Shooting to Wound*: When Cops Should Put Shots Across the Bow
February 17, 2017 (Fault Lines) – Last week, A&E’s reality television show Live PD aired a tense ground fight between two gang team officers and a street thug. It was a struggle that was literally life-or-death.
The officers, Justin Beal and Stephen Blaylock, chose life; not only for themselves, but for suspect Landon Williams as well.
These cops would have been more than justified to have shot Williams. But they didn’t.
Several use-of-force experts have surprisingly (and not surprisingly – anonymously) conceded that this is a rare case where shooting Williams in the arm or leg might have actually worked! You see, this is a huge departure from what police firearms experts generally opine: center mass, head, and pelvic girdle are the only reasonable target areas when using deadly force (AKA: your gun).
I’ll spare the lengthy discussion, but it warrants some points. Shots to a person’s large chest area provide for the highest probability of hitting. They also give the best chances of quickly stopping a person’s assaultive, deadly behavior.
So where’s the problem?
When it comes to cops firing their guns, it’s become an all-or-none endeavor. You either aim for center mass (or head, or pelvic girdle) and pull the trigger, or you don’t pull the trigger at all. Most police departments’ use-of-force policies (and training) discourage shots to body areas other that those listed above, citing ineffectiveness or potential for missing altogether.
Most policies also prohibit the use of warning shots. Fellow firearms trainer Masaad Ayoob is not alone in his thoughts on why warning shots are a bad idea:
The firing of a gun even in the “general direction” of another person is an act of deadly force. If deadly force was warranted, well, “warning shot, hell!” You would have shot directly at him. The warning shot can tell judge and jury that the very fact that you didn’t aim the shot at him is a tacit admission that even by your own lights, you knew deadly force was not justified at the time you fired the shot.
This has become a binary decision. Constitutional case law (hinging on the seminal 1985 Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner) supports this objective theory – it’s either deadly force or not. When it comes to firing bullets, if a cop is going to be judged against the no-shades-of-gray deadly force standard, why take any chances? Aim center mass and go home alive.
However, under the shadow of recent controversial “unarmed” police shootings, police executive groups are re-examining optimal use of force guidelines. In January, 2017, the National Consensus Policy on Use of Force published what they deemed:
a collaborative effort among 11 of the most significant law enforcement leadership and labor organizations in the United States. The policy reflects the best thinking of all consensus organizations and is solely intended to serve as a template for law enforcement agencies to compare and enhance their existing policies.
This is not some fly-by-night organization’s draft rulebook; this is a product of a dozen nationally respected groups such as CALEA, NOBLE, FOP, IACP, and NTOA – groups with a wide base of police experience and perspective. And in it, they first define warning shots :
WARNING SHOT: Discharge of a firearm for the purpose of compelling compliance from an individual, but not intended to cause physical injury.
And then make allowances for them to be fired :
(b) Warning shots are inherently dangerous. Therefore, a warning shot must have a defined target and shall not be fired unless
(1) the use of deadly force is justified;
(2) the warning shot will not pose a substantial risk of injury or death to the officer or others; and
(3) the officer reasonably believes that the warning shot will reduce the possibility that deadly force will have to be used.
So basically, the policy gives offenders another chance at life – by a cop’s intentional decision to miss with his bullets.
But here’s the thing. Cops have fired warning shots in the past. The difference is that when the practice is against the law or policy, the system incentivizes cops to be less than truthful. Instead of “I fired a warning shot because I wanted to give him one more chance to surrender,” we get “I missed,” or “I didn’t intend to shoot. It was an accident.”
Of course these stories never make it to the front page. It destroys the narrative that cops are power-hungry dictators who use force to the fullest extent that law permits. At least the cop haters get a lying police officer out of it, even if he accepted all that risk you swore he wouldn’t!
I’m going to make a jump here. If redirecting fire, by purposely missing your assailant, is deemed a higher respect for or protection of life, then what about intentionally striking non-vital parts of the assailant’s body (when possible,) like arm or leg wounds? Many police agency policies explicitly discourage this practice.
Even a few of the staunchest of police advocates (those who promote aggressive tactics and maximal force) accept that the Tulsa arrest was a situation where a leg shot might have been reasonable. We have to assume there are more situations like it. How many of the unarmed people killed by police officers could have been gifted with extremity wounds? Even if only a few, those are a few more people who could have lived to commit crimes another day.
So if you buy into the rationale for warning shots in extraordinary circumstances, you, by default, must also buy into the allowance for shooting non-center mass.
So where does that put the Tulsa Police street fight over the gun in the waistband? Well, according to police department policy:
For the purpose of this policy, use of any firearm to discharge a projectile composed of any material which may be reasonably expected to cause death or great bodily injury is considered deadly force and shall only be employed in circumstances where the use of deadly force would be justified.
They also prohibit warning shots:
Officers or employees shall not discharge firearms for the purpose of warning shots or for any indiscriminate use. Officers or employees shall use firearms only as authorized by this policy.
What we have is fairly typical agency policy. So if those gang team officers decided to shoot, they’d be best off to simply shoot him in the head. There is no policy or legal differentiation between head shots and shots to, say, a calf or thigh. (Sure, hit an artery and he’s dead anyway. I get it.)
Except those officers decided to not shoot. But had they, many of you would hope they’d have aimed for a leg rather than point-blank at the side of his melon.
But the conversation can’t stop here. If you buy into the idea of warning shots, and also like the sound of aiming at non-vital areas, you now have to buy into a third theory: suppressive fire.
Target-specific directed fire – Controlled gunfire that is directed at the suspect, reducing the suspect’s ability to return fire while a tactical team, element or individual movement is conducted. Also known as suppressive fire, cover fire and weapons fire. 
Rid your mind of Navy SEALs performing coordinated fire-maneuvers or bounding-overwatch tactics. What we are talking about is allowing cops to fire into a specific threat area, in the direction of a person who is an active deadly force threat, without specifically aiming at the (unexposed) person.
Some of you think this is some far-fetched idea. Excuse you, but there exist police departments that have adopted directed fire into their official written policy. They train their officers to ensure: deadly force is authorized; no innocent persons are caught in the fields of fire; and then they’re allowed to fire into safe backstops or barriers to either keep the offender pinned down, or to strike him/her with the bullets.
Here’s the trap I’ve set. If you buy into one, you must logically buy into all three: warning shots, non-vital targeting, and suppressive fire. They are inextricably connected by the same theory of putting deadly force on a “compassionate” spectrum – specifically to allow firearms to become less deadly but still effective at stopping threats.
It’s about more options to cops who, believe it or not, would rather not take a life. Options are good. Until the public expects every shooting to include a warning shot first. Or the protestors demand to know why the cop didn’t perform some Hollywood superhero shoot-the-gun-outta-the-hand trick.
Here’s trap #2. If you don’t put deadly force on a spectrum and incentivize these new targeting options, you’ll continue to get cops who know only the chest and head. So get used to that.
*As a police firearms instructor of 16 years and counting, there are few things that fry cops more than the shoot-to-wound or shoot-to-kill misnomers. I’ve purposely used it here. And hope they’ve continued reading this far down. A few will.
 III. Definitions; Warning Shot.
 IV. Procedures; D. Use of Deadly Force; 3. Deadly Force Restrictions.
 Tulsa Police Department, Procedure 31-101A, Use of Force, Policy
 Tulsa Police Department, Procedure 31-101A, Use of Force, Regulations
 National Tactical Officers Association.