Once faced with a deadly confrontation, officers must be trained to respect the speed with which suspects can launch an assault with a gun, according to Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. He cites a number of cases in which officers were gunned down in less than one second.
"The average suspect can present a gun-from a pocket, from a waistband, from a vehicle console, from his side, from under his body-and fire in any direction in just one-quarter of a second," Lewinski says. "That's faster than the average officer can shoot, even if his weapon is on target, his finger is on the trigger, and he has already decided to fire. That's because of the time it takes to mentally process and impel a reaction to the suspect's action."
Lewinski argues that keeping the one-quarter-second figure in mind during training exercises will affect officers' behavior in approaching and contacting a suspect, choosing cover, and using verbal commands. He adds that officers who learn to effectively read and react to a suspect's behavior have the best chances of coming out on top when the suspect decides to attack.
"The most skilled officers, using their training and experience, tend to know where, when, and how a threat situation is going to unfold," Lewinski explains. "If you're attentive to physical movements and verbal cues, which are sometimes subtle, you often can detect and then defuse or suppress potential threats before you get caught behind the reactionary curve."
One controversial question that many law enforcement trainers and tactical experts are beginning to raise is whether some of the current generation of officers are really suited to the job.
Just as some officers display different degrees of proficiency with their weapons and tactics, so, too, do they exhibit varying degrees of enthusiasm in deploying them. Police agencies thus find themselves alternately trying to encourage some officers to display greater initiative in using necessary force and reining in the more assertive types.
The press and the courts keep the public aware of officers who abuse their position with violence. What the public and even other officers are less likely to hear about are those officers who routinely use too little force because they are either not capable or not so inclined.
The officer who fails to deploy force when it is necessary is every bit a threat to the profession and the public as the one hell-bent on getting notches on his gun. Such officers ultimately prove to be liabilities, leaving not only themselves unnecessarily vulnerable to a violent assault, but their fellow officers, as well.
Whether it is a religious influence or a fundamental philosophical posture against the taking of a human life, otherwise worthy candidates may lack the fortitude to engage an adversary with all necessary force. This phenomenon has seen officers with names like Kyle Dinkheller and Ken Wrede added to the Memorial Wall. One might be tempted to say they failed themselves. But in the case of some—like West Covina (Calif.) PD Officer Ken Wrede, who was killed in the line of duty in 1983—reticence to take a human life had been well established. And the failure of supervisors to address these concerns leave them also to blame.
"Not much can be done during the hiring process to weed out potential officers who are reticent to fire a gun," notes LASD's Muller. "However, once the officer is hired and it becomes known that he doesn't carry a bullet in the chamber or he says that he can't use deadly force, it becomes the responsibility of people in higher ranking positions to put this guy on the desk or give him a reevaluation of why he joined law enforcement to begin with. To enforce the law sometimes we have to use deadly force. If he's said that he can't use deadly force, then you can't rely on this guy to do what he has sworn to do to uphold the law. To uphold the law, you may have to take a life to save a life."
Whether due to lack of training or personal conviction, officers often find themselves unable to pull the trigger when absolutely necessary.
"We've all seen dash-cam videos of officers standing in the open and repeatedly yelling commands like: Drop the gun!" at noncompliant, threatening offenders," points out Lewinski. "The officers are not using the deadly force that they're legally justified in using, and they're not doing anything else-like moving to cover or withdrawing-to gain a tactical advantage. These officers get caught in a repetitive verbal loop because they perceive they are losing control of the situation and they can't figure a way out. They are tactically frozen."
Lewinski calls on officers to prepare themselves for such events long before they happen. Toward that end, departments can improve training, provide an abundance of realistic force-on-force scenarios, evaluate and mentor officers who may be reticent to use deadly force when necessary, and supply and enforce the wearing of efficient body armor. However, when department funding and manpower is not sufficient to provide these activities, officers need to step up to the plate, even on their own time.
Conventional wisdom says that there's only so much that an agency can do to protect its officers. Individuals and organizations that work alongside law enforcement continue to advance officer safety studies and training techniques. Some even believe the profession stands on the cusp of a new era in which spider-silk vests and nano-wear will afford officers even safer and more comfortable protection. Such innovations will help officers survive more assaults and perhaps staunch the flow of the blood bath.
Technological innovation is only one part of mitigating the deadly hazards faced by American law enforcement officers. Selecting the best candidates and providing them with an environment-both physically and politically-in which they can perform their jobs more safely may be even more critical to officer survival.
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Law Enforcement Fatalities by Gunfire Reaches 20-Year High
Is Law Enforcement Entering a Deadly New Era?
Fighting the Wrong Battle