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You Don’t Have to Shoot First; But You Better Do Something!

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“The officer should have waited until he actually saw the suspect’s gun. If the suspect tried to shoot him, he could have shot first.”

Anonymous

The above quote didn’t come from an angry anti-police protestor or a biased civil rights attorney.  It came from a police legal advisor.  It came from an intelligent, civic-minded, pro-police advocate.  And he’s not alone.  Some of our strongest allies have trouble understanding the complexity of use-of-force decisions.  Even now many of you are remembering a close friend or family member asking, “Why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg?

In fairness, understanding and properly judging police use-of-force isn’t easy.

Judges and juries need experts to help them think like “reasonable officers.” Attorneys spend months researching and arguing the law. Opposing academics debate police practices, behavioral science, and video accuracy. Officers may even disagree about threat assessments and force options; and the law allows for that.    

But there is one thing that reasonable people can no longer dispute; action beats reaction.  And, if an armed suspect decides to shoot first, an officer is not going to have enough time to prevent the initial shots once they start. 

It is why we expect officers to maintain unquestioned command at the scene of investigations. Why they tell people not to move. And why “Stop!” means stop. 

Does that mean officers have to shoot first?  No; but they better do something.

Move. Create distance. Find cover. De-escalate. All great ideas under the right circumstances.  

Of course, under the right circumstances, initiative, surprise, and speed may be better options.1

Sometimes officers can safely disengage, reconsider their approach, and avoid the fight all-together. Often, they can’t.

It’s in those moments—when suspects refuse to follow orders, refuse to stop moving, refuse to show their hands—it’s in those moments that officers must know and balance the risk of waiting to see the gun.

The Problem with Wait and See

When our anonymous legal advisor shared his belief that officers should wait to positively identify a gun, I invited him to confront the reality of his suggestion.

Here was his argument.  If an officer has their gun out and pointed at a suspect who they reasonably believe is armed, they should wait until they positively identify the gun before responding to the threat. If the suspect tries to shoot the officer, the officer has the advantage and can shoot first.

Here’s why he’s wrong.

Speed of Assault

Our research tells us a standing suspect can draw a pistol from their waistband, point, and shoot in an average of .25 seconds.2 Our research also tells us that after the first trigger pull, each subsequent trigger pull will average another .25 seconds.3

At those speeds, how many rounds can the suspect fire before the officer perceives the gun, decides to shoot, and pulls the trigger?

Speed of Response

Well, we tested how fast officers can shoot when a simple light comes on. That’s about .31 seconds.4 .25 seconds to recognize the light and another .06 seconds to pull the trigger. But that was a very simple scenario. See light…pull trigger.

What about a more complex scenario?  One light?  Don’t Shoot. Two lights?  Don’t shoot. Three lights? Shoot.  We tested that as well; and found that the complex scenario doubled the average reaction time.

Officers took an average of .56 seconds to perceive the lights, decide, and begin pulling the trigger. Add another .06 seconds to complete the trigger pull and the officer was getting the “first round” off in .62 seconds.5

But officers aren’t trained to “just pull the trigger.”  Instead, they are trained to conduct threat assessments while maintaining their gun in various “ready positions.”  These positions allow officers to focus their attention on the suspect (and the environment); while significantly reducing the time it takes to respond with aimed fire.

When we studied the speed in which officers could respond from various ready positions, we found that the bootleg position (pistol held behind the leg) was the slowest; taking an average of 1.3 seconds to raise the weapon, acquire a sight picture, and fire one round. The high ready position (pistol held extended just below the officer’s line of sight) resulted in the fastest average response time at .83 seconds.6

Accounting for the Real World

If we presume the officer in our hypothetical adopted the faster high ready position, their aimed response time would likely still be longer than .83 seconds.  That’s because, in our experiment, the “officer” was again reacting to a simple stimulus.  The light went on, he raised his weapon, aimed, and fired.

In the real world, officers do not have the luxury of standing perfectly still and intently focusing on possible weapons.  They are scanning for available cover, improving their position, watching for crossfire, considering backdrops, attempting de-escalation, communicating with responding units, and coordinating with back officers.

This divided attention can significantly increase the time it takes for an officer to accurately perceive and consciously verify that a suspect has pulled a gun.  But multitasking isn’t the only factor that affects perception and threat recognition.

In the real world, an officer’s physical capacity to see can affect perception, identification, and response time.  As can environmental conditions like distance, light, shadows, wind, rain, and other physical obstructions.

We know that divided attention, physical limitations, and the environment can slow perception and response time; the question is, by how much?  The answer is, we don’t know. 

In complex, real-world use-of-force encounters, response time simply has too many variables to guess.  But whatever that response time proves to be, it will be significantly longer than the .83 seconds necessary to respond to a simple light change.

That said, we don’t need the exact numbers to make our point.

The Price of Waiting

Let’s imagine our hypothetical officer was only focused on the suspect and had no distractions. If they immediately recognized the gun as it was being aimed in their direction, we could presume an average response time of .83 seconds.

But even assigning the officer this artificially fast response time, the suspect is still able to pull the trigger 3 or 4 times before the officer can fire once.  That’s assuming the incoming rounds didn’t extend the officer’s response time…or prevent it all together.

Final Note

To admit that action beats reaction is not to endorse a “shoot first” mentality.  Reaction studies have done much more than help us understand time compressed shooting decisions.

Police, more than any other profession, appreciate the immense difficulty of identifying and responding to real-world assaults.  To avoid split-second decisions, they have learned to recognize and value threat cues and suspicious patterns of conduct (schemas).  Knowing the speed of assaults is why they give orders and prioritize tactics that reduce a suspect’s ability, opportunity, and willingness to assault them.

When circumstances tend toward a possible armed assault, speed studies remind officers to aggressively look to buy time, create space, and negotiate from positions of advantage; before the threat materializes…and so that nobody has to shoot first.

  1. See Dysterheft Robb, Jen & Lewinski, William & Pettitt, Robert & O’Neill, Dawn. (2013). The influence of officer positioning on movement during a threatening traffic stop scenario. Law Enforcement Executive Forum. 13. 98-109 (multiple research subjects prevented the “armed attack” by quickly moving toward the suspect and controlling or deflecting the weapon). []
  2. Lewinski, B. (2000). Why is the suspect shot in the back? Finally, hard data on how fast the suspect can be—in 11 different shooting scenarios. The Police Marksman, 25(6), 20-28. []
  3. See, William J. Lewinski and Christina Redmann, “New Developments In Understanding The Psychological Factors In the Stop Shooting Response” 2009, p. 38. []
  4. Dysterheft Jen & Hudson, William & Lewinski, William. (2014). Police Officer Reaction Time to Start and Stop Shooting: The Influence of Decision-Making and Pattern Recognition. Law Enforcement Executive Forum. 14. []
  5. See endnote 4. []
  6. Bushey, Jacob & Dicks, Nathan & Dysterheft, Jennifer & Lewinski, William. (2015). Ambushes Leading Cause of Officer Fatalities – When Every Second Counts: Analysis of Officer Movement from Trained Ready Tactical Positions. Law Enforcement Executive Forum. 15. []
29 Responses
  1. Don Black

    The martial arts and many police trainers have known about reaction time for many years. Law enforcement has not figured out yet how to apply the knowledge. Many tactics are taught that ignore the reality. Handcuff before searching and slicing the pie are two classic examples of basic things taught that ignore the reality. Force science is doing a service by validating what knowledgeable trainers have known for well over 50 years. Most of law enforcement is 60-90 years behind on tactics.

      1. Fred Parker

        Always have two or more le present at the takedown for each perp present. (Hard to arrange). Have one le cover and not speak, because you can’t talk and shoot at the same time. Have the speaking le go hands on, staying out of line of fire of non speaking le. If more than one le speaks during the apprehension, you just added 3/4 second to both le’s reaction time. If only on le is present, you must negate all perp reaction/action options. Face away, get on the ground, arms spread, legs straight, and crossed. Etc.

    1. Cw

      Hi Don, you mentioned cuffing before searching and slice the pie tactics are not based in reality. What do you mean and can you explain why?

  2. John Tate

    “An officer does not need to wait until he sees ‘the glint of steel before he can act to protect his safety.'” State v. Sanchez, 137 N.M. 759, para 14 (NMCA 2005) quoting State v. Cobbs, 103 N.M. 623, 630, 711 P.2d 900, 907 (NMCA 1985)

  3. Another great article summarizing the extensive research Force Science has done on reaction time related to deadly force encounters. A basic principle many of us have been teaching for years is MOVE! Do SOMETHING! This reinforces that training principle with research and data and puts it in the clinical setting. With your permission I will bullet point it into a Socratic discussion intro for one of our basic academy firearms blocks. I base all of our academy and instructor level firearms training on science, data and research. I look forward to reading the articles every two weeks. Keep up the good work. You ARE making a difference!
    Respectfully,

    Doug Tangen
    Firearms Program Manager
    Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission
    Retired LEO (Undersheriff)
    Certified Force Science Analyst

  4. Caleb

    Yeah me too, Don where you at? When I search, I typically conduct my search in the same manor that I handcuff anyway….. Verbal commands from a distance first, place subject in position of disadvantage face away hand behind back interlace fingers, then only approach if compliance is gained. Positive hold on hands, then cuff, then search. Sometimes depending on PC etc, no cuff, maintain positive control with one hand and search but anyway you get it. Also whats wrong with slicing the pie?

  5. Kelly Davis

    As Clint Smith said “wear your vest and have baby Jesus in your pocket and if you aren’t moving you better be shooting”

  6. Moroni Breitbart

    So sad. Far too much slimy wriggling between the lines to satisfy lawyers, liberals, and those (hopefully a small percentage) in law enforcement who believe they have ‘authority’ in all situations. Look no further than police bodycam footage of a recent incident in Florida I believe, where a man who’d been pulled over gets out of his car and approaches (with a knife in hand) the officer, who, with sidearm drawn says; “freeze or ill shoot” 26 times while continuing to back up as the knife wielding man approaches. State it once – and only once – then put 3 into the chest. See…it really is that simple.

  7. FSI continues to be the Gold Standard of the study of tactics as they relate to human performance.

    In keeping proper context, it is helpful to frame the “timing” issue with the facts that…

    “Lethal Hits and not always ‘Lethal’ and they are seldom, if ever, immediate.”

    Simply shooting the subject “first” might not resolve the problem. Another reason to integrate maneuver and judicious use of cover.

  8. Don Black

    Briefly in answer to questions. The Koga Institute is virtually the only organization that teaches to search first before handcuffing. Officers are regularly being killed while starting to handcuff by a suspect who pulls a gun. The idea is to put yourself in a position behind him with a degree of control and get your hand on the gun before does. One statistic said that resistance starts 60% of the time when you go to handcuff. He knows then that it is his last chance. So, now you are struggling with someone who has a gun. When you go to handcuff him, you reach for your cuffs and you only have one hand to control. Meanwhile, he can get one hand free and pull his gun while you are trying to handcuff. Speed cuffing advocates say it only takes a couple of seconds to cuff. Contrast that with the .25 second for the suspect to pull his gun. Unlike most, I have paid attention to the reports of officers who been shot while trying to handcuff. Basically, you have brought handcuffs to a gunfight. By the way, the same thing applies when you stand in front of him and tell him to take his hands out of his pockets. Okay, slicing the pie ignores the fact that you, as a cop, have a decision to make before shooting. You have to spot him under the bed, behind the pile of clothes, in the closet and then decide if he is a threat. He only has to shoot right away at anything that moves. Briefly, that is it.

    1. J. Miller

      Don, can you please cite the source for your statement, “Officers are regularly being killed while starting to handcuff by a suspect who pulls a gun.”

    2. Christopher Drew

      I’d really like to know where you were able to find the statistic regarding “resistance starts 60% of the time when you go to handcuff” and “Officers are regularly being killed while starting to handcuff by a suspect who pulls a gun.” I’ve been around long enough to know there are several different ways to train a technique and there are a variety of ways to describe the same tactic. I’m always interested in learning what other agencies are doing, hence my questions.
      Regarding your description of “slicing the pie”, I suspect you may not have grasped the full concept of the tactic. As I understand the tactic; you are utilizing a piece of cover to create an angle of observation while minimizing your exposure to a threat while maximizing your ability to observe a danger area. “Slicing the pie” and it’s variants, are a tried and true tactic utilized by all levels of Military and Law Enforcement to search/clear areas of a known/known threat. To steal a quote, “…it’s a way, not the way…”

    3. Chuck Haggard

      We started handcuffing before searching because searching first was such an incredibly bad idea in real life.

      Your post ignores reality.

  9. Travis Shively

    There are times when it may be necessary to search prior to handcuffing, but to make a blanket statement that handcuffing prior to searching gets officers killed is absurd. I have no idea what technique(s) you are teaching or have been taught, but we phrase it as controlled handcuffing for the simple fact that we gain control prior to applying the restraints. The actual application of the handcuff is in the middle of the control technique, therefore the simple placement of the cuffs themselves does not decrease the control level, it actually enhances it.

    As far as “Slicing the Pie” ignoring reality, I believe the point of the tactic is lost on you….Seeing before being seen is the purpose and is the advantage when the suspect only has to pull the trigger. I can assure you that it is safer than randomly stepping into a doorway, that is a classic “Hollywood” tactic that ignores reality.

  10. Tim

    Article states … “Our research tells us a standing suspect can draw a pistol from their waistband, point, and shoot in an average of .25 seconds.”

    Yikes! The average street thug is faster than any Grandmaster competitive shooter!

    I am really misunderstanding this statement/context or a typo has occurred.

    1. Thanks for the comment. We may not be comparing the same thing. In FS studies, we were concerned with the speed of draw, where suspect already had hand on gun, pulling from waistband, pointing, and shooting. The goal was to capture real-world assault speeds. .25 seconds from waistband to shot fired was the average. Some were faster. Here is another article you may be interested in https://www.forcescience.org/2012/05/doubts-raised-about-certain-reaction-time-training-exercises/

      Also, please read http://www.uapdi.com/my/docs/shotback.pdf to see details of the original speed study.

    1. Thanks for the comment. We may not be comparing the same thing. In FS studies, we were concerned with the speed of draw, where suspect already had hand on gun, pulling from waistband, pointing, and shooting. The goal was to capture real-world assault speeds. .25 seconds from waistband to shot fired was the average. Some were faster. Here is another article you may be interested in https://www.forcescience.org/2012/05/doubts-raised-about-certain-reaction-time-training-exercises/

      Also, please read http://www.uapdi.com/my/docs/shotback.pdf to see details of the original speed study.

  11. Art Kirkland

    I find your research dubious. The world record for a draw and shoot is .208 seconds. You are claiming that the average perp, drawing from a waistband is only 42 thousandths of a second slower. Highly unlikely. Start from a bad place, everything else you say is untrustworthy

    1. Thanks for the comment. We may not be comparing the same thing. In FS studies, we were concerned with the speed of draw, where suspect already had hand on gun, pulling from waistband, pointing, and shooting. The goal was to capture real-world assault speeds. .25 seconds from waistband to shot fired was the average. Some were faster. Here is another article you may be interested in https://www.forcescience.org/2012/05/doubts-raised-about-certain-reaction-time-training-exercises/

      Also, please read http://www.uapdi.com/my/docs/shotback.pdf to see details of the original speed study.

      -Von Kliem

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