Why Shooting To Wound Doesn’t Make Sense Scientifically, Legally, Or Tactically

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Do police officers really have to kill people when they shoot them? Couldn’t they be more humane and just aim for arms or legs?

As we reported in a previous FSN [2/28/06], a New York state senator in pondering these questions decided there’s way too much needless death being inflicted by cops these days. So he introduced legislation that would require officers to try to shoot suspects’ limbs when using deadly force. Officers who employed any more than the minimum force necessary to stop a life-threatening offender would face felony manslaughter charges.

Hammered by livid law enforcement protests, Sen. David Paterson [D.-Harlem] withdrew his bill [see FSN Update 3/1/06], but the sentiment behind it seems to remain firmly embedded in many civilian psyches.

“When I encounter civilian response to officer-involved shootings, it’s very often ‘Why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg?’” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. “When civilians judge police shooting deaths–on juries, on review boards, in the media, in the community–this same argument is often brought forward. Shooting to wound is naively regarded as a reasonable means of stopping dangerous behavior.

“In reality, this thinking is a result of ‘training by Hollywood,’ in which movie and TV cops are able to do anything to control the outcomes of events that serves the director’s dramatic interests. It reflects a misconception of real-life dynamics and ends up imposing unrealistic expectations of skill on real-life officers.”

In this transmission, Force Science News offers a “position paper” on why shooting to wound is neither practical nor desirable as a performance standard. We hope this information proves useful to you in addressing any shoot-to-wound advocacy that may arise in your jurisdiction.

PRACTICAL ISSUES

Sen. Paterson said his proposed legislation was motivated by the fatal shooting in New York City of Amadou Diallo, who was struck by 19 bullets when officers mistakenly thought he was reaching for a weapon as they approached him for questioning. Paterson believed that shooting an arm or leg would tend to stop a suspect’s threatening actions, precluding the need to shoot to the head or chest, where death is more probable. By requiring only the least amount of force needed to control a suspect he apparently hoped to reduce the likelihood of “excessive” shots being fired.

Studies by the Force Science Research Center reveal some of the practical problems with these positions. Lewinski explains some of the basics of human dynamics and anatomy and the relative risks of misses and hits:

“Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. For example, an average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second. He can move his hand from his hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second.

“The average officer pulling the trigger as fast as he can on a Glock, one of the fastest- cycling semiautos, requires 1/4 second to discharge each round.

“There is no way an officer can react, track, shoot and reliably hit a threatening suspect’s forearm or a weapon in a suspect’s hand in the time spans involved.

“Even if the suspect held his weapon arm steady for half a second or more, an accurate hit would be highly unlikely, and in police shootings the suspect and his weapon are seldom stationary. Plus, the officer himself may be moving as he shoots.

“The upper arms move more slowly than the lower arms and hands. But shooting at the upper arms, there’s a greater chance you’re going to hit the suspect’s brachial artery or center mass, areas with a high probability of fatality. Then where does shooting only to wound come in?

“Legs tend initially to move slower than arms and to maintain more static positions. However, areas of the lower trunk and upper thigh are rich with vascularity. A suspect who’s hit there can bleed out in seconds if one of the major arteries is severed, so again shooting just to wound may not result in just wounding.

“On the other hand, if an officer manages to take a suspect’s legs out non-fatally, that still leaves the offender’s hands free to shoot. His ability to threaten lives hasn’t necessarily been stopped.”

As to preventing so-called “overkill” from shots that are fired after a threat is neutralized, Lewinski offers these observations:

“Twenty years ago officers were trained to ‘shoot then assess.’ They fired 1 or 2 rounds, then stopped to see the effect. This required 1/4 to 1/2 second, during which time the suspect could keep firing, if he hadn’t been incapacitated.

“Now they’re taught to ‘shoot and assess,’ to judge the effect of their shots as they continue to fire, an on-going process. This allows the officer to continually defend himself, but because the brain is trying to do 2 things at once–shoot and assess–a very significant change in the offender’s behavior needs to take place in order for the officer to recognize the change of circumstances.

“A suspect falling to the ground from being shot would be a significant change. But by analyzing the way people fall, we’ve determined that it takes 2/3 of a second to a full second or more for a person to crumple to the ground from a standing position. And that is when they’ve been hit in a motor center that produces instant loss of muscle tension.

“While an officer is noticing this change, he is going to continue firing if he is shooting as fast as he can under the stress of trying to save his life. On average, from the time an officer perceives a change in stimulus to the time he is able to process that and actually stop firing, 2 to 3 additional rounds will be expended.

“Shooting beyond the moment a threat is neutralized is not a willful, malicious action in most cases. It’s an involuntary factor of human dynamics.

“Given what science tells us about armed encounters, Sen. Paterson’s proposals are fantasies. They would hold officers to super-human performance and punish them criminally for being unable to achieve it.”

LEGAL ISSUES

A shoot-to-wound mandate would “not be valid legally” because it sets a standard far beyond that established by Graham v. Connor, the benchmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on police use of force, says former prosecutor Jeff Chudwin, now chief of the Olympia Fields (IL) PD and president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Assn.

Recognizing that violent encounters are “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving,” the Court “does not require officers to use the least intrusive method” of forcefully controlling a threatening suspect, but “only what’s reasonable,” Chudwin explains. When an officer’s life or that of a third party appears in jeopardy, shooting can be justified as reasonable.

By legal definition, the possible consequences of deadly force include both death and great bodily harm. “The law has never broken these 2 apart,” Chudwin says, which is what Paterson’s proposal tried to do. “He’s saying that police should only shoot someone just a little bit. Deadly force is not about ‘just a little bit.’ Any time you fire a firearm, there’s a substantial risk of great bodily harm or death. The law doesn’t even so much as suggest that deadly force should be just enough to wound but with no probability of death. That’s plain wrong legally and tactically, and sends the wrong message.”

Attorney Bill Everett, a risk-management executive, use-of-force instructor, former LEO, and National Advisory Board member of the FSRC, agrees. As he explains it, use of force from a legal standpoint is a matter of “proportionality,” and there are 2 ways to measure it: what’s necessary and what’s reasonable.

He draws the analogy of a house being on fire. “Firefighters can pour what seems at the time to be about the right amount of water on it to stop the fire versus not using one drop more of water than necessary, even in hindsight, to put the fire out.” The former fits the “reasonable” approach, the later is the “necessary” perspective and is the essence of Paterson’s shoot-to-wound/minimal force bill.

“When you impose a standard of strict necessity, you require officers to do a whole lot of thinking in a situation where the Supreme Court recognizes there’s not a whole lot of time to think in,” Everett declares. Under a shoot-to-wound directive, “an officer faced with a suspect running at him with a jagged bottle is expected to think about getting target acquisition on an arm or a leg, while his own life is at risk.” The hesitation it is likely to create will only heighten his risk.

The critical issue of officer survival aside, Everett predicts that legislation like Paterson proposed would “substantially expand the civil and criminal liability of police officers.” He asks, “What if an officer tries to wing a suspect and ends up hitting an innocent bystander? What about the liability there? What if an officer tries to shoot an offender’s limb but shoots him in the chest instead? How does his true intent get judged?

“Right now under the Supreme Court’s prevailing standard lawyers and judges in a large percentage of police shootings can look at the facts and conclude that there is no basis for allowing a civil suit to go to trial. But if you change the standard, there’ll be a lot more cases going to juries to evaluate: 1) did the officer intend to wound or did he intend to kill the suspect and 2) was the suspect’s death absolutely necessary. A trial will become the rule rather than the exception.

“Who in their right mind would become a police officer in a jurisdiction where shoot-to- wound and standards of strict necessity became the law? Those ideas may have some humanitarian appeal, but once you go beyond the Disneyish attraction and face the reality, support for this thinking has to evaporate.”

TACTICAL ISSUES

Modern training teaches that when an officer uses deadly force the intent should be to stop the suspect’s threatening behavior as fast as possible.

Like it or not, this is most reliably done by “disrupting the central nervous system, by inducing severe hemorrhaging and/or by destroying skeletal integrity” (bone structure), in the words of firearms trainer Ron Avery, himself a championship shooter, head of the Practical Shooting Academy and a member of FSRC’s Technical Advisory Board.

Shooting for an assailant’s center mass is usually considered the most effective first option because the upper torso combines a concentration of vital areas and major blood vessels within the body’s largest target. “When the risk of failure is death, an officer needs the highest percentage chance of success he can get,” Everett notes.

Shooting instead for a smaller, faster-moving arm or a leg with the intent to wound rather than to incapacitate invites a myriad of tactical dilemmas.

For instance:

  • An officer’s survival instinct may exert an overpowering influence on target selection. “I don’t care how good a shot you are,” says Avery, “if your life is threatened you’re going to go for the surer thing first and worry about your assailant’s life being saved second. If a guy is running at me with a blade, the last thing I’m going to be thinking is ‘I’m going to shoot him in the arm.’” Hence, shooting for center mass may become a psychological default.
  • Poor shot placement is bound to increase. Even when officers are trying to shoot center mass, they often miss. Lewinski recalls a case he was involved in where an officer firing under high stress just 5 feet from an offender failed to hit him at all with the first 5 rounds and connected with the next 4 only because the suspect moved into his line of fire. “Hitting an arm or a leg on a moving suspect with surgical precision will be virtually impossible,” Avery asserts. “I could probably count on 1 hand the individuals who can make that kind of shot under the pressure of their life on the line. Expecting that level of performance by police officers on an agency-wide basis is ludicrous.” Misses may well go on to injure or kill someone else.
  • Use of certain weapons might be discouraged. “Because of the spread pattern, an officer might be precluded from grabbing a shotgun, for fear of hitting more vital areas when he tries to shoot to wound,” Everett speculates. “If the offender has a fully automatic weapon, say, should an officer be prevented from using the best defensive weapon he may have because it might have sweep or rise?”
  • “Successful” shots could be dangerous to people besides the suspect because of through-and-through penetration. “Virtually every police round today is designed to penetrate heavy clothing and 10 to 12 inches of ballistic gel,” explains Chudwin. “Rounds with that capability will penetrate even the biggest arms” and could, like misses, then travel on to hit unintended targets in the background.
  • “Successful” shots that don’t persuade an offender to quit leave the officer still in peril. When we know from street experience that even multiple center-mass hits don’t always stop determined, deranged or drugged attackers, “how many officers would be murdered by offenders who get shot in a limb and are still fully capable of shooting back?” Chudwin asks. Indeed, Avery believes that shooting an offender without incapacitating him “may just infuriate him, so he doubles his effort to kill you. There is no dependable correlation between wounding someone and making them stop.”
  • Shooting to wound reflects a misapplication of police equipment. “Less-lethal options should be attempted only with tools designed for that purpose,” Avery says. “If you deliberately use deadly force to bring people into custody without incapacitating them, you’re using the wrong tool for that job. Also if you shoot them in the arm or leg and you destroy muscle tissue, shatter bone or destroy nerve function you have maimed that person for life. Now attorneys can play the argument of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ and pursue punitive damages for destroying the capacity of your ‘victim’ to earn wages and so on. You don’t try to just wound people with a gun. Period.”

The experts we consulted agreed that advocates who push a shoot-to-wound agenda appear to understand little about human dynamics, ballistics, tactics, force legalities or the challenges officers face on the street. Chudwin has found that these critics of police practices can often be enlightened if they are invited to experience force decision-making scenarios on a firearms simulator.

Avery has a more dramatic, if fanciful, idea. “Put them in a cage with a lion,” he suggests. “Then let’s see if they shoot to wound.”

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