Rethinking Center-Mass Shooting

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Police need to rethink their training and align it more closely with what a great number of citizens are asking today with regard to the taking of human life. It is a thought-process inclined more toward the morality of an act (doing the right thing) than what is legally permissible to do.

I want to challenge two sacred police cows:

  • “We shoot to stop, not to kill — because hitting center-mass (heart, chest and lungs) is the most effective way to stop an assailant.
  • “It is too dangerous for us to shoot a person anywhere else except center-mass.”

When police talk about stopping persons who are threatening them with a firearm, both sacred cows can stand unchallenged. It’s dangerous to confront a person pointing a gun or has taken a shot at you. Police must shoot quickly, and at center-mass in order to remove the threat. If they shoot anywhere other than center-mass, they endanger themselves and others — and they shoot until the threat is stopped.

That makes sense. During most of my 30+ years as a police officer, that’s the way I was trained with the exception for the number of shots. When I was first trained as a police officer we were told to shoot once, center-mass. Later, force experts advocated a two-shot, double-tap, sequence of center-mass/head in order to stop an assailant that may be wearing body armor. Also, two shots to a person were more liking to stop the threat than one.

Now let’s look at situations not involving assailants with firearms. Reviewing what is going on today, I question whether this training strategy is inappropriate with regard to stopping unarmed persons, or persons with edged weapons, whom police feel pose a threat.

Here’s some suggestions for police to ponder:

When a non-complying, threatening person who does not have a firearm, but whom an officer feels could disarm him and take away his weapon, why not back away and fire one shot into the assailant’s thigh? It will certainly stop him, but with rapid First Aid, will not usually result in his death. Why can that not be considered an acceptable technique to use? It will stop an assailant, but also save a life.

Among the thousands of police shooting videos on the Internet, a number of officers are often seen standing around a mentally ill person with a knife and, suddenly everyone shoots when the person takes a step forward. Again, why doesn’t one officer take an aimed shot into the assailant’s upper thigh? Striking the upper thigh is certainly possible. After all, marksmanship should count for something in police work. And, in this case, a life could be saved.

The safety of our police is also important: their lives can still be protected if the first shot does not bring down an assailant by them backing off, using cover, or applying more force if needed.

The policies of most police departments do not permit officers to shoot assailants other than center-mass. Giving them this alternative in these situations will save lives.

Now let’s have a discussion from both police practitioners and community members. What do you think?

NOTE: After writing this post I received this. Take a look at what the forward-thinking Czech Republic police are up to: http://www.policeone.com/use-of-force/articles/3468104-Shooting-center-mass-Im-told-we-kill-everyone/

 

29 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. In many EU countries (e.g. Finland, Denmark, Czech Republic, etc.) it is police policy to shoot for the legs if not facing a subject with a gun – e.g. if the subject has a knife (and even if the subject possesses a gun, if officers have good cover, they will sometimes aim for the legs). And that policy works well. It’s unchallenged dogma in the U.S. that officers need to shoot center-mass.

    As one European writer wrote: “Most European police forces have orders to aim at the legs….a large proportion of the situations where police officers draw firearms are against mentally ill people, whom it would be amoral to kill just because they threaten someone with a weapon.”

    Here’s one article about practice in the Czech Republic:
    http://www.policeone.com/use-of-force/articles/3468104-Shooting-center-mass-Im-told-we-kill-everyone/

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  2. Okay…
    Let’s make sure I understand this correctly
    Instead of aiming at a target that is 18+ inches, fairly consistent in relational position — you suggest police aim at a 6 to 8 inch wide target that moves in greater proportion ?

    Never mind the fact that people are still capable of moving after being hit on the extremity, never mind the fact that a hit to the thigh could cause femoral artery bleeding and still kill the person?

    After all, marksmanship should count for something in police work.

    The question in my mind is how many officers around the country actually practice to the point of being able to hit that size of a target under stress?

    I’ve tried the “shooting the gun out of his hand” and “shoot to wound” –both arm and leg –while standing static on a target range. I probably shoot as much or more often than most officers (Membership Secretary for a gun range here ) — it is very difficult to do.

    And while on the subject of difficulty, let’s talk about the NYC police shooting where they were trying to hit center of mass and injured 9 bystanders !! How many more innocent people would be hit if police go for the more difficult shot?

    Bob S.

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      1. I would like to see a couple pieces of data
        First, how many times do the police have to shoot.
        Second, the number of fatalities versus injuries for those shots.
        Third, the number of innocent bystanders injured if any.

        It is well and good to read that they are training that way but is there any evidence is it working as planned?

        Bob S.

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  3. I guess if the situation allows time and coordination for police to engage with one single shot to the thigh it would work I suppose. The only thing to worry about is sympathy shots via other officers following suit after initial shot is fired (as they will most certainly be jumpy). Or pass through with less flesh to stop the round more likely to keep traveling via ricochet etc. I would also think it would depend on how many assailants you have. It would be similar to utilizing a sniper you have the time you have the preparations for aftermath, prepared but for instant reaction it might not work. As fine motor skills deteriorate thinking to shoot for a smaller body part might end badly for officer.

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  4. The related article is interesting. The trainer appears to be saying that aiming for the leg is only in close quarters situations from just a couple meters away. Okay, I can understand how a leg shot would be easier to make in these situations than if farther away. However, I’m struggling to come up with scenarios where this would be relevant. If you are shooting to begin with then it’s a deadly force scenario, correct? It means they have put your life or the life of someone else in danger. Well if this is happening within a few feet of you, what scenario warrants a leg shot, since the goal is to stop the threat as quickly as possible? The trainer seems to be saying that the leg shot will stop the threat simply because of pain. Well we know that relying on pain to stop the threat is not a good idea. So if someone is a few feet away from me swinging a club, what sense does it make to shoot in the leg and pray the person doesn’t fight through the pain to hit me with the club? I’m open to possible scenarios, but might weak brain just isn’t able to come up with any right now. Any help?

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    1. I posted these thoughts because we need to think about alternatives. Deadly force is not good for either officers or community relations. Maybe I’m an old-timer, but I remember the adage not to take that firearm unless I intended to use it. Frankly, I preferred the 36 inch baton and taught it for years. Something must be done. We have a most educated cops in the history of American policing. If we ask them to be creative, to tackle this problem, we will get a solution. How about the POP method as a starter?

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      1. I’m with you on alternative methods. I carry taser and have never had to use it. Many times, de-escalation techniques prevent us from getting to the point of a physical altercation. I’m all for the bright minds getting together and coming up with solutions. My concern would be that even if some rare scenarios were thought of that it would make sense to shoot in the leg, how do you train this? I don’t mean practicing hitting the legs at the range. I mean how do you train an officer who has to decide in a split second if this is that rare shoot in the leg scenario or if he/she is having to use deadly force? I fear it will make officers hesitate and could potentially be disastrous. Training for difference scenarios sounds like it should be easy but again we are talking about a situation where you have to fire your weapon anyway which means a situation where your life or someone else’s is hanging in the balance and you have to make a split second decision. Anyway, I hope this isn’t coming off as attacking. I’m just thinking out loud here. I really am open to having my mind changed. I guess I should look around for more articles on the subject of shooting to injure from trainers.

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      2. No, I hear you. How about contacting those officers in the Czech Republic that routinely shoot two types: deadly and non-deadly. Did you see this on PoliceOne.com? Bears checking into along with other European PDs. I really had my eyes open when I had a chance to study European police when I was a grad student — it was a lot easier for me to consider “softer” crowd control measures and women in uniform patrol after I witnessed these things in 1969: http://www.policeone.com/use-of-force/articles/3468104-Shooting-center-mass-Im-told-we-kill-everyone/

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  5. It’s not allowing me to reply directly to your post, so I will add my reply here. Yes I read that link. That’s the trainer who I was referring to in my original comment. That link you provided is the 2nd of a 3 part series of articles. In the third article, the author struggles to come up with a scenario where shooting in the leg to wound would be a reasonable option. These articles were also all the way back in 2011 and I’ve seen no updated content from this author indicating he has found a non-lethal shooting scenario. I’m not sure how a regular guy like me contacts the Czech Republic officers about the topic, but I suppose I could look into it. Again, I’m open to other opinions and exploring all options. I just think it’s also okay to admit to ourselves that after exploring other options, maybe we didn’t have this center mass shooting thing wrong to begin with. Deadly force is a bad thing for officers and community relations, it’s true. This doesn’t mean that center mass practices are the cause. The problem in my opinion is in the nature of the deadly force situation itself, because a completely justified use of deadly force still hurts community relations.

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    1. That’s where we are today – and it is a difficult place to be — that ANY use of deadly force will now become a community incident and impact relations. So, where to from here? We need the very best minds to help move police forward. Do we need alternatives? Yes, I did post a piece on a less-than-deadly projectile that can easily be put on a standard handgun a while back. I also have advocated 6′ wooden staffs to deal with persons with edged and blunt weapons… but I think there are alternatives to using deadly force on persons who do not have a firearm. We’re a smart people. We can do this.

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  6. Some additional international perspective.
    It’s not just Czech police shooting at the legs and it’s definitely not novel or forward thinking policy, it’s just the way it’s done. I’m no expert on the rest of Europe but I know the legs are the primary target in Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, center of mass only when absolutely warranted or leg isn’t feasible due to too much or too little distance.
    First time I encountered the American mantra of “shooting at the legs, firing warning shots, aiming your gun without intent to fire but only as a grave warning… that’s only in the movies” I was floored. Our police do all those things even though they are apparently deemed unrealistic and unprofessional in the states. We violate all your sacred cows, not out of carelessness but as very deliberate policy. Needless to say it’s working just fine.
    I wonder why the perspectives are not only so completely opposite but also seemingly unaware of each other. Probably has a lot to do with the prevalence of armed citizens in the US but that can in no way explain or justify US police basically not even being ALLOWED to shoot a confused mentally ill knife wielding man in the leg, back up and reassess.

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  7. Some additional international perspective.
    It’s not just Czech police shooting at the legs and it’s definitely not novel or forward thinking policy, it’s just the way it’s done and the way it’s always been done. I’m no expert on the rest of Europe but I know the legs are the primary target in Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia, center of mass only when absolutely warranted or leg isn’t feasible due to too much or not enough distance.
    Our police also fire warning shots, brandish and aim their guns as a warning without intention to fire, basically violate all American sacred cows of police firearms safety, not out of carelessness but as deliberate and effective policy.
    It seems to be working just fine, first time I encountered the American perspective of “those are all very dangerous things, that’s only in the movies” I was floored. Because needless to say police around here are a lot safer with their guns…

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  8. You do realize that you have a femoral artery that runs along the inner thigh. If you shoot that artery, a person can bleed out rapidly. You can also shatter their femur depending upon the caliber of the weapon.

    Shooting center of mass is useful because it is a bigger target and aiming for that when you have adrenaline coursing through your own veins you have a better chance to hit.

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    1. A life-threatening danger always exists when one discharges a firearm at another person. I still think we need to be more controlled as a profession in how we use deadly (and “non-deadly”) force. You make a good point.

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  9. We don’t seem to attract the best and brightest people to law enforcement and even if we do, we seem to get rid of them as fast as possible. Secondly, there is extreme prejudice against intellectualism in the USA as both a social and cultural attitude. Thirdly, there is this attitude that if it wasn’t invented in the good old USA, then it doesn’t work and will never work. Finally, Americans don’t like to admit that people in other countries can come up with excellent ideas in all areas of life which goes back to Number 3, that if it wasn’t invented in the USA, it is no good at all let alone worth considering.

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