While the vast majority of police officers around the country (not to mention civilian gun owners) are trained to aim for center mass if they’re ever forced to use their firearm in self-defense, it’s not uncommon to hear non-gun owners ask “why didn’t they just aim for the arm/leg” when stories of officer-involved shootings take place. That was a common refrain after 16-year old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by a Columbus, Ohio police officer earlier this year as she lunged towards another teen with a knife in her hand, and I’m sure we’ll hear the same question raised in the future, especially since a police chief in Georgia is now instructing officers that aiming for center mass isn’t always the right thing to do.
As you can imagine, the Washington Post absolutely love the idea put forth by LaGrange, Georgia police chief Louis Dekmar, though most law enforcement officers quoted by the paper take a dim view of Dekmar’s new tactic.
The chief’s “Shoot to Incapacitate” program has drawn interest from academics who say it merits further study. In the national law enforcement community, however, it has elicited harsh, widespread criticism.
Other police leaders in Georgia found the idea so controversial that they made it a focus of their annual conference in August, flying in nine experts to discuss the pros and cons. One group’s executive director will soon release a position paper advising departments throughout the state not to follow Dekmar’s lead.
While such a policy might be supported by the public, explained John B. Edwards of the Peace Officers Association of Georgia, most agencies would find it impossible to implement. “It’s opened Pandora’s box,” he said.
First of all, every department has a “shoot to incapacitate” policy in place. Aiming for center mass is, in fact, shooting to incapacitate. As Federal Way, Washington deputy police chief Kyle Sumpter explained earlier this year when he ran across Dekmar’s training plan, what the LaGrange chief is really adopting is a strategy of compliance through pain.
The ability to hit a limb depends on the officer’s skill and equanimity, and the unique environment of each encounter. Obviously, the more dynamic the situation is, the less likely a limb will be intentionally struck. But assuming a hit is scored, it is not logical to suggest or assume we can rapidly incapacitate a person by shooting them in the pelvic region, abdomen, legs and arms (PALA).
To aim for PALA is to hope for the cessation of the threat, based on the assailant’s choice. It may work in some cases, especially when the assailant is not dedicated to resisting and the assailant’s weapon is not a firearm, so I won’t say never. But incapacitation should not be expected, and we should not, therefore, refer to the technique as “shooting to incapacitate.”
By avoiding the body’s physiologically incapacitating target zones we are, instead, hoping to achieve pain compliance. We hope that a person shot in PALA will perceive pain, will not want more pain, and will choose to comply in order to avoid more pain instead of continuing their dangerous aggression. Pain compliance relies on perception and psychology by a person whose pain may be blocked or ignored and whose psychology is already in question.
To help distinguish techniques, when an officer intentionally targets PALA we should call that “shooting for compliance.” Shooting for compliance is based on the hope that bullets will influence the dangerous person, not incapacitate them. With influence-based shooting, we must remember that compliance of any kind changes as easily as any human changes their mind. As long as the dangerous person has volition, a new assault remains possible.
“Pain compliance” doesn’t sound quite as touchy-feely as “shooting to incapacitate,” so I don’t blame Chief Dekmar’s attempt at re-branding. I’m just not convinced that this is about public safety as much as it is public relations.
Eric Daigle, a former officer and attorney who is now a law enforcement consultant in Connecticut, said that “shoot to incapacitate” adds even more complexity to situations in which officers must react quickly to protect their own lives. In that moment, he said, the policy forces them to decide whether their most deadly weapon should be used in a less deadly way.
“One thing we know for sure is that’s too much for a human being to process in a split second,” Daigle said. Best to keep it consistent and simple.
Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina, had a different take. Though he has gone through the LaGrange training, he remains hesitant about it and especially uncertain that it would work for other agencies.
Policing in the United States remains highly localized, he noted: “Policing in a democracy means that a community gets to define what ‘good’ policing looks like, and that definition may vary a bit from place to place.”
Still, he isn’t dismissing what Dekmar is doing. After controversial police shootings that end in death, people often ask why an officer couldn’t have shot the person in a leg or arm. Departments are quick to recite a litany of reasons. Stoughton wonders if it’s time to reexamine those.
Preservation of human life should be the highest priority in policing, Stoughton stressed in an interview after the conference, and that alone should cause leaders to examine LaGrange’s policy with an open mind.
I think it’s fine to keep an open mind, but honestly, I also think there’s a reason why so many in law enforcement are opposed to the idea and it’s not because they’re all a bunch of trigger-happy loons. If an officer draws their weapon, it should only be in a circumstance where the use of deadly force is appropriate. And yes, shooting a suspect in the leg is still using deadly force, even if the intent was only to incapacitate. In circumstances where there is not an imminent threat of death or great bodily injury to an officer or others, then lethal force should not be used. That’s a pretty simple metric, but it’s not good enough for the Washington Post, which appears to be advocating the view that as long as officers aren’t aiming for center mass, their lethal weapons can become less-than-lethal devices.