What are the chances that a suspect who suddenly presents a gun and starts shooting as fast as he can will actually hit an officer he’s trying to kill?
At what distance will his accuracy significantly drop off?
Does playing video games measurably enhance his skill?
What’s an officer’s best reaction for avoiding fatal hits?
What training approaches will best ingrain ideal officer-survival responses in the most LEOs?
These are among a myriad questions the Force Science Research Center hopes to answer about offender hit probability, officer survival tactics, and training methods as it gets underway with “the most ambitious and complicated” research study to date regarding the human dynamics of deadly force encounters.
After months of planning, the first phase of the unprecedented research was launched last month [6/20/06] at the Milwaukee (WI) Police Academy by popular law enforcement firearms instructor Ron Avery, president of The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc., and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tactical Institute, and Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of FSRC at Minnesota State University-Mankato. The study is expected to span at least 2 1/2 to 3 years and ultimately involve thousands of test subjects.
“The kind of study we’re undertaking has never been done before at this level of sophistication”Ron Avery
“The kind of study we’re undertaking has never been done before at this level of sophistication,” Avery told the first group of volunteers to participate in the testing. The results promise to establish new benchmarks in scientifically analyzing dangers to LEOs and identifying specific tactics officers can use to counter them for the best hope of surviving.
“The ultimate impact on both training and street performance could be huge,” Lewinski declared.
The study is designed to evolve through 3 stages:
As its principal objective, will measure the probable accuracy of would-be assailants attempting suddenly to deliver on-target rounds from various distances within the time frame of most officer-involved shootings.
Various survival options that officers have will be tested at different distances from a shooter to see which appears to provide the most likely safety, given the circumstances of an assault.
Will then explore what type of training will best assure that officers make the safest choice when they are suddenly challenged by a suspect determined to kill them.
Avery was chosen as lead researcher for the project because of his reputation and skill with firearms, Lewinski told Force Science News. Founder of The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc., in Colorado, Avery has trained thousands of members and teams from a broad range of federal agencies, military special forces and law enforcement departments. He is himself a world-class shooter who has been involved in high-performance training and shooting for more than 26 years.
During 2 days at the Milwaukee Academy, Avery tested 33 volunteers from the current recruit class as the project’s first subjects. With the cooperation of the director, Lt. Stephen Basting, he was assisted by Academy firearms instructors Sgt. James MacGillis (rangemaster), Ofcr. Peter Pfau, and Ofcr. Greg Wagner. Other staff provided input as to the study’s relevance and design.
The volunteers’ ages fell within the most common range of suspects who shoot LEOs. And, like officer killers, their previous experience with firearms ranged from never having held a handgun before to having received military training. Also, like typical assailants, most were male.
First the recruits were assigned code numbers so their names could not be linked with any results. Then the team gathered important demographic data–not only the usual subject specifications (gender, age, race, size, etc.) but also unique information such as:
- how frequently do they shoot or dry practice (if at all);
- how many rounds do they fire and how long do they spend in an average session;
- what is their grip strength and reaction time;
- what competitive or sports shooting do they do;
- what other athletics are they involved in;
- do they participate in paintball or Airsoft shooting;
- how often do they play video games where quick responses are required;
- do they use a replica firearm in these games, and so on.
“The idea,” Avery says, “is to be able to see if there is any significant correlation between these factors and the subjects’ hit probability.”Ron Avery
On the range, the recruits were given a .40-cal. Glock pistol loaded with live ammunition and positioned facing a stationary human-silhouette target designed specifically by Avery for the study. The unique target is overlaid by a subdued grid that permits each square inch to be assigned a number for data-collection purposes. Hits can then be weighted according to their probable effectiveness for inflicting fatal and nonfatal injury. Click to view a fuller description of the target.
Playing the role of assailants, the subjects were told to alternately hold the gun in positions officers commonly face on the street–behind a leg, behind the back, at head level–and then, upon hearing a tone signal, to swiftly bring the weapon to whatever firing position they choose and discharge 3 rounds “as fast as they can and as well as they can” at the “police officer” target within 1.7 seconds. That time frame fits most fatal shootings of police, according to Avery’s research and experience, and is intended to simulate circumstances in which an officer is taken by surprise.
This was repeated at 15 different distances, ranging from within arm’s reach between shooter and target out to approximately 25 yards. The subjects were told they could use any shooting technique they wanted (sighted or unsighted, 1- or 2-hand grip), so long as they started firing within 1 second of hearing the tone and finished by the 1.7-second deadline. Each subject fired a total of 45 rounds.
Through a sophisticated computer analysis, any precise hit area on the target, vital or nonvital, can be correlated with any component in the demographic data base.
“There are many correlations that will be interesting to assess,” Lewinski says, “but the most important is expected to be the relationship between distance and accuracy: what is the likelihood of an officer being hit, particularly in a vital area, at any given distance.Dr. Bill Lewinski
“We already know from other studies how fast an attacker can pull a gun from a waistband, for instance. But at what distances can he or she deliver accurate fire? And how far out can they continue to stay on target? In other words, what is their relative threat level at different distances when officers do not have time to fully assess the circumstances and take protective action?”
“Knowing this could have a major impact on law enforcement,” Avery explains. “We’ll be better able to reliably identify high-threat zones. Among other things, this could influence the tactics an officer needs to use to defend himself, as well as help him articulate in court why he needed to take aggressive action when he was not able to see an assailant’s hands or when a subject suddenly produced an object from hiding that turned out later not to be a deadly weapon.”
Already, Avery and Lewinski confirm, some surprising results have been noticed even from the small sample in Milwaukee. However, they decline to elaborate on any findings at this time so as not to contaminate or influence the additional testing yet to come in Phase 1.
The researchers plan to repeat tests like those in Milwaukee with a number of cooperating agencies in different parts of the United States. Police departments in Austin, TX, and Cheyenne, WY, are expected to be next, with others added as the experimental base grows. In all, Avery estimates that several hundred subjects will be tested during Phase 1.
Throughout Phase 1, a variety of sidearms used on the street will be employed and testers will record such variables as temperature, time of day, light readings, barometric pressure, distractions and environmental setting. More positions in which the assailants’ gun may be initially hidden may also be added.
Is it valid in this study to use as test subjects role players who are from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds than most cop killers? FSN asked.
Lewinski and Avery insist that it is. Of course there’s the not insignificant problem of arming true felons with firearms in a research setting. But beyond that, Avery explains, “The decision to shoot a law officer is a mental phenomenon. We are not attempting to analyze psychological factors here. We are looking at physical abilities, and those relate to age, gender, training, and experience rather than criminal orientation. The diversity of our demographic profile will match just fine with those critical factors.”
Avery added, however, that in the process of testing “thousands of people” across the study’s 3 phases, researchers do intend to involve “multiple strata of society,” with volunteers ranging in age from 12 to 66.
Phase 2, which at some point will begin and run concurrent with the continuation of Phase 1, will concentrate on documenting the relative effectiveness of various responses officers can employ against sudden incoming rounds.
“Our previous studies of action/reaction times have established that officers are definitely behind the reactionary curve in surprise attacks,” Lewinski explains. “Some are shot and killed before they can draw, others while trying to bring their gun on target, and still others manage to hit a suspect but the suspect still gets off one or more other shots that take them out.
“Given whatever we’re able to prove about suspect hit probability, what is likely to be an officer’s best option for reacting to an unexpected shooting? Should he try to shoot and move? Move and shoot? Stand still and draw? Try empty-hand control tactics? How should his reaction vary for best results at different distances, once the correlation between distance and offender accuracy is established?”
“Right now no one knows, on the basis of scientific study, what the most advantageous technique is, what will most enhance an officer’s survival at different distances, given a suspect’s ability to deliver accurate fire and an officer’s ability to return fire accurately. During Phase 2, we’ll be testing a wide variety of officers from all over the U.S. to determine what response has the highest probability of working best, given certain variables.”
In Phase 3, months in the future, the focus will shift to training, as the researchers test what kind of instruction and reinforcement seem to best assure that officers will be conditioned to make the safest choices in the quickest time during the stress-ridden challenge of a sudden threat.
Current training will get a hard look to see if, in light of the findings produced by Phases 1 and 2, it is realistically preparing officers for life-threatening encounters. Among other things, says Avery, “We’ll be looking at what kind of training leads to greater hit probability for officers within the time frame of real gunfights. What firearms training is obsolete? What qualification courses are truly relevant to the reality of the street? What training programs really contribute to good shooting performance under combat conditions and which ones are essentially administrative rubber stamp programs designed to meet minimal state and federal requirements?”
As head of the Rocky Mountain Training Institute, Avery is eagerly looking forward to developing guidelines and training based on the results of the research study.
“Our goal,” says Lewinski, “is to create some of the best research ever done about officer survival.Dr. Bill Lewinski
We don’t come to this project with preconceived notions about the results or with an interest in pushing an agenda. We simply want to find out more about officer-involved shootings, and see what science says about how we can better avoid or prepare to win them.”