Law Enforcement and the Utility of Force...Why Cops Can't Shoot Like the Lone Ranger?

Every time there is a police related shooting, I hear questions: Why did they have to kill him? Why did they shoot him with lethal force? Why did they not shoot the gun out of his hand? How about hitting him in the leg or just wounding him? All questions asked for reasons I feel are related to a serious lack of understanding of what police officers can and cannot do when it comes to life- threatening circumstances and handling their weapons.

First, let’s look at our profession. The law enforcement profession wants to keep things on a need to know basis and “law enforcement sensitive”. The knowledge of what we do, why and how we do it is open to public access via the internet, and hence subject to various opinions and misinterpretation. So why not explain it? Explaining our actions will help the public understand how, when and why we use force. I say we must talk openly about how difficult the utilization of force is, and why it is difficult to implement flawlessly.

Second, let’s look at our society. The citizenry have a high and nearly impossible standard when it comes to cops, use of force, and our ability to deal with conflict and violence. Much of this belief is formed by media coverage of incidents where a weapon is fired. In the movies and on television, the good cop never misses, even at great distances, impossible angles and while in pursuit of a moving target. The TV cop can, like the Lone Ranger, shoot the gun out of the bad guys hand from the back of the horse and always gets his man (and never the horse!). Hell, in the movies a sniper can put a round through the scope of an adversary’s rifle and bullets can turn corners around cover to get their man. The fact of the matter is, in reality, “it isn’t that easy” yet it remains the expectation. The cops I know got into the business of policing to help others. Somewhere, somehow that fact gets lost when cops must shoot in order to protect and serve. Below are some myths about police, use of force by law enforcement, and police shootings, along with my opinion of the truth as I see it that is critically important for the public to understand. For the sake of this article my focus is the street cop.

Myth: All cops are highly trained.

Reality: Most cops are not highly trained. Most go to a police academy from 12-26 weeks (it varies throughout the country) and then, if they are lucky, get one week of training each year to update their skills. A street cop is expected to act in a professional manner in high pressure situations, including gun fights, as if they are highly trained. The fact is that street cops resort to force in less than 1% of his encounters nationwide. There remains a great gap between what’s expected of law enforcement and what they are actually prepared for.

Yes, there are specialized units that are indeed highly trained, but these units are few and far between and the fact is most police responses are at a patrol level where the majority of us cop’s work. Despite the honest intentions and the great job they do protecting and serving, the fact is most of what they do is learned through experience. By experience I am not talking about time on the job, although time on the job as a law enforcement officer is an honorable thing; I mean lessons learned in violent conflict. It takes strength of character on part of the profession and individuals within the law enforcement to bridge the gap between training and effectiveness. The difference cops make day to day in the lives of others is by far much more positive than negative. The reality is cops do not get into gun fights daily, monthly or yearly. The fact is that most cops, whether in large cities and small towns, never fire their weapons in the line of duty throughout their careers, emphasizing the need for bettered trained cops.

Myth: Cops carry guns so they can shoot accurately.

Reality: Many cops struggle to pass their firearms training requirement while in the academy and in their re-qualifications afterward. The academies focus on efficiently getting recruits through their training with a passing score of 80%. This may be efficient, but the critical question is, is it an effective way to prepare an officer for the type of conflict and violence he may face on the street?

Most cops get about 1 week of firearms training in the academy. This consists of basic firearms training, learning how to safely handle a firearm and shooting at a target that does not shoot back. Officers may receive another week of what is called “applied patrol procedures” where they may or may not use free play exercises (role-playing) and simmunitions (training bullets) to help develop the ability to interact, access threats, make decisions and take action, including shooting at walking, talking and threatening targets in simulated real world pressure. One week divided by the numerous officers that attend the academy, it is plain to see little time is devoted to developing anything but a basic understanding of the concepts involved. Quite frankly, kids on the high school football team get far more training than cops do to develop critical skills. Some cops may practice self initiative and continue to develop themselves at a higher level, but most do not.

Myth: Procedures, if followed, help a cop do what’s right in dangerous and deadly situations.

Reality: False! It is what we want to believe because we are taught that procedures help make us better what we do. This may be true when outcomes are known, such as using a plan to build something. In a linear, defined system of building a home, for example, procedures are very effective. But in the non-linear, complex and uncertain world of conflict and violence where outcomes are unpredictable, check lists and procedures create more of a problem. Why? Because in a violent encounter cops trying to stick with a procedure or plan that does not apply to the situation they are in. To be effective, a cop needs to be able to gather information on the fly and adapt to changing conditions as they unfold. This takes individual imitative and the ability to apply what he knows to the circumstances. Policies and procedures that take initiative away can be detrimental to resolving a dangerous situation.

The psychology and physiology of violent conflict create changes in the way we think and act. It also changes how we perceive and think about the situation at hand. When time is short and risk is high, survival stress mechanisms are automatically and subconsciously activated. This changes thinking from the forebrain to the midbrain where thinking is more intuitive and judgments must be made rapidly. In these situations, we do not process information as we do when we review a case from the comfort of our seats watching a video or reading a report or news article. It is often said that a picture and video is worth a thousand words, this may have an element of truth, but the stark reality of it is that it does not capture all of the details involved in a violent encounter. It cannot catch what’s going through the mind of a cop nor his adversaries, nor can it assess the danger in any particular instance. This is a critical missing link in the process of understanding and reviewing use of force incidents. This is critically important to keep in mind as we seek to better understand why cops do what they do and bridge the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Bridging the gap between Myth and Reality

If we are to attempt to understand law enforcement and their mission to protect and serve, first we must try and understand the holistic side of conflict, or how conflict and violence unfolds and determining the best methods for dealing with it. We must also attempt to understand how human beings (cops are humans, too) respond to and deal with violence and conflict. We must ask ourselves how well we train them in the critical skills of decision-making, threat assessment, use of firearms and link that training to the actions they take. Unlike in the movies and on television, there is no “take two, take three, and take four” in real violent encounters; no producer to say ‘lets do this again’. The reality is our perception today as a society is based on a false knowledge of what it takes to deal with and win in a violent conflict. To do this, we must always strive to learn, unlearn and re-learn what we know and apply our methods and strategy not only to past circumstances, but also in how we review them. Then, and only then, can we develop more effective cops on the street.