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In the Mind of a Cop Just Before Firing


Cop Kills Unarmed Citizen. A headline like that implies an uneven playing field: a badge wearing, authority touting cop, carrying a lethal weapon, versus a defenseless, average Joe. Influenced by the slant, readers become outraged, and side with the “unarmed citizen.” In the case of Ferguson, MO the outrage has lead to a dangerously tumultuous two weeks of racial division.

What about this headline: Police Officer Shoots Attacker During Struggle Over Gun? Evokes a different emotion, doesn’t it? We feel appalled that someone would attack a peace officer. We understand the cop’s taking forceful action against his assailant.

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In order to gain a little better understanding of how cops decide when to shoot, and what to aim at, it helps to get perspective on a cop’s thought process in potentially volatile situations.

So, the question is asked: What really happens before a cop fires his gun?

h/t: Kate Daily reporting for BBC News Magazine

When it comes to US police officers firing their weapons, the rules – on paper – are very clear.


“Ultimately you come to your firearm as a last resort,” says Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police.


“You would only use that weapon in a situation where you felt your life or the lives of civilians in the area were in danger.”


A 1982 Supreme Court case found it illegal to shoot at fleeing felons. Now, officers can only justify firing their weapons at civilians if they fear the loss of life or limb.


The advent of Kevlar vests and other protective technologies enable police officers to work with less fear for their lives than in the past.


As a result, the number of killings by police is down 70% in 36 years, says Candace McCoy, a professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York. Only a small percentage of the nation’s 500,000 police officers are involved in shootings. Most retire without ever firing their gun in the line of duty.


Still, she says, officers are 600 times more likely than a non-officer to kill a citizen, and about 400 people are killed a year by police.


While there is no national standard, the state rules and regulations regarding officers’ use of deadly force is mostly consistent throughout the country.


Officers are trained on a continuum of force, run through simulations, and are regularly required to recertify in firearms safety.


There are drills and standards and classes. But in the seconds before an officer pulls the trigger, nothing is orderly.


“The officer isn’t going through any checklist,” says Pasco. “At that point they have to make a split-second decision.”


The moment may come after hours of an escalating situation or it might come with little warning.


“You always have to react to a suspect’s actions. That’s the tough part about it,” says Robert Todd Christensen, a use-of-force instructor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College Police Academy in Michigan.


“Cops are always playing the defense, rather than the offense, when it comes to force.”


At that point, the officer has to rely on his training and instincts while trying to control his emotions.


Officers are trained to escalate force in response to the situation on the ground. Here are examples of that continuum, abridged from guidelines by the National Institute of Justice.


Officer Presence The mere presence of a law enforcement officer works to deter crime or diffuse a situation. Officers’ attitudes are professional and nonthreatening.

Verbalisation Officers issue calm, nonthreatening commands, such as “Let me see your identification.” Officers may increase their volume and shorten commands in an attempt to gain compliance.

Empty-Hand Control Officers use bodily force to gain control of a situation, either grabbing and holding a suspect or using punches and kicks..

Less-Lethal Methods Officers use less-lethal technologies to gain control of a situation, such as blunt impact tools like batons or chemicals like tear gas

Lethal Force Officers use lethal weapons to gain control of a situation. Should only be used if a suspect poses a serious threat to the officer or another individual.

“There’s an adrenaline that kicks in and there’s a split-second syndrome,” says McCoy. “Your judgment is not the same as those of us sitting at desks thinking rationally.”

Training helps, she says, but it is not perfect.

When law enforcement officials do shoot, they shoot to kill – a measure designed in part to reduce gunplay.

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