HARSH REALITY: Police Are Not Highly Trained Firearms Experts
“The unidentified suspect was swearing at customers in the store and acting aggressively toward Food Emporium workers before his death.
A cop working a nearby Verizon picket line greeted the aggressive suspect outside the store, with a brawl ensuing that left both men on the ground, said O’Neill.
The officer escaped the man’s grasp, and the suspect then pulled the long blade, said O’Neill. He started menacingly toward the first cop and two other officers arriving at the scene, cops said.
The man ignored orders to drop the knife, and one of the officers and a sergeant began shooting. A 46-year-old female bystander at the busy intersection was winged and wounded by one of the [nine] police bullets.”
A careful, but hardly exhaustive, study of reality reveals that common knowledge is wrong: where firearms are involved, the police are not highly trained professionals. That many people buy this misconception is understandable. Americans are raised on a steady diet of cop TV shows and movies where the heroes, virtually every episode, end up shooting bad guys, usually dropping them with single, perfectly placed, shots, or even shooting to wound, which virtually always immediately drops and incapacitates the bad guy.
The truth is—and should be—frightening: the overwhelming majority of police officers are not competent shooters.
Many police officers own few, if any, handguns, and many more own only a shotgun or a .22LR rifle of some kind. They rarely, if ever, practice on their own, and only a tiny portion of all police officers use their own time and money to attend advanced shooting or tactical schools, things a great many citizens routinely do. Far too many officers have only a single firearm: their issued duty handgun. Often, that handgun, as in the case of New York City, is a serious problem in and of itself.
in a September, 2013 article—New York City Police Shoot Up the Citizenry Again—I wrote about one of several shootings where the police accidently shot citizens. In one infamous case, two officers shot not only an actual killer, but nine innocent bystanders. Fortunately, all of them survived. In almost all of these recent shootings, the officers were justified in using deadly force. They just couldn’t help shooting up the innocent.
A major contributing factor is the NYPD requires 12-pound triggers on their officer’s issued handguns. Twelve-pound triggers greatly complicate accurate shooting, particularly when repeat shots are required. The heavier and longer the trigger pull, the more difficult it is to obtain consistent shot to shot accuracy. Triggers in the 12-pound range predictably cause officers to miss, and to miss badly. Consider that standard Glock triggers, those sold to the public, require only a 5.5 pound pull. Combine extremely heavy triggers with the mediocre training common to police agencies, and it would only be surprising if the police didn’t shoot innocents.
Many Law Enforcement Organizations (LEOs) are inherently anti-gun. They don’t trust their officers, and they fear accidental discharges far more than the consequences of accidently shooting citizens. Rather than spending the time and money necessary to maximize shooting accuracy and effectiveness, they focus on trying to prevent accidental discharges through mechanical means.
Some LEOs do provide professional firearms and competent training, but most don’t. Full-agency qualifications are very expensive, not only in ammunition, but in manpower. Qualifications take many days because officers must be taken off the street, which requires double shifts of officers not being trained. This usually means enormous overtime costs.
Most officers are introduced to their duty handguns at some point during either their basic agency academy or basic state academy. Many states require a common basic academy for all certified officers, and virtually all agencies require their own in-house academy and a field-training program. The public doesn’t realize that officers in most places won’t be patrolling solo for nearly a year from their hire date.
Basic training experiences normally consist of basic handgun safety, marksmanship and rudimentary maintenance. They may be exposed to some sort of shoot/don’t shoot training. Shooting more than 200 rounds in basic training is unusual. Often, recruits fire only lightly-loaded practice ammunition, which has characteristics very different from duty ammo.
Officers qualify—shoot for a recorded score—usually no more than twice a year, and for most, only once. Qualifications normally consist of shooting only standard, stationary silhouette targets at known, never-changing, ranges. Usually, 25 yards is the outer limit. No more than 50 rounds are normally fired, and passing scores are generous, as low as 70%–hitting the target with only 35 out of 50 rounds. Virtually all allow reshooting as many times as necessary to pass. Hiring and training new officers because the old can’t shoot is prohibitively expensive.
Some agencies set up more advanced tactical training with a variety of targets and scenarios officers might encounter, but this is not common, as it requires specialized equipment and weapons of all kinds, to say nothing of manpower expenses.
What about shotgun or rifle training? Most agencies still carry shotguns, but some are transitioning to AR-15 type carbines. Such weapons pose their own problems. In most cases, officers are even less familiar with these weapons than their issued handguns. Training and qualification is commonly done less often than handgun qualification, and most often, fewer rounds are fired.
Shotguns and rifles are normally assigned to a patrol vehicle, not an individual officer. Because all firearms must be sighted for the individual using them, this is an enormous handicap.
Qualification shotguns or rifles are seldom those carried by officers in their cars, but a few spare armory guns. An officer may do no more than fire a few buckshot rounds and a few slug rounds at targets at short ranges. As long as they manage to mostly hit the targets, that’s sufficient. This means that officers will normally have no idea how the shotguns they might actually use will pattern at any reasonable range.
Carbine qualification is equally sparse. It’s usually conducted on ranges of no more than 50 yards, and usually no more than 30 rounds—a standard magazine—are fired. Rifle ammunition is expensive. As with shotguns, most officers will never qualify with the rifle assigned their shared patrol vehicle; they have no idea where that gun is sighted.
Some agencies do require gun cleaning after qualification and provide the means, which is good, as many officers have no idea how to properly clean their guns, nor do they own cleaning equipment.
Consider my experience. At the last law enforcement agency where I worked, I was given my handgun, a S&W Model 686 in .357 magnum, at my basic state academy. I was told the weapon was “sighted in,” but the sights were badly misaligned for me, and I qualified–barely–by employing artillery-like Kentucky windage. I had to hold about a foot right and about 8 inches high. The instructors wouldn’t allow me the time or tools necessary to properly align the sights; we had only a day for training and qualification. People unfamiliar with handguns had no idea why they couldn’t hit anything, and many failed to qualify.
I saw the gun again at my first LEO qualification shoot. There, I had the time and tools to sight in the weapon and managed a 100% score. To that point, all shooting was done with light-loaded .38 special wadcutter ammunition. I wouldn’t shoot full-charge duty ammo in qualification for another year, though I shot considerable duty ammo on my own.
I was one of only about five people in a 100-person agency capable of 100% shooting. At least 10 struggled to make a minimally passing score whenever they qualified. About 50 were average and the rest somewhat better or worse.
Because virtually no one did anything to improve their abilities on their own, those averages never changed.
Shotgun qualifications were more or less once a year and consisted of shooting a few skeet, a few rounds of buckshot and a few slugs. We had no rifles. Other training occurred infrequently: a bit of low light shooting here, a bit of multiple target shooting there, and every five or six years, a shoot/don’t shoot experience with video and a laser system for recording hits/misses.
We eventually transitioned to Glocks. Officer’s qualification scores increased and fewer had to continually reshoot—semiautos are generally easier to shoot well than revolvers–but that problem never went away. That LEO was above average in the training and number of qualifications required.
Officers that don’t regularly train, that are unfamiliar with their weapons and ammo, are more dangerous to the public than to criminals. The NYPD, with its 12-pound trigger mandate, illustrates the problem.
In 1990, NYPD officer hit potential was only 19%. Eighty-one percent of the rounds they fired at criminals missed. At less than three yards, they hit only 38% of the time. From 3-7 yards, 11.5% and from 7-15 yards, only 9.4%.
My personal experience validates the NYPD statistics, but statistics from the Metro-Dade Police Department from 1988-1994 published in a Police Policy Studies Council report indicate officers fired app. 1300 rounds at suspects, missing more than 1,100 times. They hit only about 15.4% of their shots, most of these from near-touching distance. During that period, using revolvers, they missed 65% of the time, but oddly, 75% of the time with semiautomatic handguns.
This is odd in that normally, agencies that transition from revolvers to semiautos experience significantly increased hit probability rates. I can only imagine this Metro-Dade failing was a matter of inadequate training, or perhaps faulty data gathering.
More data from the same report for the NYPD during 1994-2000, when the NYPD was far more semiautomatic heavy, are interesting, and sobering. At 0-2 yards, the hit rate was 69%, but from 3-7 yards, only 19%. With increasing distance the hit rate dramatically declined, with only 2% from 16-25 yards and 1% at 25 yards and greater.
Keep in mind that low light shooting—a great deal of police shooting takes place in low light—tends to seriously degrade hit rates. Low light qualification and training tends to be rare, in part because police administrators worry about officers shooting each other.
The lessons, for the police and the public alike, are obvious:
1) Shooting accurately at any distance with a handgun takes regular, correct training and practice.
2) Hit probabilities of most police officers are mediocre at best, even at inside-a-phone-booth ranges.
3) Only correct, professional training increases office hit probability. Mere qualification shooting does not.
4) The greater the distance, the lower the police hit probability. The lower the ambient lighting, the lower the hit probability.
5) Most police officers are much more likely to miss than hit their targets.
6) The idea that officers can shoot well enough to incapacitate criminals by shooting to wound is Hollywood nonsense. In most cases, they can barely hit their targets at ridiculously close ranges.
7) The more officers involved in a shooting the more likely a greater number of rounds will be fired and the higher the probability of misses. The Dorner case, where eight LAPD officers–including a supervisor–unleashed 103 rounds at two innocent women delivering newspapers, is a case in point. They only wounded both women, but bravely shot seven nearby homes and nine parked, and thankfully unoccupied, cars.
One of the most common lies of anti-Second Amendment forces is that the police not only have the duty to protect everyone, they have the skill and the means. No one needs guns; leave it to the professionals.
The truth is the police have no legal duty to protect anyone, only to deter crime by their presence, and investigate it after it happens. As I’ve just demonstrated, most police officers don’t have the ability to reliably protect citizens with their weapons, even though most sincerely want to do so.
It’s also important to understand that the Ferguson Effect is indeed real, and that it means that police officers are now loathe to involve themselves in shooting situations, particularly where the criminals involved are black males. This is a topic I’ve frequently explored since the entirely justified police shooting of Michael Brown.
Many citizens are better shots than the police. Their shootings tend to take place at very close range, where hit probability is highest, and they tend to have no question about who to shoot and why. Police officers are often forced to rush into ambiguous situations.
No one can rely on the police to protect them. They are few, and when danger threatens, almost always far away, too far to save lives. Anyone claiming otherwise is either mistaken, or lying to take American’s liberty, and ultimately, their lives. Unlike on TV, the police aren’t going to be our salvation, and often, they’re the opposite. We’re ultimately responsible for our safety; no one else.