How should a police officer deal with an armed man who refuses to obey a police officer's orders to drop his gun? This was the question posed to the members of the Deadly Force Panel of Experts at this year's awesome annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) in Lombard, Ill. Tragedies have occurred when uniformed officers have responded to "shots fired" or "suspect with a gun" calls and have shot plainclothes or off-duty officers when the non-uniformed officer or detective turned toward them or failed to hear or heed their orders.
No less tragic are officers who may encounter a citizen lawfully carrying concealed who has produced a handgun (or long gun for that matter) to stop a criminal assault or robbery against them.
Mistake-of-fact shootings result in multiple ripples or fall-out results. The plainclothes or off-duty officer or armed citizen may get shot and wounded or killed, the uniformed officer must deal with the after effects of post-shooting, second-guessing and trauma; the real bad guy may not be stopped, financial and political liability may affix itself and questions of training and identification will probably arise.
These are complicated issues not easily answered that have plagued law enforcement for years. In the 1970s, a number of plainclothes officers were mistakenly shot by uniformed officers in New York City, prompting an examination of these issues. "Color of the day" armbands and "word of the day" challenge responses were briefed at roll-calls. This certainly posed a problem in an agency the size of NYPD, which could attempt a unified approach to the problem, but with task force members comprised of county, state and federal agents, as well as locals operating in plainclothes all over the country, the scope of the problem is immense.
A suspect with a gun in their hand is a serious threat because they will always be able to raise and fire before an officer can react and respond. This research was first conducted in the modern era by Ray Rheingans and the late Tom Hontz from the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department in 1996. Using high-speed, time coded video cameras, they recorded officers from their agency performing various "suspect" shooting actions including raising a handgun from a position beside the leg, drawing from the rear inside the pants with hand on the handgun and drawing and firing with pistol inside the pants at the front belly position, hands at the side. The time concluded at the end of one fired shot from the pistol. Using the tape with time generator, only "movement time" (time from the beginning to the end of the movement) was recorded.
Average times as recorded in seconds:
Front draw: 1.09
Rear draw: 0.78
Raise and fire: 0.59
In addition, average times were recorded for officers to respond—the process of reacting and moving (firing) in response to a visual cue (light signal) above range target(s):
One large target: 1.15
Two large targets: 1.11
One small target: 1.56
Two small Targets: 1.58
One large target, draw from holster: 1.90
This research has been expanded and duplicated by the Force Science Institute under the direction of Bill Lewinski, PhD. The understanding of the danger and lethality of the naïve shooter indicates that shooters with no experience are capable of head shots on officers within 15 feet. Similar research conducted by renowned firearms instructor Ron Avery indicates that the majority of naïve shooters fired three rounds within 1.5 seconds.
Real world experience corroborates scientific study in this regard. Sgt. Joe Ferrera from Southfield (Mich.) PD shares a 2012 incident that occurred in the lobby of his police agency. A subject walked into the lobby armed with a handgun. When the alert was sounded and uniformed officers confronted the suspect, he appeared at first to start to bend toward the floor, but quickly bent his wrist and fired a shot at the officers, wounding a sergeant in the shoulder before officers reacted and responded by firing multiple rounds into the suspect, stopping him.
More than 20 years of scientific study have confirmed that suspects with guns in their hands, or with their hands on guns in their waistband or elsewhere, are deadly threats since they can fire before an officer can react and respond, even if the officer has drawn his handgun and is at the ready.
When I was first exposed to the Hontz/Rheingans research, I incorporated a new in-service training drill for all officers in the agency. The tactics taught were simple. When confronted with a "suspect with a gun" call, if at all possible: maintain distance, draw your handgun, take cover, take a few deep breaths, hold the officer's handgun sights on the hips of the suspect and, only then, issue verbal challenges. The research and our training experience were clear: an officer must be ready for an armed attack as soon as he challenges or the suspect becomes aware of the officer's presence. Holding your pistol on the suspect's chest meant you could not see the suspect's hands or waistband. To give verbal commands while standing out in the open with your pistol holstered was to invite an attack that could not be stopped. As trainer Pat Martin's research showed us in 2006 and recent examination indicates, if you exclude the officers ambushed over the period from 2003 to 2012 (115) from the total officers killed (535), the remaining number of officers feloniously killed is 420. Of that 420, as indicated by the FBI statistics, 252 did not use or attempt to use their own firearms. The 252 officers killed make up 60% of the non-ambushed number. Sixty percent who did not draw or fire their handgun when confronted by a subject. Most did not have guns in their hands, but many incidents occurred in which officers failed to heed the danger signs or draw their handguns in preparation. Many incidents occurred in which officers gave verbal commands when they should have been shooting.
If, during an encounter, the officer reasonably perceives that his life or the life of others is in danger or that serious bodily harm may be caused based on the totality of the circumstances, it is a reasonable response to open fire on the suspect.
The Deadly Mix
Tossed into this mix is the chemical cocktail of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) response and resultant perceptual distortions, for all participants: uniformed responding officers, plainclothes or off-duty cops and legally armed citizens. Tunnel vision and auditory exclusion may occur, as well as impairment in cognitive decision making in everyone involved. Responding officers may be unable to process the complete encounter they are seeing and hearing. If a uniformed officer is focused on the gun in the "suspect's" hands, he may not see the badge on the off-duty officer's belt.
This can be even worse in low or subdued lighting. If no advance warning is broadcast, the responding cops may not be thinking this could be an off-duty or plainclothes cop with a gun. The citizen, detective or off-duty officer may not hear shouts of warning or "Drop the gun!" and may turn toward the movement of responding officers. Certainly responding officers must look at the whole person and not just focus on the source of perceived threat (the gun). With expanded vision you may see the badge around the officer's neck or on their belt and tragedy may be averted.
Such combination of factors sets the stage for tragedy that has occurred for years in these types of encounters.
The risks involved in these encounters lay with all parties, but the plainclothes officer, detective, off-duty officer or lawfully armed citizen bear the bulk of the responsibility and must, to the greatest extent possible, communicate and display a non-aggressive posture and readily identifiable LEO status.
Reducing the Possibility of Getting Shot
- Communicate your law enforcement status via phone or radio calls. "Plainclothes officers on scene!" or "Off-duty police officer in a shooting," followed by physical and clothing descriptions broadcast.
- Describe your attire or have a caller describe you.
- Holster your handgun if at all possible.
- Display your badge: Best location is above your head, second is midline on your body, least observable is on your belt.
- Take some deep breaths and start thinking.
- Anticipate that you will be challenged at gunpoint by aggressive uniformed officers under an SNS response.
- Do exactly what the officers order, including dropping your handgun.
- Anticipate being handcuffed.
- Avoid foot chases with handgun drawn while in plainclothes.
- If possible, wear "raid jackets" with POLICE markings or other attire prior to conducting enforcement operations in public.
There are no easy answers for responding officers in uniform. Wait too long, give too many verbal orders, fail to draw your handgun or seek cover when challenging and the armed suspect can commence an attack, which you have little to no time to stop. Uniformed officers cannot recklessly expose themselves to armed or potentially armed offenders in an effort to remove all doubt or be absolutely sure.
Slow things down. If possible, take a few breaths while responding, get your handgun out and ready, take available cover, scan the subject's entire body, watch their hands, give loud, simple, direct commands, avoid rushing toward the suspect and shoot if you believe that the suspect presents a deadly threat.
Like many things in law enforcement, this complex question requires a multilevel answer. It is not black and white, and is dependent on proper training to improve performance. To the greatest degree possible we must avert tragedy while protecting ourselves and our partners, but armed men with evil intent are a deadly threat and we cannot read their minds.
Force Science (ForceScience.org) is a treasure trove of information on related issues in this article.