Is it reasonable for police officers to shoot a suicidal man holding a gun to his own head?  A new reaction time study clearly illustrates how dangerous an armed suspect is to responding officers.

The study headed by J. Pete Blair, Ph.D. examined the reaction time of police officers when confronting a subject armed with a handgun.  The results are eye opening, confirming what many of us already knew from running similar drills in our own training classes.

Essentially, Blair took experienced SWAT officers (average 10 years on the job, 5 years on a team) and ran them against criminal justice students.  In the scenarios, the SWAT officers were sent to a “man with a gun” call, and encountered one of the students at a distance of about 10 feet.

In the scenarios, the officers already had their gun pointed at the suspect.  The suspect, however, had their pistol pointed either at the ground or at their own head appearing ready to commit suicide.  The officers were instructed to shoot the suspect as soon as the suspect made a move to shoot the officer.

Study Results

The results were not good.

The suspects were able to get their first shot off at the officer in an average of just 0.38 seconds.  The highly trained officers lagged behind with an average time to first shot of 0.39 seconds.

Reaction TimeIf you believe 0.01 seconds to be an insignificant measurement, look at it this way:  the study showed the inexperienced suspects shot first or exactly tied the highly trained and experienced officers 60% of the time.  Not good.

Two things to keep in mind about this study – the conditions and suspect incapacitation.

Ideal Conditions – This reaction time study was conducted in ideal conditions for the officers.  The SWAT cops went into the scenario knowing they would encounter an armed subject, and they knew they would likely shoot the suspect.

Additionally, there were no outside distractions, the suspect was not moving and the suspect made no attempt to deceive the officer by feigning compliance.  Also, the testing was done in full light, not the low light conditions we often work in.

Lastly, none of the officers reported perceptual narrowing or other distortions associated with body alarm response.

All of these things could drastically alter officer reaction times.

Incapacitation – Even if the officers are a fraction of a second faster, how long does it take for bullets to incapacitate a suspect?  If the suspect is hit center mass, it will take a few seconds for massive blood loss to render the suspect unable to shoot you.  So an officer that is twice as fast as the suspect may not be in less danger from being shot.


This study does not give law enforcement the “go ahead” to shoot all armed suspects.  But, the study does reinforce the notion that you cannot react quick enough to beat an act.  In other words, you are behind the curve when it comes to confronting armed suspects.  “Being fast” isn’t likely to ensure survival.

Remember that distance is your friend.  If you are already aiming at a subject who suddenly points a gun at you, you may be slightly slower, but you are also likely to be more accurate.  The longer the distance, the less accurate they are and the more accurate you can be.

The suspect is also less likely to hit you if you are properly using cover.

No matter what you do, make sure your actions conform to department policy and the law.  For those just joining us, Graham v. Connor is the “touchstone” for the reasonable use of force.  But, Graham is mostly a restating of Tennessee v. Garner.

Plus, there have been dozens (hundreds?) of cases since then in the federal appellate courts that have further refined Graham v. Connor.  Read a few of them to get a better idea of how the courts look at police use of force.  Your freedom could depend on it.

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Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

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