The rumor bouncing around various law enforcement listservs piqued Cmdr. Michael Richards’ curiosity.
Street gangs in California, the story went, were training members to shoot cops at night by aiming for the highly visible patch of white T-shirt exposed above the top of many officers’ vests. “The Triangle of Death,” posters to the listservs called it.
Whether the rumor was fact or fiction, Richards wondered: Just how dangerous is this so-called Triangle of Death for LEOs?
He set up a little experiment that he says shocked him.
On the indoor range of his department, Mundelein (IL) PD, an agency of 50 sworn in a suburb northwest of Chicago, he positioned a 6 ft.-tall mannequin target, buttoned a blue uniform shirt on it, and slipped a sheet of white, legal-sized paper behind the shirt so that just enough was exposed at the top to simulate a bit of T-shirt.
He then dimmed the lighting to resemble “what you’d find in an older residential neighborhood, with some streetlamps and a lot of heavy trees,” he told Force Science News. “You could make out the target, but you had to strain to really see what was going on.” In other words, a lot like normal nighttime patrol conditions in many areas. From the control booth, Richards says, “the contrast between the patch of white paper and the dark shirt was really obvious.”
One at a time, he brought in a series of randomly selected officers he knew, as the department’s rangemaster, to be “average” shooters. “They typically qualify with low numbers, don’t necessarily like to shoot and go to the range only because they have to,” he explained. “I figured they’d be like the typical suspect who gets into a shooting with an officer-not overly proficient with a handgun. I didn’t want any of the top shooters involved.”
Explaining only that this was a “quick course in low-light shooting” so as not to tip off the true point of the test, Richards led each officer to a spot about 10 feet in front of the target. He told each to draw at the sound of a timer buzzer, step to the left or to the right, come up on target, fire 3 rounds as fast as possible, then scan the area. By incorporating movement, scanning and time pressure, “I wanted to distract them from thinking too much about the target.”
Each officer fired a total of 18 rounds (6 sets of 3 shots apiece), using his duty pistol (either a .40-cal. Glock or a Sig). After an officer finished, the “T-shirt” was changed before the next test subject was brought in.
“The shot placement was shocking” when he analyzed the results, Richards says. “On our department we train to shoot center mass, usually using flat, 2-dimensional targets on a fully lit range. In training, our shots consistently tend to go to the center. If officers are shooting at high speed, their rounds may drop down toward the stomach, but they don’t often go higher.”
In his low-light experiment, by contrast, more than 80% of the shots across all the officers and all sets of fire hit in or immediately around the Triangle of Death simulated by the peek of white paper. In other words, Richards concluded, in low light they overrode their training and focused their shots on what was most vividly visible. All the officers confirmed in a post-shooting debrief that the patch of white had drawn their aim.
“Absolutely right,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. Although Richards’ sample was limited (only 6 officers) and his methods admittedly not scientifically pristine, the thrust of his experiment and his thinking are right on track, Lewinski maintains.
“Our research on attention shows that when people are trying to understand what is happening in a stressful, uncertain situation, they scan the scene quickly and grasp little bits of available information,” he explains. “This process is automatic, almost instinctive. For the most part, their attention is attracted to something first and then shortly after that they recognize why it caught their attention.
“This was verified in one Force Science study in which officers were thrust into a rapidly evolving, very complex and dynamic situation. Their immediate response was to scan the scene in an effort to understand it. In doing so, they reported picking up noticeable elements of each person they scanned. Something about that person attracted their attention to a particular body part, article of clothing or motion.
“The same phenomenon is at work with the ‘Triangle of death’ under low-light conditions. The brightest part of the officer’s body is automatically drawing the attention and the gunfire of subjects intent on attacking.”
Firearms expert Ron Avery, a technical advisor to the FSRC, notices the same low-light aiming tendency that Richards documented when he’s training officers from a wide variety of agencies through his Practical Shooting Academy (Visit the site).
As he puts it: “People shoot at what they can see, what they can focus on, not at what you train them. In low-light conditions, movement, shine, contrast and outline (silhouette) all become target indicators to a potential attacker. Shooters tend impulsively to take the target of opportunity, and when time is not working in their favor the target of opportunity is whatever is most noticeable.”
The problem is by no means limited just to white T-shirts under a dark uniform, Avery emphasizes. “Light-colored shoulder patches, shiny badges, bright metal on hats, an activated flashlight-anything that creates a contrast can be dangerous. In semi-darkness like ambient moonlight, even sweat on your face and hands can be reflective.”
For safety, he says, “you want to minimize yourself as a target.” This includes keeping your clothing low-contrast, staying in shadows as much as possible at night when you’re moving or pausing to observe, and being aware of your background environment.”
So far as the Triangle of Death is concerned, “Don’t equate looking professional with wearing a crisp white T-shirt under your uniform,” Avery cautions. “Dress for your mission: that’s the dress code for the modern officer.”
Cmdr. Richards now urges all his officers to wear dark T-shirts on duty. He and all the department’s firearms instructors do so, as a show of “leadership by example.” Most patrol officers have followed suit. A few officers still wear white, unmindful of what Avery calls “a no-brainer.”
[Our thanks to Jeff Chudwin, chief of the Olympia Fields (Ill.) PD and master of an outstanding law enforcement listserv, for tipping us to Cmdr. Richards’ experiment