How Ignorance Drives Use Of Force Discussions

A couple of days ago, officers in Los Angeles shot and killed a man. While I’m not going to delve into the details of what transpired too much–there’s a lot of information to process, after all–there was a moment in a news report that caught my eye.

It wasn’t anything particularly new, though. I’ve seen this kind of thing from people before.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about comments like this.

One woman, who didn’t want to be identified, said she knew the man and saw the whole thing.

“He had a towel and he had his clothes and his pants couldn’t even stay up, so that’s what made him slow down so they had enough to get him,” she said. “They didn’t have to shoot him more than 5 times, they could have shot him one time in the leg.

“What’s the use of having the prison system if y’all are just gonna kill us,” the woman said through tears. “What are y’all here for? Who are you protecting?”

This isn’t an unusual line of “reasoning” from people, particularly from folks who know nothing about use of force and how it works. Years ago, while a columnist for a local newspaper, I addressed this after an officer-involved shooting. It didn’t make national headlines, but the family wanted to know why the police couldn’t have just shot the person in the arm instead of killing him.

Even the Democratic nominee for president seems to think police should be trained to shoot people in the leg.

Joe Biden said Monday that police — if facing a threat from a person with “a knife or something” — should be trained to “shoot ‘em in the leg instead of the heart,” amid five straight days of protest following the death of George Floyd.

“Instead of standing there and teaching a cop when there’s an unarmed person coming at ‘em with a knife or something, shoot ‘em in the leg instead of in the heart,” Biden said in an address to black community leaders in Wilmington, Del.

Of course, if they’ve got a “knife or something,” they’re not unarmed. They have a weapon and can deliver lethal force with that weapon and should be treated as such.

Biden and the anonymous individual above aren’t unique. It’s a common refrain on social media after an officer-involved shooting, and it’s driven by ignorance and Hollywood more than anything else.

See, when I read comments above, I keep thinking of the movie Hollywood Homicide with Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett.  In a critical scene, Hartnett’s character has the man responsible for his father’s murder in his sights. He’s got all the grounds he needs to use lethal force and get away with it, yet he doesn’t. He shoots the man in the arm, thus supposedly showing great restraint and high moral character.

But that’s Hollywood.

In real life, what would have happened is Hartnett would have shot the guy in the arm, then the guy would have shot him in the chest, thus killing our young detective hero.

Yet a lot of people don’t understand that. They think that shooting someone in the arm or leg isn’t a problem and think it should be done.

There are problems with that thinking, though. Those problems are why it’s not part of police training already.

For one thing, someone who is wounded in an appendage can still be a threat. Guns are deadly, but they’re not instantly incapacitating. A wounded suspect can still kill officers or innocent people in the area. What police are trying to do is end the threat, and arm or leg shots don’t end the threat. Center mass shots, while not necessarily fatal, tend to stop the fight. That’s the goal.

That’s also why police don’t shoot just one time and call it good.

Further, aiming for the arm or leg sounds easy, but let’s remember that when a person’s adrenaline kicks in, their accuracy drops. It doesn’t matter if it’s a soldier, a Navy SEAL, a cop, or Joe from down the street. This is just how the human body works. This matters because arms and legs aren’t exactly big targets. Further, they’re more likely to be moving than the torso.

Shooting at the center mass–the torso–is trained in part because it’s easier to actually hit than the arm or leg. That also means fewer stray bullets flying around that could hit innocent bystanders.

The truth of the matter is that while arm or leg shots work great in movies, pushing them onto law enforcement or even armed citizens as some kind of a first choice will lead to a lot more dead good guys and do nothing to actually address any training deficiencies within law enforcement.

Maybe it’s time we stop allowing movies and television to educate people as to how the world works. So far, they’ve done a pathetic job of it.