Police-on-Police Shootings Task Force Testimony of Deputy Chief William G. Brooks Wellesley PD

I want to thank Governor Patterson for establishing this task force, and the members of the task force for their service. In spite of the fact that law enforcement officers have tragically been victims of accidental shootings at the hands of their brother and sister officers for more than a century, this undertaking is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive examination of police-on-police shootings in our nation’s history. The breadth of your research is extraordinary, and I hope your recommendations will be embraced by the entire law enforcement community.

Background

I have been a police officer for over 32 years. During that time, I led a detective squad for 14 years and have for the past 22 years led a multi-agency drug task force on a part-time basis. I have always believed that, in addition to the traditional threat of being assaulted by a criminal, my detectives and I were in danger at some level of being shot by police officers who did not recognize us. And so, years ago, I sought to understand the tragedy of police-on-police shootings, or friendly fire.

In addition to my other duties, I have served as a police academy instructor for over 20 years. For more than ten years, I have conducted training that included the topic of friendly fire. I teach a half-day course on off-duty issues to police recruits that includes instruction on home firearms safety, off-duty encounters, the carrying of police identification, carrying a firearm off-duty and friendly fire. I have also taught about friendly fire during two week programs for new detectives and new narcotics officers, as well as at the annual conference of the New England Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association.

I must acknowledge that when I first began teaching about friendly fire, I found that the best information had been developed by the New York City Police Department. The NYPD academy provided me with their lesson plan and with a videotape that I still use today.

The Causes of Friendly Fire

For friendly fire to occur, two factors must first be in place; a law enforcement officer must be in plainclothes, and the officer must have his/her[1] firearm drawn. This is the reason that most victims of friendly fire were either off-duty or working a plainclothes assignment when they were shot.[2] It should be noted that both factors must be present. An officer who is in plainclothes but has his weapon holstered is highly unlikely to be a victim.

Because there will always be circumstances where a plainclothes or off-duty officer will need to draw his weapon, there will always be a risk of friendly fire. The bad news is that there is no easy answer to the problem, no switch we can flip. But the good news is that there are ways to decrease the frequency of these shootings; there are things we can do.

Perhaps the most effective way to understand the dilemma of friendly fire is to break down a police encounter chronologically. In doing so, one should examine the encounter from “both sides of the gun”, in other words from the perspective of the officer challenging a person he believes to be a threat, as well as from the perspective of the plainclothes or off-duty officer who is being challenged. Rather than using the more accurate terms of “challenging officer” and “challenged officer”, I will refer here to the challenging officer as the “patrol officer” and the officer being challenged as the “plainclothes officer”.

The first issue is something referred to above. A patrol officer who sees a man running with a gun in his hand is often struck with the impression that the man must have done something wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with that perception; it might make the officer cautious and serve to protect him from harm. In fact a citizen might think the same thing, and citizens have called the police to report a gunman who turned out to be a plainclothes officer. But the officer’s perception that the gunman must be a criminal can also be problematic if the man with the gun turns out to be an innocent citizen or a law enforcement officer.

Second, the sight of a man with a gun can cause the patrol officer to focus on the gun itself. This factor, called “weapon focus” in studies on eyewitness memory, can cause the officer to focus so intently on the other man’s firearm that he misses other cues or details of his surroundings.[3] Psychologists studying the phenomenon inattentional blindness have routinely demonstrated that an observer, in this case the patrol officer, can completely miss a visible but unexpected object such as a police radio in the hand of a gunman or a police shield clipped to his coat.[4]

The third problem has to do with the manner in which a handgun is sighted. As anyone who has trained with a firearm knows, a shooter must align his eye, the weapon’s rear sight, the front sight, and the target. If all four points are in line, the bullet should strike the target. But the way the human eye works, one cannot focus on the sights and the target at the same time. One must be blurry if the other is to be in focus. Someone unfamiliar with firearms can try this out himself by pointing to an object in the distance. You can put your finger in focus and the object will be blurry, or you can focus on the object and your finger will blur. But you cannot focus on both at the same time. The same is true when you hold a handgun on a target, as a handgun can only be accurately sighted if the sights are in focus. If the sights are in focus, details about the target, such as facial features or even a police shield hanging around the target’s neck, may not be discernable. This might explain how an off-duty Providence police officer could have been shot and killed by a police academy classmate who knew him well but did not recognize him.[5]

The sighting of a handgun causes a second and perhaps even more obvious problem. Police officers are taught to aim their weapons at “center of mass”, or at the center of the visible target. The purpose of this is to enhance the likelihood of hitting the target. In most cases, the center of mass is the chest area of the target. But as soon as they pull their weapon up to that level, their hands obstruct their view of the bottom portion of the target. Again, a novice can simulate this problem by drawing an imaginary handgun and pointing it at a target. As soon as you get the weapon on target, you can no longer see below its chest area. So if the target were a police officer with a shield on his belt, or perhaps even hanging around his neck, the shield would not be visible to an officer properly sighting his handgun.

The fourth issue has to do with whether or not the patrol officer seeks cover before confronting the gunman. While most police officers view cover as something that will protect them from incoming rounds, cover also affords an officer more time to make a decision about whether or not to fire. If an officer is out in the open and the gunman begins to turn in his direction, the officer may believe that he has no time to wait, that he must fire now. But if the officer is behind sufficient cover as the subject begins to turn, he may have the time to shout additional orders. Unfortunately, cover is not always present or readily attainable.

The fifth aspect is the “verbal challenge”, the order that an officer gives to a suspect before or instead of firing. While television depicts police officers yelling all sorts of odd commands to suspects, real life law enforcement officers should be required to use the verbal challenge of “Police! Don’t move!” The word “police” identifies the police officer, while “don’t move” is intended to freeze the action. Even if the person holding the handgun is a police officer, so long as he obeys the command to not move, he should be safe.

The close variation of “Police! Drop the weapon!” should be avoided as it commands the subject to do something immediately, rather than freezing the action. This is a particular problem if the person being challenged is a police officer because officers are trained not to drop their weapons. This unintentional non-compliance may heighten a patrol officer’s fear that the subject is hostile.

The sixth factor in the examination of friendly fire shootings is perhaps the most difficult to correct. The NYPD in its training materials has dubbed it “reflexive spin”. Reflexive spin refers to the tendency of an officer who hears a verbal challenge to turn towards the officer issuing it. For instance, a patrol officer sees a man with a gun in his hands and yells, “Police! Don’t move!”. The man with the gun, who is an off-duty officer pursuing a suspect, turns to answer the officer - to identify himself - and is shot.

The real issue with reflexive spin is not that the plainclothes officer turns to identify himself, it is the fact that his arms swing in the patrol officer’s direction as he does so. If a person with his arms outstretched turns to speak to you, his arms will turn as his head does whether he realizes it or not. The patrol officer, who is obviously concerned primarily with the “suspect’s” hands and the direction in which the weapon is pointing, perceives the movement of the arms as a threat and shoots. The shooting can occur quite quickly if the patrol officer has already sighted his weapon and readied himself to fire.

It is a matter of human nature that when someone speaks to you, or even yells for you not to move, you turn to face the person who has spoken. But it is this sudden and unexpected move of the hand holding the firearm that has often been described as the event that caused a uniformed officer to fire his weapon. Unfortunately, this reflex has sometimes been described in the press as the victim officer not obeying the instructions of an officer who gave clear commands. While it may seem unnatural, officers must train themselves to lock their arms in place whenever they hear a verbal challenge.

The seventh and last issue explored here is unintentional non-compliance by the victim officer. In some cases, the patrol officer has challenged the plainclothes officer, but the plainclothes officer inexplicably disobeys the instructions. In the case of the death of Providence, RI police officer Cornel Young, uniformed officers had arrived on the scene and yelled for Young, who was off-duty and in plainclothes, to drop his weapon. But Young continued to advance, pointing his weapon in the general direction of the subject of the radio call. Young was killed by gunfire from the two officers. While he must have heard their commands, it is clear he did not realize they were talking to him.[6] In cases such as this, plainclothes officers do not intentionally disobey instructions from patrol officers. They simply don’t realize that the orders are meant for them.

As noted above, the issues behind friendly fire are complex and varied. There is no simple solution, no switch to flip. But there are steps law enforcement agencies can take to protect officers and decrease the occurrences of these tragic shootings. These steps exist in the areas of training and policy.

Training

Police training occurs in a variety of settings. New police officers attend academies, and veteran officers receive training at roll calls or by being taken off their shift for lengthier sessions.

Police Academies:

A block of instruction on the dangers of friendly fire should be taught at every U.S. police academy. Topics within the block of instruction should include awareness of the presence of plainclothes and off-duty officers, exposure to the issues of weapon focus and inattentional blindness, the two-fold importance of cover, proper verbal challenge, the limitations of the traditional sight picture, and reflexive spin.

On the topic of verbal challenge, officers should be warned that a plainclothes officer may not realize that commands are meant for him. An officer who confronts a subject who ignores a command to stop can reinforce the command by describing the person he is talking to. “Hey Yankees jacket, Police! Don’t move!” This should cause the plainclothes officer to realize that the patrol officer is talking to him. Additionally, officers should be instructed that a plainclothes officer will be reluctant to drop his weapon and that there may be a need to verify his identity. Telling a person who claims to be a law enforcement officer that you need to verify his identity and then instructing him to “holster up” or place the weapon on the ground and step back will help settle a tense situation. Once the firearm is out of the hands of the person being challenged, the patrol officer can ask him a question that only a police officer could answer. The NYPD uses such a protocol, and discussing potential questions and answers with recruits will ready them for this situation.

In addition to the specific tactics described above, friendly fire shootings from across the country should be explored in detail so that recruits develop an appreciation of the issue.

Aside from classroom instruction, friendly fire should figure in scenario training at all police academies. Some police academies use “airsoft” weapons that shoot small plastic BB’s, or converted firearms that shoot “simmunitions” pellets. It would be helpful for police officers undergoing this type of training to be exposed to armed subjects who turn out to be police officers.

Finally, academy instructors must remember to train from “both sides of the gun”. Training new recruits not to shoot detectives is simply not enough if those officers will carry firearms while off-duty. Officers must be trained in tactics that will be effective whether they are challenging a subject or taking enforcement action while off-duty. See Tactics for Plainclothes and Off-Duty Officers below.

Roll Call Training:

Most police officers start their shifts by attending roll calls or shift briefings. Friendly fire refresher training can easily fit into a block of ten to fifteen minutes and should be given every six months or so. Teaching friendly fire only at recruit academies is insufficient as officers may soon forget that it is a reality in the field.

Officers who have never received formal training on friendly fire should first attend a lengthier training session. For this purpose, a stand-alone course on friendly fire should be developed and made available to U.S. law enforcement agencies. Because the tactics used by plainclothes officers could be exploited by criminals, the program and associated materials should be marked Law Enforcement Sensitive – For Official Use Only and be appropriately protected.

Firing Range:

Sound tactics that could avert the shooting of a plainclothes officer should be imbedded into all tactical training, including firearms training on the range. Most law enforcement officers spend several days each year at the firing range. The focus of much of this training is on how quickly the officer can get his weapon out of the holster and get the first shot off. This training is beneficial and the skill could save the officer’s life, but firearms training should be developed that tests an officer’s perceptions before he fires his weapon. Simmunitions training, or the use of firearms simulators, may also fit this need.

Another aspect missing on most firing ranges is lateral movement and use of available cover. Officers are for the most part taught to stand flat-footed as they draw their weapons and fire. Lateral movement to cover, or even movement slightly forward and to one side, would train officers to draw on their target while seeking effective cover. The downside of this type of training is that it can be dangerous if conducted with more than one or two officers at a time, so it can become expensive.

Some police firearms instructors fail to include verbalization in their range training. At the range instructor’s command, officers simply draw and fire. There is an old adage in police training that you will do in the field as you were trained to do on the range, so having officers draw and fire in silence may fail to prepare them to verbalize during a confrontation in the field. The best technique would be to require officers to yell “Police! Don’t move!” as they draw and sight their weapons.

Training for Plainclothes Officers:

Officers assigned to detective squads, anti-crime units and multi-agency task forces face particular risks because they work out of uniform. Officers assigned to such units should be required to attend friendly fire training within the first few months of their assignment.

Tactics for Plainclothes and Off-Duty Officers

The study of friendly fire shootings and the reasons they occur can generate useful tactical recommendations for police officers who work in plainclothes or carry their firearms while off-duty.

Officers should understand that while a uniformed officer who draws his weapon may place himself in a safer position, the drawing of a firearm by an officer who is out of uniform exposes him to the risk of friendly fire, not only from responding officers, but from armed citizens as well. As such, weapons should be pulled only when absolutely necessary and should be quickly re-holstered once the threat has passed.

If an officer is carrying a firearm, he should have his shield in his pocket, in a case that allows him to get at it and display it quickly. Too many shield cases are made with flaps that make them difficult to manipulate with one hand. The shield case should either be one that has the shield on the outside, or one that can be flipped open one-handed using gross motor skills. Obviously the shield should always be carried on the opposite side from the weapon so the officer can pull it out with one hand while holding the weapon in the other. Due the effect of weapon focus discussed above, an officer drawing his firearm should make an effort to hold the shield in close proximity to his firearm so that anyone who sees the gun will see the shield too. On the other hand, if the plainclothes officer is being challenged, he should not reach for anything without the permission of the officer challenging him.

Officers who take enforcement action while in plainclothes should use a radio to announce themselves and to provide a description of their clothing whenever possible. This warns other units, including those from other agencies that are monitoring the local channel, that plainclothes officers are in the area. Dispatchers who hear detective units signing off at an active scene should also announce that plainclothes officers are present.

Shouting “Police!“ is even more important for officers who are out of uniform than it is for uniformed officers because it lets everyone in the area know that they are law enforcement. Some plainclothes officers, however, identify themselves only once. This can be problematic if they move from one location to another or if patrol officers arrive afterwards. As visual cues are often missed, plainclothes officers should continue to verbally identify themselves as the police throughout any enforcement event.

Any officer who hears a verbal challenge by another officer must lock his arms in place and remain still incase the officer is talking to him. Officers must fight the natural tendency to turn towards the voice issuing the commands.

When participating in a search for a subject, officers who are not in uniform should team up with a uniformed officer, or even another plainclothes officer. Most friendly fire victims were alone when they were shot. Plainclothes officers participating in enforcement events should wear raid jackets.

Finally, regardless of rank or agency affiliation, the uniformed officer is always in command during an armed confrontation. Plainclothes officers should obey the commands of an officer who is in uniform.

Policy Issues

Some law enforcement agencies have instituted policies, orders or procedures which are either designed to prevent friendly fire or that have that effect. Many are focused on the work of plainclothes squads. Below are a few examples.

Uniformed officers should not merely be thrown into plainclothes without at least preliminary instruction about armed encounters. They should have a basic understanding of the perils of plainclothes work before being assigned to it.

Patrol units working the area of an anticipated enforcement event, such as a raid or buy-bust operation, should be notified and given clear instructions. If possible, they should attend the briefing and be in direct radio contact with plainclothes units. Briefings should include instruction on confrontation protocols and the introduction of all plainclothes and undercover officers. All officers not in an undercover role should be attired in raid jackets.

Where available, plainclothes units should utilize event de-confliction programs. These programs work by gathering information about enforcement events just prior to their execution, and checking a database to determine whether other law enforcement agencies are targeting the same subject or planning enforcement events for the same time and location.

Plainclothes officers should use portable emergency lights in their vehicles to signal police presence during a takedown. This will prevent patrol units from happening upon the event and mistaking it for a robbery, carjacking or other violent crime.

Several decades ago, the NYPD created a system called “color of the day” whereby plainclothes officers of its anti-crime unit wore a brightly colored item – a different color every day, hence the name - to signify they were police officers. While the system was of some benefit in New York City, it might be less effective in areas populated by many smaller police agencies.

Undercover officers should not participate in the arrest of their target. The signal to arrest a subject should be given only after the undercover officer has disengaged from the subject. Otherwise, responding officers may mistake the undercover officer for a subject.

When a dispatcher learns that plainclothes or off-duty officers have arrived or are en route to the scene of an enforcement action, they should broadcast an advisory that plainclothes officers are in the area. This procedure heightens the awareness of responding officers.

Uniformed officers should wear hats whenever outside their patrol vehicles as the hat provides an easily identifiable silhouette.

Some departments place signs in their buildings to remind officers about the dangers of friendly fire. The NYPD has featured the verbal challenge “Police! Don’t move!” on stickers displayed on every officer’s locker as a reminder.

Law enforcement agencies are cautioned against attempting to address friendly fire merely by issuing new policies. As stated here, the issue of friendly fire is complex and it cannot be sufficiently cured through policy alone. The issuance of policies without training may leave the false impression that the problem has been sufficiently addressed.

In the wake of friendly fire shootings, some police departments scale back their mandatory off-duty carry policies. Clearly, if there are fewer officers carrying firearms off-duty, there will be fewer opportunities for friendly fire. But such a policy shift does nothing for the officer who chooses to carry off-duty even though he is not mandated to do so. He can still become a victim if circumstances present themselves and the confrontation goes poorly. In addition, such a policy shift may ignore the fact that lives have been saved by armed off-duty officers.

Conclusion

Friendly fire is a complex issue that must be addressed through awareness, training and thoughtful policy. The work of the New York Police-on-Police Task Force is unparalleled and should be widely applauded.


[1] For ease of reading all further references will be to males.

[2] There have been rare instances where a uniformed officer was shot, but these typically occur in low light settings and are more likely to occur if the officer is not wearing a hat. Uniformed officers can somewhat protect themselves from friendly fire by wearing their hats, as the hat provides an easily identifiable silhouette.

[3] Loftus, E.F., Loftus, G.R., & Messo, J. (1987). Some facts about weapon focus. Law and Human Behavior, 11, 55-62

[4] Arien Mack & Irvin Rock, MIT (1998). Inattentional Blindness; An Overview.

[5] Officer Cornel Young, Jr. of the Providence Police Department was shot and killed January 28, 2000 by two uniformed officers, one of whom was Officer Carlos A. Saraiva, his classmate from the police academy.

[6] “Q: What did he do when you shouted the commands? A: He paid no mind to me. It … appeared that he was ignoring me and he was intent on walking towards the operator of the vehicle. He – there was no break in his stride. He just walked. He continued to walk that way.” Grand Jury testimony of Carlos A. Saraiva, Providence Police Department, page 1246