June 11, 2005

Shooter Control

From CNN:
More than a dozen Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies will be disciplined for their roles in a controversial shooting incident in which more than 120 rounds were fired at a vehicle driven by an unarmed suspect, Sheriff Lee Baca announced Thursday. The 13 deputies will face punishments ranging from written reprimands to 15-day suspensions, Baca said.

During the May 9 incident, a suspect led police on a 12-minute chase through Compton, considered one of the more dangerous cities in Southern California.
The chase ended when officers surrounded the vehicle and opened fire. The driver, 44-year-old Winston Hayes, was hit four times but survived.
One deputy was also wounded, Baca has said, possibly by so-called friendly fire...

…Baca said the department has changed its policies on firing at moving vehicles, requiring that deputies independently decide whether to shoot, rather than all firing at a single command.

Um, yeah.

I watched the video several times, and the things that amazed me most about this incident were (a) the shoddy marksmanship of the L.A. County Sheriff's Dept., and (b) a complete and utter disregard for fire discipline by the deputies on-scene.

Part of the problem involves policy.

As noted above, deputies were told to fire at a single command. While the details of the shooting policy in place at the time are not explicitly detailed, the implication is that deputies were compelled to fire at a verbal command, regardless of how advantageous their firing position was at the time. This means that a deputy at the right rear of the vehicle (and there was more than one shown on the video) or other position without a clear line of site to the target (or anything else behind the target) was expected to discharge his weapon.

This is a patently dangerous policy.

Obscured by the mass of the SUV driven by the suspect, these deputies were quite literally firing blind, and had little chance of hitting the suspect. In addition, the bulk of the vehicle blocking their line of site also meant that they had little indication of where the rounds they fired might end up. Where these rounds did end up was obvious—in one deputy, and in the walls of houses in the area in addition to the suspect vehicle. With 120 rounds fired in a circular firing squad (men in a circle, firing at a target in the middle), it is a minor miracle that no one died.

Luckily, this “spray and pray” policy has been abandoned in favor of a policy relying on the independent judgement of individual officers. This is a move in the right direction, but it only will work if training is sufficient, both in terms of combat marksmanship and in terms of teaching proper shoot/no shoot situations.

It may be a surprise to many, but most police officers are not “gun people.”

They are people who have dedicated their lives to public service, and more often than not in law enforcement, a handgun (and occasionally shotguns, carbines, and true assault weapons for SWAT or ESU teams) is just another piece of their gear. Many officers never fired a gun before joining law enforcement, and many officers never take their guns out of their holsters except to maintain a department-mandated level of basic proficiency. Herein lies the problem.

Law enforcement officers generally only deploy their handguns in high-risk situations when they perceive a threat to themselves or others. In these situations their pulse rate quickens and as a result, the fine motor skills needed to accurately shoot a handgun diminish significantly. At this point, their training completely fails them.

Firearms training for many officers around the country still follows an archaic system of shooting at un-obscured static (non-moving) paper targets from a fixed position in the known and usually well-lit environment of indoor and outdoor shooting ranges.

These situations are completely divorced from the reality of a world where the “target” is often at least partially hidden, prone to quick, often erratic movements, and quite capable of returning fire. In addition, instead of occurring in a range where downrange safety is assumed and almost a given, most officer-involved shootings occur in populated areas where there is a significant risk of downrange targets being hit be the officer's bullet.

What's more, it is quite possible and even likely that with the kind of ammunition used by most departments (zero-expansion “ball” and controlled-expansion hollowpoint bullets), that even a direct hit on the target can overpenetrate, going completely thorough the suspect and killing or maiming innocent bystanders.

Because of this unrealistic training environment, officers are all but doomed to fail in the real world, as this example by the L.A. Sheriff's Dept. shows.

In an ideal world, police officer's would be trained in the high-stress and varying “shoot house” environments common to emergency services and SWAT team personnel, where officers are forced into unknown situations with “no shoot” civilians, and physical barriers controlling the tone for the engagement.
Unfortunately, these live-fire “shoot houses” are themselves hazardous for officers without significant levels of training, and are prohibitively expensive to maintain.

A compromise can be struck between these two extremes that while still not ideal, is significantly better than the “old school” range training too many departments still use. Departments can build less expensive “shoot house” environments and officers can be training using so-called “simunitions,” which are special training cartridges that function in the officer's duty weapon (thus better familiarizing officer's with their weapon in high-stress environments) while not posing lethal risk.

Until these more realistic training environments become standard, you can continue to expect more situations where officers put themselves and others at risk due to antiquated training and policies.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at June 11, 2005 11:04 PM