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Dean Scoville

Dean Scoville

Associate Editor of Police Magazine and a retired patrol supervisor and investigator with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Dean Scoville has received multiple awards for government service.
Patrol

Video: NYPD's Empire State Building Shooting

NYPD rounds stopped an active shooter, and inured nine bystanders.

August 27, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

VIDEO: NYC Empire State Building Shooting

It's small wonder that the news media reported the shooting outside the Empire State Building last week as a mass shooting—it certainly appeared to be. Only it wasn't a mass shooting by a suspect, but by cops.

When all was said and blasted away, nine people had been injured and a tenth killed. Judging by video footage, it doesn't appear to have been a case of Barbie and Ken staring transfixed and immobilized: Everyone was hauling ass. Kudos to them.

There are those who have been less reserved in saying attaboy to the cops, save for their eventual dispatching of the bad guy. Even I can't help but wonder how I would feel if one of my loved ones had been among those nine who'd been injured by their more migratory rounds. It will be for the N.Y.P.D. and various other investigative entities to dissect the shooting and determine what might have been done differently. But those findings will probably be months off, and much more will be said in the litigation to follow.

In the meantime, a congenital prejudice against indulging an N.Y.P.D. spokesperson's non-response to my requests finds me tossing out some concerns and ideas here and now, and openly soliciting those of others. Because the way things are going with all manner of certified mass shootings as of late, I figure another cop will soon find himself in a similar position—and long before being able to profit from the findings to come. Besides, one has to wonder if things look worse than they actually were given headlines such as, "N.Y.P.D. Shoots Nine."

Surveillance footage of the shooting shows the two officers rapidly closing the gap on the suspect who'd been identified by witnesses as the shooter of a man seconds before. At some point, the man becomes aware of the officers' presence and in less than 10 seconds the following occurs:

  • The lead officer slows to a walk, then veers right as his partner peels off to their left.
  • The suspect draws a handgun from the area of his waistband and turns towards the officers.
  • Both officers fire, one point shooting as he blades his body towards the suspect while the other engages the man from a Weaver stance.
  • The suspect falls onto his back, mortally wounded.

That the video does not afford one the benefit of the clearest of pictures and is bereft of any audio does not mitigate the temptation to contemplate inferences, speculations, and questions so much as obligates them. That others—in particular, lawyers—will no doubt be asking similar questions should lend some legitimacy to my intent. In any event, I indulge them herein primarily in the hopes that they might assist another officer to more quickly evaluate his or her options when faced with similar circumstances.

Now, the fact that at least one officer apparently had to draw and fire in response to the suspect's turning on them causes me to think that neither officer yelled at the suspect, or consciously brought the suspect's attentions to themselves. More likely, he took notice of them in response to the sound of their boots atop the sidewalk, radio squawk, or the sight of others turning their heads towards the officers. Despite his becoming aware of them before they were ready for him to be so, the officers did not hesitate to deal with the threat once actively confronted with it (I am, however, curious as to what protocol N.Y.P.D. officers are expected to adhere to when approaching armed suspects). One officer fired seven rounds; the other, nine.

With ten hits on the suspect, and only 16 rounds fired between the two officers, it appears likely that some of the bystanders were likely struck by through-and-through rounds, ricochets, and/or fragments. The fact that only three whole—i.e., intact—rounds were identified among the victims tends to support the speculation.

Still, with so many people hit—particularly after they'd visibly scattered from the threat—some valid questions arise. For one, the suspect is seen to be, by any objective standard, relatively stationary throughout the firefight. Had he been more mobile, what effect might that have had on collateral injuries? Also, was there any exigency for the officers to so quickly close the distance on the suspect, a man clad in less than aerodynamic attire who was walking as far away from people as possible and not in any visible rush? Could the officers have been less obvious in their approach; perhaps keeping themselves angled to the man's back and out of his peripheral vision?

And while we're on the subject of vision, might tunnel vision on the part of the officers have played a part in their so locking in on the suspect to the possible exclusion of consideration for the welfare of others?

I believe these are legitimate questions and my experience in interviewing officers for "Shots Fired" does nothing to dissuade this conclusion. Time and again, it is the presence of mind these officers have in evaluating suspects' backdrops both prior to and while engaged in the event. That, and the fact that they inevitably cite that they respond as they'd been trained.

In this shooting, the officers fired from different stances. Does N.Y.P.D. teach both the Weaver and point shooting? How often do N.Y.P.D. officers do range qualification? How rigid are its standards, and have they in any way been compromised due to budgetary constraints?

What other shooting tactics might have been deployed? Might an officer have dropped to a knee or on his backside?

One of the core officer-safety tenets I took from use-of-force and range instructors on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was the need for deputies to consider making smaller targets of themselves, particularly in the absence of readily available cover or concealment. Adopting either a kneeling or seated position not only accomplishes this, but in situations such as this also obligates an upwards shot for the firing officer—effectively lessening the likelihood of bystanders in the immediate area of getting shot, or being impacted by ricochet rounds. True, the rounds will eventually land elsewhere, but hopefully with some diminished velocity and/or in an area less densely populated. (Could this in itself have proven problematic for a passing bus if the rounds were headed street-side? Yep. Again, know your backdrop. Again, I am throwing out food for thought here.)

I will be the first to admit that there is no way in hell for every cop to anticipate every possible contingency or to immediately recognize the relative pros and cons of each tactical option available to him or her going into an untested environment. But I do believe that serious consideration of such options well ahead of time can go a long way toward eliminating some otherwise necessary "split-second inspiration."

After all, I like to think every cop recognizes that the need to start thinking tactically in a shooting is imperative. How many cops wait until that imperative moment before doing so? If, as it's routinely espoused, fortune favors the prepared, then why aren't more cops exploiting a confluence of range training, tactical preparation, and dynamic anticipation?

Unlike their Hollywood counterparts, shootings are not choreographed with Sam Peckinpah finesse. They are messy, chaotic affairs. But occasionally an officer has the advantage of anticipating the likelihood of a shooting and acting in the best interests of those who stand to be affected by it. When a multiple-murder suspect started banging on a 911 caller's front door in a bid to get inside, I told our dispatch to have the caller exit the rear of the house. It was a good thing, too, because when our deputies shot and killed the idiot moments later, fifteen of their rounds went through that front door and into the residence. Again, if you have every reason to believe that you might become involved in a shooting, you should do everything you can to delay that inevitability as long and as safely as possible to be able to take quick and decisive action when you need to.

Attitude is a factor here.

Howard Mellon, a retired police officer, expressed the following on Police_L when thinking about the Empire State shooting:

"Do nothing? Of course not ... but whatever happened to shot placement? The idea that you are responsible for every round you discharge downrange at a target?

"When I started in law enforcement I had a Smith and Wesson Model 10 with a heavy barrel and +P+ ammo. Six rounds in the gun and 12 more rounds in two drop pouches. You run out of bullets, you either take out a second gun or reload by hand. Shot placement was critical. Double tap/triple tap philosophies. Don't let your gun go empty without thinking ... if you shot five times, save number six because the bad guy was also counting. I learned to hit what I was aiming at, or at least use the sights and squeeze the trigger.

"I also noticed how training and qualification was changing around me. In some ways it was getting better, with more movement and more multiple target exercises ... accuracy was no longer prized. Instead of a target with rings, 10, nine, eight, etc., we were now aiming for center of mass and any hit in the 'preferred area' counted just as much as any other hit. Only an officer's pride in a job well done kept the officer from getting really sloppy."

I applaud Howard's attitude. But I don't know that the city of New York can afford to rely on that officer's pride to minimize the threat of collateral damage. And while I have never been to the Big Apple, I have an impression of its being decidedly vested in the matter if it is truly as taxi-dependent and pedestrian rich as I take it to be (the presence of a bus bench in the video—with people occupying it—tends to strengthen my bias). Factoring in the shear amount of stone construction dotting the city only amplifies the concern.

Some will embrace an "All's well that ends well" attitude on this shooting. I have actually read someone's comments trying to downplay the injuries to bystanders. And it's true that things did not turn out as bad as they could have. That is not the question. The question is whether things could have turned out better.

If N.Y.P.D. needs to re-vamp its tactics and shooting practices, I hope it will have the attitude to do so. Otherwise, N.Y.P.D. may well come to stand for something else.

"New York Pistol Dodgers"

Addendum:

One of the nice things about assertion an opinion herein is that I can usually count on someone to tell me I am full of crap.

One of the negative things about asserting an opinion herein is that I can usually count on someone to tell me I am full of crap.

But what hell. Mencken was known for going out of his way to provoke people just to add to his notoriety, so at least I am in good company.

Still, Jim's comments and a couple of others oblige me to either put up, or shut-up. Since I am rarely inclined to do the latter, I am forced to either dig my heels in and say Jim's full of crap, or admit I am. Between the two, I think Jim comes out ahead.

Oh, I could say, "Well, what I meant to say was that the officers could have dropped to a seated position at a more considerable distance." Except for a couple of things: 1) It smacks of defensiveness, and 2) it ain't the truth - and I hate revisionist historians. I was talking out my lower orifice.

Yeah, I sincerely believe that I could come up with someone who is proficient enough in such a technique that he *would* be able to successfully engage and neutralize the threat, save for the fact that said individual would be the exception that proves the rule (a generality that, when one thinks about it, is arguable more absurd than the point I made). And while I never had six-pack abs, I do know that when I was younger and had greater flexibility I was able to shoot accurately from such a position and liked the stability my knees affored me (btw, I am *solely* addressing going to a seated position here. I STILL stand by the viability of dropping to a knee as you are removing a good portion of your body from the kill zone. Also, yes, the same close quarters that Jim would find inhibiting only amplifies the angle of trajectory on the upwards shot for the shooting officer. On this, we will have to agree to disagree).

In any event, cops are not going to be trained in such techniques.

And even if they were, the proximics involved would have probably been more detrimental to the officers than not.

But here is where I am given the opportuity to explicitly clarify an underlying point: Those proximics and what I believe is a hugely legitimate concern. The speed with which the officers closed the gap between themselves and the suspect seems to be a half-asked compromise between the surveillance posture and a determination to engage. It was the former, then why did they feel compelled to close the distance in the manner which they did? If it was the latter, why did they not have their guns up and on target part of the suspect turning to engage them, particularly at that distance? Why did they appear to be so surprised themselves when the man spun on them. THIS WAS NOT AN ACTIVE SHOOTER.

Re-read that, for that is perhaps my most salient point. The man was not actively killing random or large numbers of people. As such, the officers may not have had so exigent a need to put themselves in such a committing position. If one of my loved one's had been one of those injured, you can bet your ass I'd be pissed and wanting officers to more carefully consider where they stand to screw up. Or have screwed uop. My own admission to making a mistake is hardly without precedent (Only the occasional reader will accuse me of unmitigated hubris. Others can cite my blog on my one-time willed lack of weapons proficiency as an example).

So, and to end this on a friendly note, let me clarify a couple of things. One, I am not throwing the officers under the bus. One group of people say they did nothing wrong and everything right; another group, that they did everything wrong and damn little right. My contention, admittedly as much visceral in nature as not, is that the truth is in the middle.

As such, what harm is there in trying to ensure that the next group of officers finding themselves in a similar situation achieve something that finds their actions being appraised more decidedly in the former corner than the latter? Might it save the Big Apple (or whatever so affected municipality) a few of those hard-earned bucks they're trying to save in the first place? (Sorry, for this length. But in fairness to Jim, I wasn't going to go back and re-edit what I'd written. But, dammit, I'd like to).

Related:

Surveillance Camera Captures Empire State Building Shooting

NYPD Kills Active Shooter at Empire State Building, 2 Dead, 9 Wounded

Tags: NYPD, Deadly Force, Officer-Involved Shootings, Empire State Building Shooting


Comments (9)

Displaying 1 - 9 of 9

Bob@Az. @ 8/27/2012 8:00 PM

Dean, well done. At times I thought "Oh he's monday morning QBing" then I remembered: He's been there done that. I agree that there needs to be more info on the training and weapons, i.e. trigger pull & range time, as well as the options to the take down. I'm very glad the Officers went home safe and will return to the job. Blues, stay safe.

Billy @ 8/27/2012 9:41 PM

Good commentary. Could things have been done differently? Certainly, but I wasn't there and the computer police here at work won't let me view the video. I believe the officers had to put this shooter down quickly and thank goodness they did; there may have been more fatalities instead of wounds had the bad guy been allowed a longer shooting spree. Hopefuly this weighed on the officers minds as they sought (hopefully) as clear a field of fire as possible. Do officers have an obligation tell yell "freeze-police, etc." before firing at an active shooter? I don't think so, get the job done, yell while shooting. This incident could have turned out better, but it also could have been far worse.

Dan @ 8/28/2012 5:30 AM

10 rounds on target out of 16 when advancing on a suspect sounds OUTSTANDING to me. Rapid response and an advance upon the suspect by 2 not 4 makes the responders heroes in my book. Job well done. If NYPD has to pay off bystanders who received through and through shots or near misses, so be it. That is the price of doing business as a PD.

Cecilio Méndez @ 8/28/2012 7:30 AM

First, a couple of "cliches". "No one can bring order into a chaotic situation". "Hind-sight is always 20/20." Now my "Duh" statement: Given a reasonably state of health, our bodies can do the same thing, every time. But it is the pre-planning and training which makes us do things in a very special way. An obvious example: bodybuilders and accountants. The first one can lift a lot and the other can be quick at the keyboard. That been said, it is pretty clear that the officers involved in the shooting showed a lack of A LOT, in terms of pre-planning and training. I will not be surprised to find that the mayor and the police chief have direct connection to the officers actions and reactions of that day. I also think that we will never see the end of this when lawyers, politicians, activists and the "social media" get a good hold of it.

Jim @ 8/28/2012 2:14 PM

Pretty harsh criticism, some of it justified, some not. Also one or two pretty absurd recommendations.

I will agree that these two officers could have used some better tactics than they did. But we also have the luxury of viewing this through hindsite. We know what kind of call this was: single shooting/single victim vs active shooter. We know who the suspect was and where he was. Did the cops know the extent of limited nature of the call? Did they have an accurate description of the guy? Was there an accurate description to be had? Did they know where he was on the street? What block he was on? It looks in the video like they didn't realize they were walking up to within a few feet of him. Some might call that bad tactics but that's only if they should have known he was the guy. They could have thought, based on info they had received that the guy was on another side of the building. Understand that the ESB is a big freakin building. And with the typical crowds on a NY street, it is not implausible for them not to spot the suspect even with an accurate description.

I don't have all the facts here. I don't know what the cops knew and when they knew it. And since I don't, I'm not going to throw them under the bus just yet.

Jim @ 8/28/2012 2:40 PM

I almost forgot the main thing that floored me. Did you really suggest that dropping to a sitting position would be a viable and recommended tactic in this incident? You didn't did you? Let me go back and check...hmmm, yep, you did, twice. Are you insane? The shooter was within ten feet of them. I don't care how much it will help clear the backdrop, if you think it's a good idea to intentionally drop to your butt when the shooter is little more than arms distance from you, I'm not sure how much faith I want to put in your other tactical recommendations. There are times when a sitting position makes sense, this isn't one of them. Regardless of what we each might think of how the cops got into this situation and what they could have don't differently up to that point, that's where they were when the shooting started. Regardless of what faults we might find with their tactics while the shooting was going on, suggesting an even worse tactical move makes even less sense.

And before we criticize their shooting skill too much, like Dan said above, 10 hits out of 16 is damn good. That's a 62% hit rate. Not great compared to the movies but in the real world, that's friggin awesome.

Just to end this on a friendly note, I've read lots of your articles on here Dean and for the most part I like and agree with the things you have to say. Afraid I had to part company with you on some of this one.

BJ Scott @ 8/28/2012 3:05 PM

The statement that all's well that ends well doesn't apply. Who was the bigger threat to the people on the street, the original shooter who was trying to leave the scene or the police that shot 9 bystanders?
I try not to second guess what went down, but it sounds like, at that range, it was a cluster. The officers survived but, damn, what a mess. To be honest, although a police officer for over 20 years, I have never patrolled an area so dense with population. Finally, thank God that only the bad guy went down, but the city is going to pay out a bunch on this one.

Phil @ 8/28/2012 7:03 PM

My question is this... Were the officers using FMJ or JHP rounds? It seems to me, in my 17 years as a firearms instructor, that hollow points could have made a difference in over penetration and hitting the 9 civilians.

Jim @ 8/30/2012 6:56 PM

Dean I really appreciate you responding to my comments. I respect the fact that you acknowledge one of your points may have been off base and defending you other points.
If I may also be allowed to clarify a couple of things. I too was solely objecting to the dropping to a seated position thing. I have no heartburn with dropping to a knee. That has valid advantages as you pointed out without giving up mobility as sitting down would. And I acknowledge the further bonus of the upward angle of the trajectory. So we can agree to agree on that one.
As to the proximics, I agree that it is a concern. But I don't know how high we can crucify them on it. If a cop is just walking down the block on foot patrol and all of a sudden a gunman turns from 5 feet away and starts shooting at him, he can't be blamed for getting too close to the guy. Now, these cops don't get that big of a pass. But, we don't know what they knew at the time they were engaged by the suspect. They surely knew they were responding to a shooting so maybe we can gig them for not having their guns out. But if the shooting occurred on the other side of the ESB from where they were, maybe we can't. We'd be talking about them having to cover probably 1000 feet of distance to get to the scene through literally hundreds of pedestrians. So not inexcusable that they not do that with guns drawn. I could go on but I don’t want to beat a dead horse. Bottom line, I don’t know exactly what happened leading up to the encounter so I will withhold some of my criticism. But I do acknowledge that there were some tactical errors made and that some criticism is justified.

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