Recently I was reviewing some literature on the terminology used in law enforcement and its implications in court and in the public opinion. Being a Team Leader for the Cover Team of my agency I found particular interest in the terminology we use for the officers on our team who are trained in the use of precision rifles. So here’s the discussion topic – do we call our precision rifle officers “snipers” or “marksmen”.
At first it sounds like a simple play on words, no big deal, right? But a closer look at common dictionary definitions may reveal a strong argument for criminal defense lawyers and civil liability lawyers alike, should the particulars of a precision rifle shot be the focus of a court case.
Here’s what I found for “sniper“:
Dictionary.com defines “sniper” as:
- A skilled military shooter detailed to spot and pick off enemy soldiers from a concealed place.
- One who shoots at other people from a concealed place.
Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “sniper” as:
1 : to shoot at exposed individuals (as of an enemy’s forces) from a usually concealed point of vantage.
On the other hand here are some definitions of “marksmen“:
Webster’s online dictionary defines “marksman” as:
1. Someone skilled in shooting.
Dictionary.com defines “marksman as:
1. a person who is skilled in shooting at a mark; a person who shoots well.
As you can see, there seems to be a clear distinction between a “sniper” and a “marksman”. The “sniper” seems to be someone involved in military operations, and is trained to shoot people from concealed locations. A “marksman” on the other hand is someone skilled in shooting. The first, may take on a more sinister image in the public eye or in the view of a court. The second merely refers to someone skilled in shooting. Obviously, we all know that police precision rifle shooters are going to use cover and concealment to carry out their duties to the fullest and safest means possible. And, we all know that police precision rifle shooters primarily provide intelligence for the overall operation, and thankfully are not called upon to use deadly force on a regular basis. But, when those shooters have to end a threat through precise rifle marksmanship, what is it going to look like in the papers, public opinion, and in the courts? Especially if this completely justified use of deadly force has to be taken out on say a juvenile, an elderly person, or a person with mental illness?
This is where I see a slick attorney coming in and trying to demonize the police action and using our own terminology against us. Can you imagine using the definitions above in court? Can’t you just hear the attorney basically telling the jury that the “sniper” is a trained killer (by definition) and that the police had no intentions of resolving the situation by peaceful means but instead purposefully meant to end the situation by killing the subject – otherwise they would not have deployed “snipers”. And the attorney could conjure up many images of sneak attacks by snipers from military history and movies alike.
On the other hand, by using the term “marksman”, we find a definition that could actually help the police in these situations. These are now not trained killers, but simply specially trained police officers. The images associated with this definition are more along the lines of someone target practicing, or even an Olympic shooter. This may seem like a topic not worth discussing, but in today’s litigious environment we see more and more lawsuits based on conjecture rather than fact. And there are plenty of lawyers out there willing to make a shot in the dark (no pun intended) in trying to take money out of the “deep pockets” of some police department and their government entity.
I’m not saying that I’ve totally weighed in on the side of calling police precision rifle shooters “marksman”, but I think the idea and thoughts behind it merit discussion in the community. What do you think?
Aaron is a sergeant with a midwestern police department, where he serves as a trainer, supervisor and SWAT sniper. In addition to his broad tactical knowledge, Aaron has experience in DUI, DRE and undercover narcotics investigations.