One Columnist’s Approach To Getting Civilians To Walk In Cops’ Shoes

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A newspaper columnist’s perspective on a shooting in Florida may be helpful to officers conducting citizen police academies, town hall meetings, and other events where they try to get civilians to empathize with LEOs’ use-of-force decisions.

In Charlotte County, FL, sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call of a residential domestic disturbance in which a male voice could be heard in the background making threats against law enforcement. As three deputies cautiously approached the house on foot, a man rushed from an adjacent woods, brandishing two knives.

He angrily advanced on officers and refused commands to stop. A deputy fired multiple rounds at him, inflicting fatal wounds.

Among the public reaction, a retired military veteran telephoned Tom Lyons, a columnist for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, insisting that there “had to be a non-lethal way” the deputies could have stopped the attack-in-progress. A Taser, perhaps, or shooting the man in the legs, or at least firing fewer rounds.

In a resulting column, Lyons took an approach that officers might find useful in their own communications with civilians. He asked “well-meaning concerned citizens to imagine that their 20-something son or daughter is the cop” involved in the knives confrontation, “facing an apparently drunk and bizarrely upset man behaving so aggressively that people who know him had locked themselves in their rooms in fear.”

Now, “imagine you are magically there to advise…your police officer son or daughter who is now a dozen feet away from the out-of-it and angry man who is raising two knives and advancing.

“Keep in mind that an irate or deranged or drugged-up guy with a knife can cover the length of a living room in less than a second. So talk fast.

“Want to urge your kid to try a shot with the stun gun? [That] might just stop him before he can slash your kid’s neck.

“If not, your kid now has a spurting arterial wound, or a blade in the gut. And the action has just started. Remember, no do-overs.

“Maybe your cop-kid is so fast and cool in the face of danger that if the guy starts slashing right and left, your kid might be able to kick butt and disarm him like they do on TV when the scriptwriters are in charge of the action, and not get a scratch. Want to urge him to have a go at that?

“How about just telling your kid to just shoot once or twice. Sure, it is really hard to hit an armed and moving target when you are scared and dodging. Your kid might miss or just injure the knife guy and make him all the more frantically irate and aggressive. Even a good dead-center shot might not stop the attacker until after several knife slashes….

“[By instinct,] your kid will likely pull the trigger until the bullets are gone or the knife-wielder is on the ground. He’s not likely to hear a word you say. But you could try to urge him to worry about how too much shooting might look to people who have never dealt with such a situation and who might sincerely question why he fired so many rounds.

“Heck, people watch TV. They know a good cop has no fear and usually gets the job done with one coolly fired, perfectly aimed shot…. In the old days the good guys could even shoot a gun out of a bad guy’s hand. How about trying that?…

“I don’t want my sons to be cops unless it is on TV with scriptwriters calling the shots. But if one ever does wear a badge and gets in a spot with a deranged drunk advancing with a knife, I’ll hope he remembers what trainers teach: Shoot for dead center and keep shooting until the armed guy is down.”

In his column, Lyons noted: “I’ve never gone through police training in any real sense, but I’ve been educated by training officers over the years. Nothing those demonstrations and training scenarios taught me ever led me to think I’d have done the job well during any real encounter with an armed and aggressive person in close quarters.

“What they did teach was how fast bad things can happen and how easy it is to totally underestimate the dangerous difficulty of trying to use non-lethal means on an armed and irrational attacker who has no such concern.”

With all the beefs cops have about the media these days, it’s refreshing indeed to find a media guy who “gets it.” And here’s a smart salute to those trainers who took the time and patience to educate a reporter who was willing to learn.

Tom Lyons can be reached at: tom.lyons@heraldtribune.com. Our thanks to Lt. Glen Mills, president of the Massachusetts Assn. of Crime Analysts, and his father, Sgt. (ret.) Gerald Mills of the Burlington (MA) PD, who alerted us to Lyons’ work.

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