(reprinted by permission)
One of the projects I pursue in my off-duty time is researching and writing about incidents that involve the use of deadly force by, and deadly assaults upon law enforcement officers. Most of this work is focused on a select group of federal agencies, but along the way I have gathered a considerable amount of information on a broader segment of local and state agencies as well. To date I have compiled detailed documentation on several hundred such incidents.
In the course of working on this project one thing has become very clear. A significant percentage of the officers involved in these types of incidents survive for reasons other than good tactics and skills. In a word, much of their success can best be attributed to luck. In far too many cases officers have either failed to properly respond with sufficient force (including deadly force), or they have employed poor tactics, judgement, or skills, but have survived anyway, because they were either lucky or their assailants employed even worse tactics and skills than they did.
This seems to be more common in the police field than many would like to admit. I’ve discussed this with others who are engaged in similar research, and found that I am not alone in my conclusion.
This is not to deride the police profession or police officers, individually. Rather, it is simply to make the point that our own survival skills often fall far short of levels required to control the hazardous environments in which we live and work.
An interesting side light of this research—and the central theme of this essay—is the finding that we frequently fail to critically evaluate tactics, judgement, or skills in the aftermath of these incidents. There is a strong tendency to conclude that “all is well that ends well,” and dismiss errors made. I’ve seen this occur time and again.
Of the several hundred incidents I’ve documented where officers were faced with a deadly threat, only a few have included a response with the actual use of deadly force. I would estimate that less than ten percent of legitimate “shoot situations” are met with officers actually employing deadly force. The rest of the time they hold their fire until after the deadly threat has passed (luckily surviving), or otherwise fail to seek adequate cover or employ proper defensive tactics or skills. Similar patterns are revealed in incidents that properly call for the use of less-than-lethal force. What is more startling is that remedial or disciplinary measures are almost never imposed for an officer’s failure to properly assess the hazards of the situation and to respond accordingly (please note that I am not talking about outright dereliction of duty). The sentiment seems to be “all is well that ends well.” This is often true even in cases where the officer and his or her superiors openly acknowledge that a “shoot” situation did clearly exist. It seems to invariably be the case that an officer’s reluctance to properly respond is excused (or even sanctioned), since everything “turned out OK, anyway,” and after all “…nobody got hurt.”
Only once in my eighteen-year career in law enforcement can I recall an officer being disciplined for failing to shoot someone. This particular incident occurred while I was a patrol officer with a sheriff’s department in Colorado. As I recall, one officer got caught under the sights of a felon’s handgun, while a back-up officer failed to seize upon an opportunity he had to shoot the bad guy. Fortunately, the felon was talked into dropping his firearm, and the incident was resolved without gunfire. Nevertheless, the back-up officer was strongly criticized for his failure to take immediate and proper action to stop the deadly threat. The officer was disciplined and directed to participate in remedial judgement-shooting training. That incident left a strong impression in my mind, and reinforced my respect for that department.
In preparing for this article I contacted a number of other law enforcement agencies to see if they had any established policies calling for the imposition of remedial or disciplinary measures for an officer’s failure to employ sufficient (including deadly) force in response to a demonstrated threat. All of those agencies contacted had written policies and/or sanctions specifically addressing the excessive use of force, and more specifically, any use of deadly force (I expected this, since, along with other procedures, it is now standard practice for most law enforcement agencies to place an officer who has been involved in a shooting on immediate administrative leave, pending a formal review of the incident). But none had similar policies or guidelines specifically addressing the insufficient use of force.
We are constantly trained in “shoot-don’t shoot” scenarios. We utilize a wide range of sophisticated training tools to reinforce our judgement shooting skills; from F.A.T.S-II systems to paint-gun training and other shooting simulators. All are intended to assist us in developing our ability to quickly assess deadly threats and properly react. Yet, time and again when we get out on the street, we take those same deadly threat situations and abandon our training; taking extra chances and hesitating far longer than we would under simulated scenarios. And, for the most part, we still manage to survive. In an ironic but predictable twist, we may often be commended as “heroes” for taking just such chances, and unnecessarily exposing ourselves (or others) to life threatening consequences.
For the record, I must include myself among those who have, on more than one occasion, taken unnecessary and foolish risks. On one occasion, early in my career, I tackled a knife-wielding youth who was wildly attacking passing motorists on a busy expressway. The youth was successfully subdued and taken into custody, and then booked into a mental treatment facility. I was taken to the local emergency room for treatment of the knife wounds I had sustained. I didn’t even realize I’d been wounded until after the suspect was handcuffed, when someone pointed out that I was bleeding. At the time it had seemed like a good idea to attempt to physically subdue the subject without hurting him through the use of a baton or firearm. I was definitely pumped up, both physically and emotionally, and I’d felt confident that I could safely overpower the young man. It was exciting. But in retrospect I, too, must acknowledge that my judgement was flawed. I’d failed to adequately assess the threat presented by this suspect who held two butcher knives; one in each hand. Certainly, no one bothered to mention that I’d been foolish to tackle an armed suspect, and that a higher level of force would undoubtedly have been more appropriate, and entirely justified.
Police managers tolerate this pattern because they would much rather deal with a rash of close calls than with a wave of use-of-force complaints or officer-involved shootings. This is particularly true in this post “Rodney King” era. The events of the past year have unquestionably done immeasurable harm to the reputation of American law enforcement. But tactics, performance, and judgement that markedly contribute to our endangerment must not be accepted, much less endorsed.
A strong case can be made to support the claim that a more accurate police assessment and response to most life-threatening encounters would properly result in increased levels of the use-of-force. This statement may alarm and offend many readers. The very concept surely smacks in the face of contemporary sentiment about police and the use of force, as depicted by the media in both commercial and editorial markets. At the same time, a strong case can also be made to support the conclusion that many deadly-force situations could actually be avoided through the application of better tactics (see interview with Daytona Beach P.D. Chief Mike Chitwood, below).
The dynamics surrounding the proper use of force, especially deadly force, are widely misunderstood. This is evidenced by the number of people who still honestly believe that police officers should try to “shoot the gun out of a suspect’s hand”(!), or that it is never proper to shoot an unarmed suspect or one armed with “only a knife” or a club. Such misconceptions about the proper use of force are only reinforced by many of the reality-based “macho cops” TV shows. But remember, high-risk makes for high-drama, where sound tactics and high levels of control may not. Such attitudes are further exhibited and perpetuated by the all too common belief that police officers are paid to put up with abuse, and that taking chances and being assaulted is just a part of the job.
Such notions are well answered by the comments recently offered by an appeals court, ruling on a case brought by a man convicted of robbery. The felon sought damages for injuries (broken legs) he sustained in the course of his own apprehension. He alleged that his captor, a taxi driver, had used excessive force by pursuing him in his cab and then pinning him (the robber) against a wall, resulting in his apprehension. The court properly overturned the lower-court judgement against the driver, noting that suspects “…do not have a right to a fair fight…” during the commission of their crimes or when they resist apprehension!
This commentary is not intended to belittle the heroics of those, under field conditions, who elect to necessarily risk their own lives for lack of an available alternative. Heroism and “valor” have their place, and we would be a lesser society without such deeds. But heroics are not always accompanied by good judgement and sound tactics. Good judgment, skills, and sound survival tactics, alone (with or without heroics) deserve far more recognition and award than they are commonly given.
It is natural and proper that we recognize and credit officers who have faced death and survived. This serves to both acknowledge the inherent (and usually unrecognized) dangers of the law enforcement profession, itself, as well as to assist in the necessary healing process that often follows such trauma. But a distinction should be made between incidents survived primarily out of good fortune, and those survived through the application of sound judgement, honed skills, and superior tactics.
When we survive a deadly assault primarily because of luck, or because of indecisiveness or incompetence on the part of our assailant, we should not become complacent and accept our actions as proper just because “no one got hurt.” We need to resist the temptation to glamorize and emulate the acts of those who survive a deadly threat for reasons of luck and good fortune. The objective of officer survival training is to reduce our reliance upon luck. When we evaluate a survived high-risk incident we should ask whether “nobody got hurt” because of our actions, or in spite of our actions. These are difficult, and sometimes unpleasant and unpopular assessments to make. But they are critical to the learning process and advancement of professionalism in the law enforcement and survival field. We must learn from our mistakes as well as our successes, and be ever mindful of the fact that not all is well that ends well.
Author’s Note for 2019:
Readers are encouraged to listen to the online NPR “Radio Lab” interview with Daytona Beach P.D. Chief Mike Chitwood (starts approx. minute 31:00 – 32:00). How a police chief instituted better recruitment, training, and tactics that dramatically reduced the number of Officer Involved Shootings.