The debate over “why do police shoot to kill?” has boiled to the surface once again over last week’s deadly shooting by a police officer of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. Anytime someone loses their life, especially a minor, it’s a tragic situation and one that we all would like to avoid.
Consequently, difficult and pointed questions arise in the wake of these shootings. In this particular case, video footage shows what appears to be Bryant aggressively wielding a knife toward another female and then being shot four times in the torso by the police officer responding to a call for help that Bryant herself made. While some have hailed the officer as a hero who took decisive action to save one life amid a chaotic situation, others have asked why the officer had to shoot to kill, taking the life of a minor.
Even celebrities like Joy Behar from The View weighed in on the case stating,
“I mean, it seems to me in a situation — This is what it looked like to me. I looked at the tape and still can’t figure it out. Shoot the gun in the air as a warning. Tase a person. Shoot them in the leg. Shoot them in the behind. Stop them somehow. If the only solution is to kill a teenager, there’s something wrong with this. There’s something wrong with the way these things are being conducted. Even if the cop had to do it, there’s something wrong with it. I can’t explain it any better than that.”
NBA superstar LeBron James opined in on the subject and what many are calling an inflammatory tweet aimed at the police officer involved in the shooting. The tweet has since been deleted, but it showed the officer with a caption that read, “YOU’RE NEXT #ACCOUNTABILITY.” James said that he removed the tweet because “it’s being used to create more hate.”
Maybe people are asking the wrong question
Are police officers trained to “shoot to kill?” According to Police1, police officers are trained to fire as many rounds as necessary at the threat they are confronted with until the threat is neutralized. To put it another way, they are trained to fire until the suspect is unable to shoot or in some other way injure the officer, other police, or bystanders.
In reality, police are not trained to “shoot to kill.” They are trained to utilize the appropriate equipment and level of force to neutralize the threat.
Why not “shoot to wound” instead?
There are a couple of crucial reasons. First, shooting to wound someone may sound like a reasonable option, but it may not stop the threat in actuality. If a person is shot in the leg, the danger may still exist as a suspect could still use his or her hands to fire a gun or wield a knife.
Second, and most importantly, it takes more than a skilled marksman to hit someone precisely in a moving arm or leg. Most officers, and expert marksmen for that matter, do not have the level of skill it would take to shoot someone in a moving extremity like an arm or leg, especially under stress in the heat of the moment. In fact, outside of imaginary Hollywood scenarios, few people in the world can make a shot like that, no matter their level of training.
What do the experts say?
Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, explained in a position paper,
“Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. For example, an average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second. He can move his hand from his hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second. The average officer pulling the trigger as fast as he can on a Glock, one of the fastest-cycling semi-autos, requires 1/4 second to discharge each round. There is no way an officer can react, track, shoot, and reliably hit a threatening suspect’s forearm or a weapon in a suspect’s hand in the time spans involved.”
David Klinger, a professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis told ABC News, “With officers trying to stop a threat to their life or the lives of others, why would we want to injure or maim people? It doesn’t stop them.” The consensus among experts is that shooting to wound doesn’t make sense as a realistic option for neutralizing potentially deadly threats.
What does the law say about police using deadly force?
There have been a handful of U.S. Supreme Court rulings during the last 30 years that have essentially shaped policy regarding the use of force by police officers in this country. The two most important rulings are often considered to be Graham vs. Garner and Tennessee vs. Garner.
Graham vs. Garner
According to police training and policy expert Doug Wyllie: In Graham, the Supreme Court established what had become known as the “objectively reasonable standard” when they held that “the ‘reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Graham is probably the most important when it comes to using force cases, and yet following a high-profile use of force, this case is rarely mentioned – nor is it likely to be well understood – by the mainstream media.
Tennessee vs. Garner
Wyllie explains: In this case, the court held that when a police officer is pursuing a fleeing suspect, he or she may NOT use deadly force to prevent escape “unless the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”
This decision, which reversed a Tennessee statute that allowed the use of deadly force on any fleeing felon – even those who posed no imminent danger to anyone – has helped inform the creation of use of force policy across the country.
Officers who use deadly force on a fleeing felon must be able to articulate probable cause that the subject posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury at the time of the use of force. When there is media coverage of a video of a cop shooting someone in the back, police executives and experts need to explain why that officer might have reasonably believed that person posed a significant threat of death or serious physical injury.
Unintended consequences of “shooting to wound” vs. “shooting to kill.”
In an article by the Guardian, Candace McCoy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, suggested that shooting to wound would lower the legal threshold for using deadly force. “As a policy, [shoot to wound] is a really bad idea because it would give the police permission to take that gun out of the holster under any circumstance,” she said.
In other words, opting for a “shoot to wound” policy would almost certainly lead to more shootings by police and potentially more deaths as a direct result. The threshold for using deadly force in the form of a gun would be lowered because making shooting to wound a viable option would require the police officer to open fire on a suspect who is lying, sitting, or standing still in close proximity before that suspect posing an imminent threat.
These situations are complicated, and despite the feelings of many among the public and in the media, everyone who voices an opinion is NOT an expert on the subject. Ignorance doesn’t solve problems, and it certainly shouldn’t be the basis of policy changes in policing. Considering the depth of tragedy surrounding police shootings merits a proper understanding of why and at what point officers are instructed to use deadly force to neutralize a threat.
Josh is a faith and culture writer with ThinkCivics. He attended seminary through Rock of Ages Baptist Bible Institute out of Cleveland, TN. He has held about every position one could hold in a local church: Sunday school teacher, Children’s Church Preacher, Bus Ministry Director/Worker, Missions Director, Choir Director, Song Leader, Janitor, etc. In October of 2005, he was ordained as an Assistant Pastor at Rest Haven Baptist Church, and that’s where he served until God called him into the Pastorate at Enon Baptist Church in Alto, GA at the age of 32. He stepped out by faith in obedience to God’s instructions and quickly received a call from Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Free Home, GA where he now serves as Pastor. In his free time, Josh enjoys spending quality time with his wife (who is his high school sweetheart) and three children: Zoey, Ava, and Jack, as well as reading, writing, hunting, cooking, weight lifting, and martial arts.