In two recent law enforcement involved shootings, officers unintentionally discharged their firearms under very stressful situations. Though the discharges may have occurred during felony or high-risk situations, a police officer cannot discharge their firearm unless they deliberately intend to do so under lawful guidelines of Constitutional and Statutory authority. This type of negligent discharge emphasizes the need to enforce the Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety, and to increase/enhance firearms training for officers.
Law enforcement and reputable firearms instructors should emphasize the Four Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety. The words of these rules may differ slightly across the nation, but their overall content does not.
Four Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety
- Treat every firearm as if they were loaded.
- Point your firearms in a safe direction — one where an unintentional discharge will cause NO HUMAN INJURY and, at most, minor property damage (AKA “the laser rule”).
- Keep your finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard, indexed along the frame or slide until you are on target and have decided to fire.
- Be sure of your target/threat, backstop, and beyond.
Scenario #1: Burglary Suspect Startle Shooting
In the first scenario officers from the Laurel, Virginia Police Department were dispatched to a local business on the report of a prowler. Upon arrival, officers observed a suspect inside the business, but temporarily lost sight of the suspect when he exited a door. However, officers were confident the suspect had not escaped due to the perimeter that was set up.
As officers begin searching areas around the exterior of the business they locate two exterior doors. The officer involved in the shooting uses a pistol-mounted light to shine in the windows of the exterior doors. This is seen in the small video box at the bottom left from one of the other officer’s body cam. The search with light is done with the pistol in the officer’s right hand, leading me to believe that is his primary hand.
Considering the threat of an unknown burglary suspect lingering nearby I have no problem with using the pistol-mounted light in this search mode – because an immediate use of deadly force may be necessary. However, the use of a pistol-mounted light should never be used for routine flashlight work, and officers should have a hand-held light readily available for those circumstances.
However, just prior to opening the door the officer transitions his pistol to his left hand to open the door with his right hand. It appears he positions himself so that as the door swings open he can be bladed for better cover. This is fine, as long as the officer is very proficient with off-handed shooting. We’ve written on the benefits of off-hand shooting before, but in this situation, it does not appear the officer is proficient. Therefore, I would not recommend this transition or position.
As the officer pulls one of the doors open he can see the suspect hiding in what appears to be a utility storage room. The discovery of the suspect surprises the officer, who, raises his sidearm quickly and discharges one round into the back of the unarmed suspect. The negligent shooting is obvious from the officer’s own words. The suspect was found to be unarmed.
There are several lessons to be drawn from this video. Some involve the individual officer’s actions, but some go beyond the individual to the agency’s stance on training. Laurel, Virginia is a city of a little less than 17,000 citizens, however, it is in the same county as the capital Richmond. From this description, we can understand there may be some limitations on the smaller city, but this is not a typical small town isolated in the middle of nowhere either. Rather, it is part of a much greater metropolitan area where resources are likely more abundant.
- Officers have light-mounted pistols and one AR-15 with EOTech optic
- At least four officers are present
- The shooter appears to be a supervisor (corporal)
- Transitioning can be good or bad
- Off-hand shooting ability is critical but must be mastered
- Cardinal rules of firearms safety must be adhered to strictly.
In this situation, the officers knew a burglary suspect was nearby and were relatively sure the perimeter had contained him. Therefore, each maneuver should be entered with the mindset that you WILL find him. In these scenarios, officers should not act and then respond (reaction is always slower than action). Instead, each movement should be taken with purpose and the belief that action will be required during the movement. At a minimum, this mental preparation places officers at a 50/50.
The supervisor should, in most occasions, should remain in the background. This provides the supervisor oversight and the ability to capture the picture as a whole rather than a microcosm focused on the immediacy and confines of being intimately involved in the planned movement.
With additional officers present, one officer should be tasked with opening the door, while another officer(s) are tasked with the immediate clearance with weapons and lights. This separation of duties increases officers reaction times to identified threats (the OODA Loop), and with proper use of cover and angles, can often bring greater success than simply having one officer do both functions.
Cardinal rules of firearms are not just for the training range. The absolute adherence to these rules must be followed on the streets. Yes, it places officers slightly behind the OODA Loop. So we use our tactical experience, proper lighting techniques, use of cover and angles to bring that balance more in our favor. The time to transition from the slide or frame of the pistol to the trigger literally takes tenths of a second and with proper threat identification and stress-induced training.
Here the Corporal had a series of events that led up to the fateful shooting. Any of these occurrences likely would not have ended in the shooting involved, but the combination of events appears to have overwhelmingly tipped the scales in that direction.
- He got too involved in actual movements.
- He does not direct other officers into better positions to cover the door opening
- He transitions to his off-hand to open the door.
- By opening the door with his strong hand, he is left with a one-handed shooting position
- His pistol is pointed down to the ground upon opening the door
- He does not use the weapon-light to clearly illuminate the suspect.
- Surprise at immediately seeing the suspect leads to startle fire.
- It is unknown if his finger was on the trigger before the shooting, or if his startled response simply led him to shoot, but either violates the Cardinal Rules.
There are still good things to be seen in this event. There are multiple officers on scene to assist in the search of a large building. At least one officer has a long gun. At least the corporal has a pistol-mounted light. Once the suspect is shot there is no hesitation to provide aid, a critical component in the review of the reasonableness of the force. Having a proper trauma kit, with tourniquets and pressure bandages, should be standard procedure for every police department.
Pistol-mounted lights are fantastic accessories, and when used properly (and trained with) can be game-changers in low light conditions. However, no accessory can trump good tactics and adherence to the Cardinal Rules of Firearm Safety.
Scenario #2: Taser Deployment Contagious Fire
Contagious Fire – an intentional firing of a firearm at a target/suspect, when the shooter hears another shot leading the officer to believe that shooting/deadly force is justified and necessary.
In the second scenario, officers in Baltimore, Maryland confront a mentally ill man wielding a knife. The incident occurs during the daytime at a busy intersection. Multiple officers are on scene and attempt to control the suspect’s movements, however, the male continues to move along the sidewalk potentially endangering motorists, pedestrians, or merchants in the immediate area.
The officers have body cameras and can be heard ordering the male to drop his knives multiple times but to no avail. Initially, there are three occupied cars on the street right next to the armed suspect, and obvious activity nearby. The Baltimore officers do a pretty good job of creating an impromptu arc perimeter around the suspect, but the suspect’s continuous movement can lead a reasonable observer that he was far from contained.
Despite pleading the with the suspect to drop his knives, and “we don’t want to do this”, the male continues to act aggressively. At 1:06 in the video the deployment of a Taser can be heard. Unfortunately, from the first video officer’s perspective, you can just barely hear any announcement of this tactical decision.
In fact, the deployment of the Taser is nearly simultaneous with the announcement, and the sudden deadly force shooting that follows right after. We have written before about the use of less-lethal options, and the need to clearly identify who will be the less-lethal officer, their lethal cover officer, and the announcement of the deployment of the less-lethal option.
The lack of a clear announcement causes what appears to be “contagious” fire at 1:07 in the video. Thankfully, the first shots miss the suspect, but unfortunately, it appears the Taser prongs also miss their target as well. The suspect responds by retreating closer to the intersection, providing him more options than he had when he was partially down the block on the sidewalk.
The officers then go back to attempting to negotiate with the suspect to drop his knives and surrender. The obviously amped up condition of the suspect has only made the situation worse. As the suspect continues to dance and move along the sidewalk additional commands to drop the knives are met with non-compliance, and finally at 1:16 (barely 10 seconds after the first shots), several officers fired at the suspect who is hit and drops to the ground.
When the video changes to the second officer (the Taser officer), you can see the officer preparing to deploy the Taser at 1:52 (not congruent with the first officer’s video time, but in line with the overall YouTube video time). Unfortunately, as can be clearly seen and heard, the Taser officer announces, “Taser, Taser, Taser” but has already deployed the Taser during the very first announcement. This mistake causes confusion among the other officers, and in my opinion, clearly led to “contagious” fire from at least one nearby officer.
Here is another tragic and unlawful shooting when a reserve deputy misidentified his service firearm as a Taser, fatally shooting a suspect on the ground and being handcuffed by other deputies.
The proper deployment of less lethal options requires the absolute and clear announcement of their deployment so there can be no confusion as to the noise (Taser, less lethal shotgun, etc.) that will be heard upon the deployment of that less lethal option. Though an announcement was made in this scenario, it came immediately upon the actual deployment instead of before. This led to the first video officer barely being able to hear the announcement, while other officers clearly misidentified the Taser deployment for a use of deadly force.
Contagious fire may not involve having a finger on the trigger already but could be viewed as a violation of Cardinal Rule of Firearm Safety #4 – knowing your target, backdrop and beyond. Before a law enforcement officer (or anyone really) deploys deadly force with a firearm they must be sure that the target is actually at that very moment a deadly threat.
The threat posed by this knife-wielding suspect is clear, but with distance, the immediate deadly threat can be mitigated. This argument opens a lot of discussions and will be reserved for another time, but the result here could easily be seen as “contagious” fire at a moment when deadly force was not absolutely necessary. Remember, one officer felt safe enough to approach with a Taser so the use of deadly force can be argued as unnecessary – at least at that very moment.
Ultimately, the Baltimore officers cannot simply allow this suspect to continue to move around in a threatening manner armed with knives and refusing orders to surrender peacefully. The use of deadly force will in all likelihood be found to be justifiable and the body cameras will clearly show that.
In this second scenario, we are dealing with officers from one of America’s major metropolitan cities. These officers routinely confront life-threatening and high-risk scenarios and tragically are confronted with deadly force situations at a much higher rate than many officers. However, their exposure and experience with these deadly situations do not make them immune from the failings of poor training or poor discipline.
There are several points to learn from this video:
- Initial approach of officers is very good
- Officers maintained their distance but had firearms at the ready
- Body cameras were turned on, greatly assisting in understanding this event
- Officers formed a relatively good arc perimeter
- Clear verbal commands, even pleadings, are made to the suspect
- An officer attempts a Taser deployment
- Taser announcements coincide with the deployment
- The contagious fire appears to be the result
- Officers regain composure and continue orders to surrender
- Deadly force is used after suspect movement and non-compliance.
In the end, the Baltimore shooting will undoubtedly be justified. The suspect, regardless of mental health issues, was armed with two knives, making threatening statements and gestures, and refused multiple commands to drop his knives and surrender. Officers attempted a less-lethal intervention, that unfortunately failed. Proper announcements and coordination in less-lethal deployment is critical and has to be incorporated into firearms, use of force, range, and force-on-force training.
In both situations, we saw the break down of the Cardinal Rules of Firearms Safety. In the first case, the result was much more egregious because the officer failed to properly identify the suspect’s threat level (he was unarmed) before deploying deadly force – startle fire.
In the second situation, a failure of less-lethal announcements before deployment, coupled with lethal cover officers not properly identifying the immediate threat level, led to premature deadly force – contagious fire. Both situations could have been handled more successfully with better training, implementation of that training, and better coordination and communication.
Perhaps one of the most troubling police-involved shootings in recent history occurred recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma. On September 17, 2016 Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby was dispatched to a suspicious vehicle call. Upon arrival, she found a large SUV stopped in the middle of a 2-lane roadway partially blocking both lanes of traffic.
While investigating she came into contact with a large black male (Terence Crutcher) who refused multiple commands to stop, show his hands, and to get down on the ground. For a portion of the contact, Crutcher can be seen walking with his hands up but away from the officer. Though not specifically mentioned in reports, video of backing officers show they are responding to the location in an emergency response. This indicates Officer Shelby had attempted to gain compliance (likely verbally) and was met with non-compliance from Crutcher who is much larger than her.
As multiple assisting officers arrive, Crutcher begins walking towards the driver’s door of the SUV. Just prior to being fatally shot by Officer Shelby, it appears Crutcher is reaching into the open window of the SUV with one hand while his other is reaching into a pants pocket.
NOTE: Whether the window was actually open is a point of strong contention between the prosecution and the defense for Officer Shelby in this case.
At 1:07 in the above video the first backing officer runs up to Officer Shelby and you can see the red laser dot from his Taser on the back of Crutcher. Though it is not as clear as the shot from Officer Shelby’s pistol a moment later, the Taser was deployed before the fatal shot. It appeared the Taser was deployed at 1:10 in the video.
That fatal shot was made at 1:11, literally a second or less after the Taser deployment. At the same time, Crutcher had lowered his hands with his right hand going towards his pants pocket, while his left hand appeared to be reaching inside the SUV.
Prior to the Taser and fatal shot, Officer Shelby had reported Crutcher had a 1000-yard stare, and was not obeying orders. Remember, citizens had initiated this police contact by calling in on Crutcher and his vehicle. Though Officer Shelby has some pretty solid evidence to support her belief Crutcher posed an imminent threat of deadly force, I believe there may be just as much evidence of a “startle fire” situation. As the Taser deployed, it is quite possible Officer Shelby fired a lethal shot being startled by the Taser while at the same time Crutcher has lowered his hands and is reaching.
The fact that PCP was found in Crutcher’s vehicle at the scene, and in his system during an autopsy, will obviously be a factor in this case, as was the significant size difference between Crutcher and Officer Shelby. However, the importance of training less-lethal deployment procedures will also have to be revisited to ensure “startle fire” incidents do not repeat themselves.
Without going into the obvious budgetary concerns and limitations, agencies and officers can still obtain significant firearms training through safe draw practice, dry-fire trigger control, fail to fire drills, and magazine changes. All of these can be accomplished with inexpensive plastic or Snap Caps rounds for safety, and the diligence to train and become proficient.
These unintentional shootings are not isolated to small-town cops with no training budget but can be seen in even the largest agencies where training becomes a logistical challenge and even still budgets can be stretched to their limits. Training, mindset, and diligence ultimately fall on each individual officer.