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Editor's note: Below is an in-depth analysis of the Lakewood shootings. It's advised that you read Brian McKenna's Officer Down: Legacy of Lakewood before you continue.
Reluctance to Use Deadly Force
We don’t know why Officer Owens decided to engage Clemmons with a non-lethal technique instead of shooting him when he noticed that the gun was jammed, but there are two possibilities, either or both of which could similarly impact the decisions of other officers in similar situations. The first of these was the fact that Officer Owens was a very strong, athletic officer with a very high level of proficiency in control tactics. Officers tend to be either gun oriented or hands-on oriented when it comes to use of force, and it appears that Officer Owens was solidly in the hands-on group. Since we all tend to gravitate to what we know best in a crisis, it would only be natural for a hands-on officer like Officer Owens to attempt a disarming or other physical control technique.
This dangerous problem can be alleviated by drilling regularly in lethal ECQ techniques so that they become conditioned responses when needed. Mental imagery exercises that include countermeasures against armed ECQ attacks are another option. Although mental imagery is best used in conjunction with regular training, it can be used in lieu of training if necessary. Finally, by working lethal ECQ techniques into interactive defensive tactics training like Redman exercises, officers can learn to more quickly and effectively make the transition from the non-lethal to lethal force when needed.
The other possible reason why an officer might chose not to use deadly force in a situation like Officer Owens’ is uncertainty about when deadly force is legally justified. In this case, Clemmons’ gun jammed after his second shot, which made it appear that he no longer posed an immediate lethal threat. Despite the fact that the gun could be brought back into action very quickly with a simple tap & rack, it was temporarily out of action, albeit for only a second or two. Many officers in a situation like this may hesitate to use lethal force and/or decide on a non-lethal option instead because of reluctance to use deadly force against an “unarmed” suspect.
This is not surprising when we consider the way many officers are trained in the use of deadly force. There is often an overemphasis on liability issues, and seldom are officers told that there are times when deadly force can and should be used against an assailant who is rapidly readying himself to use deadly force but is not yet immediately able to do so. In this case, for example, Clemmons’ gun may have been jammed, but he still presented a deadly threat, thereby justifying a lethal response. Similarly, consider the example of an officer engaged in a gunfight with a suspect who is running to cover. Would he be obliged to withhold fire until his assailant reached cover, got into position, and pointed his gun at him again?
Obviously, we have a legal and moral obligation to be reasonable in our use of force, but there is no legal requirement to unnecessarily put ourselves into deadly peril in order to make it a fair fight. In fact, the courts recognize that police officers must make snap decisions in high stress situations, and require only that the officer’s action be reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. Nevertheless, for many officers this is not as clear as it ought to be, which can lead to confusion and poor decision-making in difficult situations.
To combat this serious problem, it is imperative that officers be thoroughly trained in the legal issues related to the use of deadly force. This training must include a clear explanation of when deadly force is justified and when it is not, but it shouldn’t stop there. It is also important to require the trainees to analyze actual court decisions in which the legality of the involved officers’ action were brought into question, and then discuss the courts’ conclusions in the classroom. Such exercises are vital, because they work the brain in a way that enables the learner to think more clearly, become more mentally flexible, and make better decisions when faced with tough real-world choices. Ideally, officers should also be tested on this information to ensure that they understand it and can apply it on the street.
Moreover, the knowledge gained in the classroom should be enhanced and reinforced with computer firearms simulations and/or reality based training. This last point is especially important, because classroom knowledge may prove inadequate under the incredible stress of a real-life lethal encounter. Officers need a working knowledge that will hold up on the street, where—with their lives on the line and only milliseconds to spare—they must decide whether or not to pull the trigger.
Finally, it is important to ensure that department policy is not only in line with the law, but that it is not overly restrictive. Policy should be flexible enough to allow officers to use their discretion, within the limits of the law of course, in unusual or extreme situations. For example, many departments forbid officers to shoot into moving vehicles. While this is a reasonable restriction as a general rule, it is dangerous to demand that officers never shoot into a moving vehicle under any circumstances. The real world doesn’t work that way, and officers should not have to deal with such an unreasonable restriction when faced with a ton of hard steel racing straight at them in a real-world confrontation.
Assailants Armed with Backup Weapons
Clemmons’ commitment to preparation and violent action prompted him to arm himself with a backup gun, which proved to be a major factor in the disastrous outcome. Most armed criminals don’t carry backup weapons, but Violence Encounters, the well-known FBI study of violence against police officers, found that 27 percent of the offenders in the study carried a second handgun at least some of the time, and another 7 percent carried backup knives.14 This is a significant percentage, and the Lakewood shooting graphically illustrates how deadly an assailant armed with a backup weapon can be. Don’t quit when you find one weapon; always assume that there is at least one more. This advice was drilled into the now-retired generation of police officers at the academy, and it is still as valuable as it ever was.
Use of Deadly Force When an Innocent Party May be at Risk
The evidence indicates that Officer Richards probably chose to withhold fire until he got close to Clemmons, a decision that might well have cost him his life. Nevertheless, it appears that he had a very good reason for making that decision: If, as appears to have been the case, Officer Owens was engaged in an intense ECQ struggle with Clemmons, shooting any sooner would have put Owens at grave risk. It is very unlikely that any other officer would have taken a shot under such circumstances unless he was properly trained in how to do so safely. But again, such training is not widely available.
This kind of situation is one that entails a calculated risk. You must weigh the possibility of the assailant shooting you or partner against the risk that you will strike your partner with your gunfire. If it appears that your partner is at greater risk from his assailant than from you, you will have to act very quickly. Chose your target first, and make it a highly effective one like the temple or base of the skull. Make sure the angle of your shot will not put your partner in the line of fire, and then thrust your gun as close to your target as you can and fire. This action violates an important safety principle by putting your firearm dangerously close to your opponent where he can grab it, but you can’t afford to miss. And if you time it right, he will probably be focused on your partner when you make your move. Still, because of your close proximity to the attacker and the danger that your partner might suddenly be thrust into your line of fire, you must act as quickly as possible. Thrust your gun forward, fire without hesitation, and then immediate pull it back out of the suspect’s reach.
In the event that it is too risky to take a shot, you will have to try something else, like a full-power baton or flashlight blow to the assailant’s head or whatever it takes to incapacitate him as quickly as possible. As with the other ECQ techniques discussed earlier, you can attack his eyes or throat with a knife, improvise weapon, or empty hands. Whatever you do, do it quickly and at maximum force while staying ready to instantly deflect any counterattack. When possible, try to catch him off guard by attacking from an unexpected angle or behind, and/or while he is distracted by his struggle with your partner.
As other ECQ countermeasures, thorough one-on-one training with nonfunctioning weapons is needed in order to be properly prepared to execute these techniques effectively on the street. Mental imagery can also be used to reinforce this training and help prepare you to apply it on the street if needed.
Lastly, keep in mind that communication between partners is essential in situations like this. Officers who are fighting with armed suspects sometimes become so focused on the struggle that they forget to warn their partners about the weapon. Again, this is an issue that should be addressed in training by reinforcing proper communication in during all training exercises.
There is a lot of uncertainty about the fight between Officer Richards and Clemmons. We don't know any of the details with certainty, or exactly how Richards was disarmed. But we do know that he put up a valiant fight and managed to wound Clemmons before he was disarmed and killed.
We can also be reasonably certain that he drew his gun before he was disarmed.15 This is important, because it underscores the fact that many disarming occur during or after the draw. There is a tendency among some officers and departments to try to solve the problem of disarmings with high-security holsters while downplaying retention training, or even ignoring it altogether. In the process, some officers remain at significant risk of being disarmed while falsely believing that their holsters have all but eliminated the threat. The danger in this practice can be seen in a recent study of disarmings which found that the majority of officers in the study lost their guns during the draw stroke.16 The point here is clear: we need to focus more attention on weapon retention training, and put more emphasis on defending against disarming attempts that occur after the gun has been drawn.
This is not meant to imply that the Lakewood Police Department did not give adequate attention to weapon retention training. In fact, all its officers are well trained in current weapon retention techniques. So why was Officer Richards disarmed? Most likely, it was because conventional weapon retention techniques don’t always work. While they undoubtedly saved lives, they tend to involve complex, perishable skills that must be applied under exceedingly stressful conditions that are not always conducive to their proper execution.
Therefore, we need a simple, easily retained, easy-to-execute weapon retention technique to fall back on for those situations in which conventional techniques won’t work. In such cases, secure your gun solidly in place—whether in your hand or still holstered—and then counterattack. Attack key targets that will cause your opponent to instinctively react to protect them, such as the eyes, throat or groin, and then follow-up with another and another until you regain control of your weapon. An eye is often the best target to attack first, because it is fragile, usually easy to reach, and an organ that we instinctively defend without conscious thought. Don’t just poke him in the eye. Smash the tip of your thumb into just one, and dig in as hard as you can in order to get him to instinctively defend it so you can follow through by attacking another key target.
It is also important to remember that the ECQ shooting techniques discussed earlier in this analysis have built-in measures for protecting the officer’s firearm while neutralizing ECQ threats, as does the technique for shooting when others may be at risk. While we don’t know enough about Officer Richard's disarming to determine how applicable any of these techniques would have been to his situation, it is likely that they would have at least improved his chances of retaining control of his weapon, and the chances of other officers in similar situations retaining theirs as well. If learned thoroughly, practiced often, and combined with proper awareness and preplanning, these techniques will go a long way in helping to guard against this threat.
Cop Killer Mindset
Clemmons carried out his attack with a level of coldblooded calculation rarely seen in assaults on police officers. All cop killings are tragic and hard to comprehend, but this was worse. Fueled solely by burning hatred for the police, he came to the coffee shop with murder on his mind, and coolly executed his plan without mercy.
While it is very rare to come into contact with someone as brutally dedicated to violence as Clemmons was, we must never forget that the nature of police work demands that we cross paths with violence-prone individuals far more often than ordinary citizens do. And when we do, it is our job to deal with them. In addition, considering the alarming frequency of ambushes again law enforcement and rising threat of terrorism, we must assume that our chances of meeting up with someone like Clemmons are increasing. This realization should give us cause for healthy concern, but it must never be allowed to lead us to undue fear or fatalism. Rather, it should renew our commitment to work hard, train hard, be mentally prepared, and keep fighting no matter what.
Winning Mindset & Warrior Spirit
Neither the brutality of Clemmons’ attack nor its tragic outcome can detract from the courage displayed by the Lakewood officers. Sergeant Renninger and Officer Griswold never got the chance show their mettle, but Officers Owens and Richards did, and they fought with heroic determination despite the shock of the horrific scene unfolding before them. Sadly, no amount of courage could prevail against misfortune that morning, but they had fought hard and in so doing left us with a heroic example of how warriors face death.
We must never forget that the kind of fighting spirit shown by these officers will often pull us through when nothing else can. Unless bad luck overshadows all else as it did in this case, courage, when coupled with tenacity and focus, can be the driving force that propels us on to victory. Once the decision is made to go on the offensive, to fight back despite all else, everything changes. Fear becomes determination, desperate circumstances become opportunities, and far more often than not, defeat becomes victory.
How will we remember Tina Griswold, Mark Renninger, Ronnie Owens and Greg Richards? Will we simply mourn their passing and then go back to business as usual, or will we rise to the challenge? Are we willing to ask the tough questions their tragic deaths bring to light, find the tough answers to those questions, and then make the tough changes that have to be made? If we have the courage to do that, we can one day look up and say, “Thank you brothers; thank you sister. I’m a better, wiser, tougher cop today because of you.”