Officer Involved Shootings

August 21st, 2014 22 Comments

Turnbull 1911


In the aftermath of the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, Wolf Blitzer on CNN asked an officer why police can’t shoot warning shots in the air, and why officers can’t be trained to shoot to wound instead of shooting “to kill.” (His words.) And this morning, in the aftermath of a man with a knife being shot by two officers in St. Louis, Ashleigh Banfield asked an officer essentially the same question about shooting “to kill,” along with questioning why a stun gun wasn’t used instead.

Both of these questions by veteran reporters come on the heels of a reporter for the Huffington Post tweeting a photograph of foam ear plugs and inquiring if they were rubber bullets.

It is easy to poke fun at people trying to make sense of things about which they are ignorant. God knows most of the questions I ask about computer and internet issues must make me seem like a nineteenth century moron to the vast bulk of computer users out there. No one can know everything about everything; no one can know even a little about everything. We all do the best we can, and the Wolf Blitzers and Ashleigh Banfields do a hell of a lot better job than most journalists could ever dream of doing.

But their questions reflect a tremendous misunderstanding about a topic that is red hot with emotion right now.

Approximately one hundred million Americans own guns. That mean that the other almost two hundred and twenty million Americans who do not own guns are going to have no idea of the reality or the use or effect of firearms. Unfortunately, those who are unfamiliar with firearms will have completely unrealistic perceptions (consciously or unconsciously influenced by popular entertainment) of what can or cannot be done with a gun, or the effect being shot will have.

Consider Mr. Blitzer’s first question. Where will the bullet from that warning shot come down? A hundred years ago, in a rural area, the odds were very good that bullet would come down harmlessly in a field. Now, in an urban or even a suburban area like Ferguson, those odds are greatly diminished, and the odds of it killing someone are greatly increased.

Consider Mr. Blitzer’s second question. No offense to Mr. Blitzer, who is a very capable journalist, but practically every single time a law enforcement officer shoots someone, the “shoot to wound” question will be trotted out, and if that isn’t a reflection of too many John Wayne movies, nothing is.

A handgun is a defensive weapon intended for use at close range and the best of them are nowhere near as accurate as non-shooters believe. Out to fifty yards, from a stationary position, a good shot, taking his time, can consistently hit a human-sized target, but there are problems even with that scenario. A bad guy isn’t necessarily stationary, and even hitting a target as large as a human being is far more difficult if that target is moving. The police officer frequently doesn’t have the luxury of standing still and aiming carefully, and shooting a moving target while you are in motion is very, very difficult. Now reduce that target to the size of a shoulder say, or a leg, or—always a popular choice with those who learn from television shows—a handgun that will be shot beautifully out of the hand of the bad guy without even seriously injuring said hand. Go to a range and try those things someday and let me know how it works for you.

Those are just the simple mechanics of the thing. There are other issues involved. Emotions, for one. A bad guy, the worst bad guy in the world, is still a human being, not a target, and it takes a lot—a lot—of training and mental preparation for a normal human being to shoot another.

Which brings me to the officer who might have to shoot someone. Cops are not Hollywood super heroes following a script where they know they’re going to live happily and get the girl, the gold watch and everything at the end. They have all the same emotions you or I would have when they are being shot at or confronted, and that includes fear. What do you think happens when you are terrified and have adrenaline pumping through you by the gallon? You get tunnel vision for one thing. You lose all sense of time. You cease to hear normally or even at all. Your extremities, in particular your hands (including the one holding the gun) become icy cold. You begin to tremble. You have trouble breathing, and breath control is critical to shooting with any degree of accuracy. And perhaps most significant of all, you lose fine motor control, i.e. the small muscle control necessary to perform precise actions. No matter what anyone tells you, or what you see in the movies, these things happen to everyone, no matter how well-trained or how experienced. Fear is normal. The only difference between a cop and you or me is that the cop has to saddle up anyway, no matter how scared he might be.

As for Ashleigh Banfield’s question about the police shooting of the man with a knife in St. Louis., consider a stun gun, or Taser, as they’re known. They are not always effective. On an unarmed suspect, a Taser would have been the wise choice; on a man armed with a knife, not so, and this is why:

The rule of thumb, depending on which law enforcement agency is doing the talking and training, is usually either twenty-one feet, or twenty-five feet as being the closest you should ever allow a potential assailant with a knife to get to you. At Scott Reitz’s International Tactical Training Seminars in Los Angeles, Scott has rigged up a track with a human silhouette target on it. The track is twenty-one feet long. The drill is for students to draw, fire, and hit the target before Scott can pull that target close to them. Before the first students step up to the line, Scott does a demonstration where a young man runs the same distance. The day I was there the young man was a stunt man, and he was able to cover the twenty-one feet in the same time it took Scott to pull his target along the track, approximately one and a half seconds. The difference was that the target stopped; the young man’s momentum carried him on and would have carried him right over anyone standing in front of him. So twenty-one feet is a damned critical distance even if you are a trained shooter, with very fast reflexes, and advance warning of the attack. Most people can’t do it.

But now consider that assailant with a knife. Do you really think a bad guy high on drugs or adrenaline or both is going to be stopped by a single bullet? It is impossible to predict how a man will react when hit by a bullet, never mind a man who is high on rage or chemicals or both. When I was shot, the first bullet spun me around, but it certainly didn’t knock me down or drop me or incapacitate me. Even after a second bullet (where I did go down on my own volition to play dead) I was able to get up and walk home. Every hunter knows it is impossible to predict how an animal will react even when shot fatally. Elmer Keith (a famous writer about firearms and hunting back in the old days) told a story about shooting three bullets, all perfectly placed into the heart of grizzly bear, three bullets that turned the bear’s heart into hamburger, but the bear still charged him, running over a hundred yards so quickly that Keith had to dive out of the way. I spoke to a highway patrol officer many years ago who emptied his handgun into an assailant, with at least three of the bullets being fatal, and the assailant still picked him up and threw him over his own squad car. You cannot predict or be certain.

As an historical note, John Browning developed the M1911 .45 at the request of the Army precisely because so many soldiers were being killed by Moro Islanders armed with a kalis (think either short sword or long knife) even after the Islander had been shot six times with a .38 caliber revolver.

But the basic fallacy of Mr. Blitzer and Ms. Banleigh and so many journalists and non-gun owners is that police are taught to “shoot to kill.” No one teaches that. All training schools, whether for law enforcement or for civilians, teach you to shoot to stop the threat. If one bullet does that, fine. If, like that highway patrolman, you have to empty your gun, so be it. If stopping the threat means the bad guy runs away in fear, uninjured, great: the threat has been stopped. If he’s still trying to shoot you as he lies bleeding to death on the ground, you haven’t stopped the threat. But stopping the threat is the goal, not killing.

Finally, in response to a lot of police bashing by a lot of people (and I am most outraged by politicians currying favor and sewing dissent by pandering over this issue) I would point out that the percentage of bad cops to good cops is the same as the percentage of bad guys to good guys generally. If a politician were fool enough to judge all black residents of Ferguson by the actions of the opportunistic criminals in the crowd, that politician would be rightly run out of office, but condemning cops and police departments generally has become a national pastime. The average cop is no better or worse than the average citizen, but there is a crucial difference, and that is that the average citizen doesn’t have the courage, the physical skills, the necessary mental skills, the disposition, or the rudimentary understanding of human psychology of the average cop. The police do hard, dangerous work that the rest of us won’t and mostly can’t do, and they deserve better than to have political curs and jackals snapping at their heels in times of trouble.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Wisdom and truth. Now if you could just get it out to the nation…

    Steve B

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well said.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Blitzer and Banfield asked legitimate questions that I have heard from ordinary citizens on the news in the past. Granted there is no telling what each of us would do in the same situation. Some might panic and “fill ’em full of lead” as so many say having been influenced by movies and tv shows, others might just try to fight off the perpetrator while some would actually just shoot to wound to stop the person before they do more damage. It is hard to judge until a person is in that exact predicament.
    There are some times where a person or police might really have no choice but too often it does seem there was another choice just not taken or so some have said.
    Fear is a huge adrenaline force as well as anger and just thinking I am not letting that so and so get the best of me. I don’t know if anyone will ever really know the full story of what did happen during this altercation
    Just hope that situations like this will help to one day get others that could be facing the same to find a different way to handle matters as I agree with you stopping the threat should be the primary objective but not where it ends up in killing. At least not unless there is absolutely no other means possible of stopping the threat and hopefully there is always some other means of stopping it.
    Thanks for your wise words learn more from reading your blog at times than do hearing things on the radio or reading them on the news sites.
    Nancy Darlene

  4. Anonymous says:

    As an individual who does take defensive handgun courses and trains on a regular basis, everything you said rings clearly true.

    It will be interesting to see how the situation in Ferguson, and the entire country for that matter, handles things when the investigation into the shooting starts to conclude.

    TD Bauer

  5. Anonymous says:

    You are so right regarding this, J P–MOST of the time in some areas. But there IS another side to this issue, and I’ve had the misfortune to both experience and witness it. There ARE, alas, jerk-off, racist, culturally ethnocentric, bully, abusive “cops” out there–some that are just ITCHIN’ to shoot somebody. It may be more of a–ahem!–GEOGRAPHICAL phenomenon; growing up in the Southern U. S., DARING to(and being male) have LONG HAIR most of my life(and instantly being very inaccurately profiled as a hippy druggy by most law enforcement types), I’ve seen my share of out-of-line bullying and harassment–which I always(so far) gritted my teeth and just tolerated, but could well see someone finally SNAPPING after just one too many an episode of such cultural/racist abuse. I experienced THE WORST of this phenomenon the year I lived in Texas–so much in fact, that the dog I had at the time learned to HATE anyone in uniform, and would try to ATTACK them on sight, which only complicated matters for me, in most instances! Despite “Southern Sherriff” stereotypes(and law, there is MUCH truth to the stereo-type!), THE WORST horribly racist law enforcement individual I have ever known or met was from a Los Angles department, who supported KILLING anyone of the “mud races” out there, and who HAD killed NUMEROUS people and bragged about it! Scary, to say the least! Some of these types(who tend to be found in pockets–all of one force will often be like this in one town, whereas in the next town they are more akin to Andy Griffith!) are just LOOKING for an excuse to shoot somebody–I’ve been made VERY uncomfortable by officers fingering their guns aggressively the whole time they were ragging me–making me–not look to attack them, by any means–but glance around looking for possible escape routes if things REALLY start going South! HOPING if forced to it, I could dodge behind something and continue doing so until I outran the bebadged bass-turds! Luckily it never came to that(so far), but I can relate to those made VERY nervous by abusive cops! I have NO IDEA what-all is involved with this Missouri incident(no excuses for looting and crap either, in my opinion), but with my experiences, I also won’t immediately side with “the LAW”. And you know, in Missouri, you gotta SHOW them folks!…..A. L. B.

    • Anonymous says:

      I am old enough to remember the sixties. One of the imagines permanently etched in my mind is the police turning firehoses on peaceful demonstrators Mississippi. The March was lead by Martin Luther King where he and other marchers were met with police attack dogs and firehoses. So, the police are not always right. That does not mean people should riot and loot stores.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You made a very good point about guns being fired in the air. Every year on New Years Eve some people in Detroit will fire their guns in the air. People have been killed because of this. The police started public service announcements on TV on New Years. They tell people not to fire their guns in the air. One campaign said ring a bell instead of shooting. Bells and not bullets was the title. As you said what goes up must come down and the odds of injuring or killing someone are extremely high.

    I do not think that anyone has all of the facts about what happened in Missouri. All you see is a lot of speculation. Did the young man charge the policeman or did he have his hands up? I have heard several versions of this story. As for the people looting a lot these people don’t even live in that town and came to take advantage of the situation. Then you have Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson going there and stirring up trouble. Even President Obama weighed in. By the way where were these people when forty fatal shootings happened in Chicago in one weekend. These were African Americans who were killed by other African Americans.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Bill O’Reilly factor Bill O’Reilly talking Points ” The Truth about Fergerson.”

  8. Anonymous says:

    Words that needed to be said . Thanks JP. Bogie

  9. Anonymous says:

    When I read the title of your new post, I was afraid it was going to be another of your gun rights opinion pieces which always rattle me, as I disagree with your stance on that issue. However I found “Officer Related Shootings” to be intelligent, compassionate and well written. I also happen to agree with you on the topic.
    A well written post. Thank you for it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    If you watch a lot of television especially police dramas you could get the idea that shooting is a routine thing. I have seen television shows and movies were there was a lot of shooting going on and yet nobody get hit or even hurt. They could have bullets flying around them, but they do not have a scratch on their bodies. Also, I have seen scenes where individuals go into a firing range and shot at a pin up of a human form and they are able to hit that form right in the heart. All of this is unrealistic and it is easy to forget that especially if you are not familiar with firearms.

  11. Anonymous says:

    “For What It’s Worth”

    There’s something happening here
    But what it is ain’t exactly clear
    There’s a man with a gun over there
    Telling me I got to beware

    I think it’s time we stop
    Children, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

    There’s battle lines being drawn
    Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
    Young people speaking’ their minds
    Getting so much resistance from behind

    It’s time we stop
    Hey, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

    What a field day for the heat
    A thousand people in the street
    Singing songs and carrying signs
    Mostly saying, “hooray for our side”

    It’s time we stop
    Hey, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

    Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    Step out of line, the men come and take you away

    We better stop
    Hey, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

    We better stop
    Hey, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

    We better stop
    Now, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

    We better stop
    Children, what’s that sound?
    Everybody look – what’s going down?

  12. Anonymous says:

    I just read that Northern California had a 6.0 earthquake. I hope you and your wife are alright.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    this post was brilliant again and I intend to comment it more detailed later.
    But I’ve just read about a 6.0 earthquake in northern California and I hope it didn’t have any effects on you, Darleen ot the four-legged residents if your place!

    Literally my best wishes 🙂


  14. Anonymous says:

    I was thinking about how this Ferguson protest reminded me of the Detroit Riots. Here are some photographs that show the similarity. I was kid at the time and this was freighting. We lived in the suburbs, but saw this on the TV news every night. They had tank going down Woodward Ave. My father worked downtown for General Motors and he was told not to come into work for that whole week.
    Even though Vietnam was going on this scared me more as a kid. I didn’t know where vietnam was, but I knew where Woodward Ave was and Detroit was not all that far from where we lived. Seeing Detroit burning is one of those images I will never forget and the image of Ferguson brought those memories back.

  15. Anonymous says:

    “When I was shot, the first bullet spun me around…”

    You have a unique perspective on these matters mi amigo.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    this is actually the most differentiated and neutral article about the incident in Ferguson. Of course it was in the news here, too. But none of them gave so profound and absolutely accountable knowledge.
    Besides, as far as I know the circumstances aren’t solved, at least not published, yet. And it’s more than obvious that the fundamental problem in Ferguson isn’t the use and the equipping of (with?) handguns.
    It should be clear to everyone that in a situation of massive stress no pistol, revolver or taser and whatever else is a precise instrument. Neither a knife. The weak point is and will always be the human being. Thank you for emphasizing this.

    Best wishes


    I’m a slight little bit concerned and I hope you managed to go on vacation yet again with your wife. If that’s the case – have fun 🙂

  17. Anonymous says:


    This has nothing to do with the blog, but it might brighten you day. The 86rh annual pony swim.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I think there has been a large rush to judgement in the Ferguson case. You have the liberal side yelling for justice, but they mean finding the officer guilty. Then you have the other side that says the young man was a thug. Only the Officer and some witnesses know what happened and the Officer is innocent until he’s found guilty by a jury. The left want to forget about a trail and just say that he is guilty no matter what the facts show. The media is not helping with this at all. They are just trying to get ratings and trying to push their ideology that says “All police are bad and all white police are racist.” I wish people would wait and see what all of the facts are before they come to these conclusions.

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