One of the realities of law enforcement is that higher-level police brass are typically more interested in protecting their own power and advancing their own careers than they care at all about the realities officers face on the street. That detached and self-serving mindset is probably behind a new recommendation by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (and allegedly some other law enforcement organizations) that law enforcement officers should be allowed to fire warning shots.
“There was a lot of discussion,” says the IACP’s Terry Cunningham, describing the process that led the 11 law enforcement organizations to include warning shots in the new consensus use of force policy. Cunningham was struck by the anecdotes of situations in which warning shots saved a life — or might have, had they been allowed.
The new policy still sets strict conditions for warning shots:
1. The use of deadly force is justified;
2. The warning shot will not pose a substantial risk of injury or death to the officer or others; and
3. The officer reasonably believes that the warning shot will reduce the possibility that deadly force will have to be used.
But Cunningham says the motivation for the change is to give officers a little more wiggle room when faced with a threat.
“We’re kind of entering into this new environment in use of force where everybody is trying to learn how to better de-escalate,” Cunningham says.
Many police trainers have come to believe that overly rigid use of force rules, however well-meant, may sometimes leave officers with no other option than to kill someone. The new model policy is a response to those concerns.
“Why not give the officers more tools?” Cunningham says. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Let’s look over the proposed policy, shall we? It would allow warning shots when the following conditions are met:
- The use of deadly force is justified;
- The warning shot will not pose a substantial risk of injury or death to the officer or others; and
- The officer reasonably believes that the warning shot will reduce the possibility that deadly force will have to be used.
Let’s unpack this, shall we?
If the situation is so dire that deadly force of justified, then officers should probably be doing what?
My training and the training of pretty much every law enforcement officer and other civilians in the United States is that if you encounter a deadly force situation, that you engage the threat with rounds fired at the center of exposed mass of the threat in order to stop the threat’s ability to harm or kill others.
This new warning shot policy recommendation suggests that officers engaged in a deadly force encounter should take the time to look beyond the threat to see if there is a safe backstop for them to fire a bullet. I do not see this being a viable tactic for patrol officers in a typical encounter that occurs with little or no warning, nor one that will do anything other than greatly increase the risk of innocent bystanders being hit when officers making a split-second decision to fire a warning shot pick a poor choice of backstop that will either fail to stop the projectile, or cause the round to ricochet. In either event, a round was launched when it was not needed to be fired.
Again, the training has long been that the only time a round should be fired is when there is an imminent deadly force threat that must be engaged with shots on target.
This policy muddies the waters, creating a multi-part problem.
- Officers will be questioned by internal affairs, prosecutors, and perhaps adversarial attorneys in legal proceedings against the officers why the threat was severe enough to justify discharging a weapon, but not directly at the threat.
- Officers are still responsible for whatever projectiles they fire, and if those warning shots destroy property, or injure or kill innocent bystanders, they will be held accountable.
- This policy will require very controversial retraining of generations of law enforcement officers.
There are only four justifications I could see for such a policy.
- To provide political cover for law enforcement brass, to excuse poor quality and infrequent training provided by many agencies, and the typically substandard marksmanship that results. “He didn’t miss! He fired four warning shots!”
- Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) scenarios, in which officers with specialized training use either use accurately placed and carefully consider suppressive fire to keep a threat pinned down to protect innocent lives.
- To provide political cover for law enforcement brass, to hang patrol officers out to dry and to protect their own careers in the event of a controversial shooting. “Officer Doe had the option of firing a warning shot in this scenario according to our policy. You can’t blame me for this.”
- To provide political cover for law enforcement brass who are receiving pressure from elected officials educated by the entertainment fantasy industry that “shooting to wound” is a viable alternative, apparently completely unaware of the reality that arms and legs still have major arteries, and that a shot to the knee, thigh, elbow, bicep, or should could still result in a fatal bleed-out within seconds or minutes, leaving the officer who fired the shot hung out to try as he explains he was trying to “shoot to wound.”
You’ll note that three out of four of the reasons to justify warning shots are politically driven, making me wonder just who the International Association of Chiefs of Police is trying to protect.
I don’t think the policy was designed to protect the officers on the street, but their chair-bound bosses.
The idea is very controversial in the firearms instructor groups I’m apart of online, with many professional instructors noting that warning shots will likely have the effect of making hardened criminals try that much harder to fight or escape.
Towards the end of the NPR article, Massad Ayoob, one of the most respected and influential firearms trainers and use of force experts alive today blasted the proposed policy.
The rules allowing police to use deadly force are clear: If an officer reasonably perceives someone to be an imminent mortal threat, the officer is allowed to shoot. Adding the possibility of warning shots to that decision-making process could confuse things.
“If a danger ipso facto is that immediate, why are we taking our eyes off the threat and firing a warning shot?” he asks. “If deadly force is justified, deadly force should probably be applied.”