violent encounters end this way. Based upon data from Pew and other sources, I believe that the great majority of cops are judicious in their use of deadly force.

firearm cleaning
(Photo courtesy Thomas Marchese)


Many Americans believe it is common for police officers to fire their guns. About three-in-ten adults estimate that police fire their weapons a few times a year while on duty, and more than eight-in-ten (83%) estimate that the typical officer has fired his or her service weapon at least once in their careers, outside of firearms training or on a gun range, according to a recent Pew Research Center national survey.

In fact, only about a quarter (27%) of all officers say they have ever fired their service weapon while on the job, according to a separate Pew Research Center survey conducted by the National Police Research Platform.

Washington Post Data

National discussion has focused on the killings by police of unarmed civilians, but fewer than one percent of the killings we found were of people who were unarmed. Some 65 percent possessed a firearm during an encounter with police. The rest were armed with other weapons, such as knives and bats, The Washington Post.

While the Justice Department is now collecting this data, that effort is too new to have yielded much insight. The Post analyzed a new data set of every confirmed, line-of-duty killing by police of a civilian in 2014 and 2015.

Of people killed by police in 2014 and 2015, 51 percent were white, 28.1 percent were black, 19.3 percent were Latino, and 1.7 percent were Asian. The remainder came from other ethnic backgrounds.


The data is useful when considering a proposed action in California. A controversial legislative proposal to limit when police can use deadly force in California will not move forward this session, the Sacramento Bee reports. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber said they would continue discussions in the fall. “Make no mistake: we have a critical problem that remains unaddressed. We need to end preventable deaths and to do so without jeopardizing the safety of law enforcement officers,” Atkins said, citing a lack of time to resolve concerns over the bill this year.

The measure would have raised the state standard for using lethal force from “reasonable” — when a reasonable officer in similar circumstances would have acted the same way — to “necessary,” when there are no alternatives for police to consider in that situation.

Cops Understand

Police officers understand that there are peers who shoot unjustifiably, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Cops know that there are problems with the use of force and community perceptions.

But the overwhelming number of officers I talk to are dedicated to the fair and impartial administration of justice.

There are few people beyond cops who have ever been confronted with the immediate potential use of deadly force. They don’t have the ability of seeing, feeling, and touching these encounters. It doesn’t help when there are endless references to media stories about a cop shooting an unarmed person.

Harvey Weinstein, NBC and Media Context

As stated, every media story depends on context and nuance.

NBC News Chairman Andy Lack issued a strongly worded defense of his network’s decision not to air journalist Ronan Farrow’s investigation of alleged sexual harassment, assault and rape by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

NBC News has been adamant in stating why it did not air Farrow’s investigation, saying he did not have a single Weinstein accuser speaking on the record or on camera.

The producer, Rich McHugh, said in a statement that “at a critical juncture in our reporting on Harvey Weinstein, as we were about to interview a woman with a credible allegation of rape against him, I was told not to do the interview and ordered to stand down, thus effectively killing the story.” McHugh added that “those orders came to me from the highest levels of NBC,“ LA Times.

Thus NBC can be accused of killing a story of importance about an insider or they can state that they were following established journalistic guidelines. My guess is that people will respond based on preconceived notions of powerful men and sex abuse, in the same way the public judge’s cops and allegations of excessive use of force.


I’m sure that many NBC employees are adamant that their company did not unjustifiably kill a story about an industry insider in the same way that cops are insistent that they use deadly force reluctantly and appropriately in the vast majority of circumstances. By the way, the data on cops who shoot indicates a moment in time that is very hard to psychologically recover from.

All of this is happening in a world where we demand that cops be warriors, and there are far fewer police officers per 100,000 people.

Per The Washington Post, “[F]ewer than one percent of the killings we found were of people who were unarmed.”

Per Pew (and other sources), the vast majority of cops never fire their guns through their career.

I understand that the words “unarmed” is a matter of context and that critics will say that just because a person is armed doesn’t give the police the right to pull the trigger.

The critics may be right, but to put things in their proper context, create a database on all the time’s cops could have legally/justifiably shot, but didn’t.

Every officer understands what they are up against and the overwhelming majority are willing to place their own lives in jeopardy to allow for a few additional seconds of contact to make sure that what they are facing is a real threat that mandates deadly force.

If this wasn’t true, the number of police-related shootings would be far greater than they are now.


We used The Crime Report for several examples in this article.


Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Former advisor to presidential and gubernatorial campaigns. Former advisor to the “McGruff-Take a Bite Out of Crime” national media campaign. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You can contact me at [email protected]

Submit a Correction
Related Posts