Mimesis Law
30 June 2022

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 [1]:

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 [2]:

(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.[3]

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.[4]

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. [5]

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.

[1] III. Definitions; Warning Shot.

[2] IV. Procedures; D. Use of Deadly Force; 3. Deadly Force Restrictions.

[3] Tulsa Police Department, Procedure 31-101A, Use of Force, Policy

[4] Tulsa Police Department, Procedure 31-101A, Use of Force, Regulations

[5] National Tactical Officers Association.

19 Comments on this post.

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  • Keith
    17 February 2017 at 9:43 am - Reply

    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.

    What about the flip side of the coin? These are inherently dangerous situations where people, (sometimes with very little training and even less experience) now suddenly find themselves seeking to ensure compliance in non-life threatening ways with weapons that can kill.

    Here in NYC, cops hit 9 bystanders when trying to hit their target a few years ago. Most of the cops had never fired a gun at a human before. Most cops everywhere have never fired a gun before.

    I’ve been well trained and have done the simulations. I have no clue how I’d do if / when confronted with a SHTF situation in real life. And that’s part of the reason I’m deeply skeptical of allowing cops to take warning shots.

    It’s not that the people they kill may have a better chance. It’s that the people they don’t take shots out now may join the list of dead.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      17 February 2017 at 9:50 am - Reply

      The situation in NYC’s complicated a little by the 11-pound trigger pulls, though, right?

      • Keith
        17 February 2017 at 9:53 am - Reply

        NYC hamstrings cops in a number of ways. They have inordinately long trigger pulls and they make the guns DAO which is horrible if you want accuracy.

        But if they are going to allow warning shots, that’s just another reason it’s a bad idea.

      • Greg Prickett
        19 February 2017 at 3:53 pm - Reply

        An 11-pound pull isn’t the issue. DA revolvers ran from 8-10 pounds all the time. As long as the pull is smooth and it breaks clean, the pistol is doing its job.

        The issue is that the shooter isn’t doing their job, usually by jerking the trigger.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      17 February 2017 at 12:47 pm - Reply

      Simulation-type scenario training is woeful in so many police departments. The general rule is: the bigger the agency, the poorer the training for the average officer. However, there *are* officers who do have the skills & mindset to pull off this above suggestion. I foresee the actual deployment of a warning shot as being reasonable in a very small set of circumstances — but that’s really what we are talking about anyways with controversial shootings: a small subset of Officer-Involved Shootings (OIS).

  • Insert Random Name Here
    17 February 2017 at 10:46 am - Reply

    Given the high propensity to miss even when aiming center mass in a shtf situation, how is a non lethal shot – assuming you accept the concept – even remotely useful? Very probably another wild round downrange or even a fatal shot.

    • Keith
      17 February 2017 at 11:07 am - Reply

      I think warning shots can be useful, when used correctly. Firing a shotgun blast into the air over a field (insert VP Biden clip here) can get someone to drop a weapon in a not quite life threatening situation instead of letting it become one.

      But there’s way too many ways to make this worse rather than better.

      • Lou Hayes Jr
        17 February 2017 at 12:50 pm - Reply

        So would I be correct in assuming you also wouldn’t advocate for any sort of non-vital target area? To me, the logic runs the same. Lou

        • Keith
          17 February 2017 at 1:08 pm - Reply

          I think you’re right. It’s a tool that in a rare occasion, a trained and well thinking officer would have a good alternative to shooting to kill.

          My worry is more about the aggregate since we can’t just allow the practice for the well trained and well thinking officer.

          Taking one person out of the “killed by cop” pile isn’t better if we put more than one in. The family won’t be comforted merely because the cop killed the kid with a warning shot.

        • RDHschmidt
          17 February 2017 at 5:03 pm - Reply

          As a former marksmanship instructor at the U.S.A.F Security/police academy, I taught and still use the “shoot to end the threat” rule. Still the standard to use “Deadly Force” is “an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to yourself or others”. This mostly rules out warning shots and non-vital target area as these may not end the “Imminent Threat”. Just make double damn sure that you have practiced,practiced,and practiced, Know whats down range of the target,and be certain that the target IS an imminent threat of death or serious injury. Not just “I was afraid”.

          • Lou Hayes Jr
            17 February 2017 at 5:15 pm -

            Thanks for you comment. We have to continue discussing that once we over-simplify threats as “DF” or “Not DF” (which is a simplification of the legal standard), we lose options. Some of this comes down as to whether or not we can (or should) consider firearms falling on spectrum of DF where some intended injuries/chance of death are less than others. Should we slice DF into different levels? The answer may very well be no.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      17 February 2017 at 12:49 pm - Reply

      Very possibly. Consider this: the errant shot into the ground is probably less dangerous to the innocent public than the errant shot that zings over the perp’s shoulder. Anyways, thanks for your comment & keeping the conversation going. Lou

  • Anon
    17 February 2017 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    I understand why — for practical reasons: policy, training, and law — a “shoot to wound” / “minimum force” policy, along with warning shots, are problematic. (Among other reasons, it adds decisional complexity and (potentially) increasing the circumstances where an officer is “comfortable” firing his weapon.)

    Given the large (perhaps greater) percentage of armed suspects in France, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and the Czech Republic who end up shot in the leg and not dead, however, we should stop pretending it’s not technically plausible. (Hell, the Germans fire more warning shots than actual shots; though not a whole lot of either.)

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      17 February 2017 at 5:18 pm - Reply

      Great points. Are we opening the door to the days of the Ol Wild West where the sheriff starts firing into the air? Our current legal and policy standards in the USA are such that there are no advantages to firing anywhere but center mass or head. Should there be incentives to give some folks (criminals; mentally ill; other non-compliant) a second chance? Maybe not. It’s not an easy discussion. Thanks for allowing me to pose the uncomfortable question. Lou

  • ertdfg
    17 February 2017 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Good plan, shoot for arms and legs.
    You’re more likely to miss and therefore needs more shots.
    Which means it’ll take longer and you’re more likely to BE shot.
    AND you are more likely to hit an innocent with a missed shot or ricochet.
    Win-Win-Win… or something.

    We must put everyone at risk to make criminals a bit safer.
    If you won’t think of the safety of poor violent criminals trying to kill cops and others…
    Who will?

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      17 February 2017 at 10:51 pm - Reply

      So what you’re saying is you’re not in favor of the Consensus policy? LOL. I was really surprised to see ELEVEN law enforcement groups put this suggestion out in model policy. Then again, these are groups of police politicians & executives; not cops. 😉

  • Paul H.
    18 February 2017 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    Something that really wasn’t mentioned is the minimal amounts of firearm training most officers receive from their departments. Budgets are tight as it is, which in turn makes it a small percentage those of us out on the streets who seek out additional firearms training on our own time/dime. I believe there is a time and place in thinking outside of the box, and being able to justify why an officer went outside of policy/SOG’s. I could possibly see the argument for warning shots but only in small select circumstances. I worry more about that one time that works, and the after effects that an uninformed public/media paints all cops in being able to make those shots. I think scenario and low light training needs to be brought to the forefront well before any warning shots become policy.

    • Lou Hayes Jr
      20 February 2017 at 9:35 am - Reply

      Paul, certainly the typical police officer receives woefully low amount of firearms training. Of the training s/he does receive, it’s generally of poor quality. This is of course, my opinion on low quality. The emphasis on slow, static marksmanship is completely over-hyped. The majority of training should be on decision-making in the strategic and tactical realms of: positioning, distancing, speed, lighting, spatial relationships, teamwork, emotional intelligence, and risk management. Until we start further addressing these aspects (even if at the expense of marksmanship exercises!), we will never have enough time with our learners doing the things that matter more. //

      You also bring up a valid point about going outside of policy/SOG. When the “right” decision falls outside the rules….it’s time to change the rules!

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