In my first post in this series, I introduced John Correia’s collection of videos of police-involved shootings, which I think is an important resource for those of us writing about police reform. It’s also an important source of information for anyone who worries they might get shot by the police.
But before I get into that, I’ll be linking to some of those videos, so I should repeat my warning:
Trigger Warning (Seriously)
Black parents speak of “the talk,” where they advise their children of the dangers they face when encountering the police. I think that’s an excellent idea. Every parent should teach their children how to make it safely through a police encounter. And when it comes to avoiding the worst-case outcome — getting shot — Correia’s badge-cam reviews are the raw material from which you could build a bunch of lessons.
Note that most of the police videos collected by Correia involve lethal force, because that’s what he studies. This introduces a selection bias: With rare exceptions, he’s not showing us encounters which de-escalated or ended with a peaceful arrest. These are only the violent outcomes.
For the most part, the lethal force rules for the police are the same as the lethal force rules for ordinary citizens like you and me.The biggest difference is that police officers have the authority to start confrontations by doing things like performing traffic stops, investigating crimes, and or serving warrants, and if those confrontations lead to violent responses, they can use lethal force to protect themselves. If we start a confrontation, however, we could void our right to self defense. Unlike the police, we aren’t generally allowed to start trouble and then shoot our way out of it. Police are allowed — even encouraged — to use lethal force to stop anyone who poses a threat to take a life or cause great bodily harm. That leads us to some practical lessons.
To start with, contrary to popular misconceptions, police are allowed to shoot first. Who shot first isn’t as important as why they shot. Certainly if someone shoots at cops, that constitutes a threat to their lives, and the cops can shoot back. But the surest way to win a gunfight is to shoot the other guy before he shoots you, and police are allowed to win gunfights. They don’t have to give the bad guys a free shot. If they see a threat that endangers them or anyone else, they can use lethal force to stop it.
Similarly, there’s no strict rule against shooting someone in the back. If a cop reasonably believes that someone with their back turned is a lethal threat to anyone present, the cop is allowed to shoot. If a suspect gets into an ongoing gunfight with a cop, the cop isn’t prohibited from shooting just because they happen to turn away for a moment. In fact, shooting when your opponent can’t immediately shoot back is just good tactics. If the suspect is dangerous enough — an armed carjacker, active shooter, or known murderer — cops can even shoot to stop them from escaping to harm others.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about so many of these police encounters is how fast they transition to violence. Officers are talking, waiting, talking, waiting, and BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM! The shooting seems to erupt super-fast and out of nowhere. That’s often because a threat situation changes suddenly. The effect is somewhat exaggerated by the video format, which is usually wide angle and often poor quality, as in this video of a Las Vegas officer gunning down a guy who walks out of a house with a shotgun. In the initial video, I couldn’t see any reason for the officer to shoot, but when they review it later in freeze frame, the shotgun in hand is quite clear.
Even when you can see it coming, as in this video of a chase that ends in a shooting, the transition to lethal force arrives in a jarring burst of gunfire, as cops shoot round after round into someone. One thing you’ll learn from these videos is that getting shot with a pistol round rarely stops or kills someone instantly. Firing only one shot could easily leave an attacker physically able to continue his assault, as in this video of a guy with two knives who keeps chasing down a cop after getting shot. That’s why police are trained to start shooting when they see a threat of death or serious bodily harm, and to keep shooting until the threat goes away. It may seem gratuitous to shoot someone so many times, and sometimes it is, but then again, sometimes the people they shoot get up.
This brings us to the important question of what makes cops think someone is a threat? What would make them start shooting?
Judging by these videos, the single biggest factor that will make cops shoot you is having a weapon in your hand. If cops respond to a call and discover you holding a gun, they might give you the benefit of the doubt — you could be an armed citizen defending yourself, maybe even the person who called for help — provided you do nothing else to make them think you’re dangerous. Unfortunately, this is a complex situation and context matters a lot.
For example, while cops might not be sure of your intent if you’re holding a gun when they discover you, it’s completely different if you grab a gun after the cops arrive, because cops will assume you’re drawing to shoot them. That will for sure make the cops open fire, as seen in this traffic stop from Santa Ana, California. If you have an illegal gun, you may be tempted to throw it away, but if you grab for it, the cops will assume the worst and open fire.It’s possible that some of the people in these videos who draw on the cops are actually trying to dump their gun, but often there’s no way to know.
Similarly, if you’ve already shot at someone, that lets the cops know exactly what you’re doing with a gun, and they won’t hesitate to stop you from doing it again, as demonstrated by these Cincinnati police officers stopping an active shooter. And of course that goes double if you’re actually shooting at the cops, as in this video of a traffic stop in South Carolina that turns very violent very quickly.
On the other hand, sometimes you just turn up with a gun and the cops will shoot you dead, as in this controversial shooting in Arizona. The guy with the gun was advancing on an officer, which likely made the other officer open fire.
How you’re moving is even more of a deciding factor when you have a knife. It might seem that the range of a knife is limited to the reach of your arms, but that’s the wrong way to think about it. The true range of a knife is controlled by how far you can run before somebody can stop you. Studies show that a defender with a gun probably can’t avoid being stabbed if a knife-wielding assailant starts their attack from closer than about 21 feet. To illustrate, here’s video of a disturbed man charging a cop who has already drawn his gun and nearly succeeding in stabbing him before getting shot. Police are taught this “21-foot rule,” so if you have a knife, and you behave in a threating manner, and you are within 21 feet of anyone at the scene, cops will shoot you.
(If you find yourself a bystander at a scene like this, for God’s sake run away from the guy with the knife. If you stay in place and let him get close enough to attack you, you will be forcing the cops to shoot to protect you. That’s probably not something you want.)
If you’re the one who gets shot by cops for having a gun, note that falling to the ground in a hail of gunfire is not enough to end the incident. If you still have the gun in your hand, you can still shoot people, so the cops will keep shooting at you on the ground, as seen in this video of a warrant service team exchanging fire with a guy with an automatic weapon. On the other hand, once a knife-wielder falls to the ground he no longer presents a threat and cops should stop shooting.
That said, it’s important to remember that we live our lives slightly behind real time. It takes a fraction of a second to understand what we’re seeing, a fraction of a second to reach a decision, and a fraction of a second to start moving. Even when police have their guns drawn and pointed in the direction of a suspect and are ready for action, it could take 0.5 to 0.8 seconds from the time they see a threat until they start shooting. And when the threat is over, it takes another 0.5 to 0.8 seconds to stop shooting. So it’s almost certain that the last few shots will be fired at someone who is no longer a threat. They will have dropped their weapon or turned away or fallen to the ground, and police will shoot them a couple more times. That’s an unfortunate limit of human performance.
That’s not the only limit. Police have, on numerous occasions, shot people they mistakenly thought had a gun. Here’s an especially egregious case where the police threw a tiny surveillance robot into a guy’s home and then shot him multiple times when walked out, hands raised, but holding their robot in his right hand.As far as I know, the cops have not clarified whether they mistook the robot for a gun, although it seems the most likely explanation. So if you find yourself facing lots of excited cops, drop anything in your hands.
And don’t reach for anything. I can’t find ASP video on the subject, but there’s a history of cops shooting people who reach for their waistband, because that’s a good place to keep a weapon. There’s also a history of cops shooting people for reaching around in their car or reaching for their wallet. So if you really must reach for something, such as your drivers’ license and registration because the cop asked for them, tell the cop what you’re about to do so he doesn’t freak out.Yes, people have been shot for reaching for their wallet after the cop asks for ID.
It’s important to understand that I have not been discussing the behavior of bad cops. I’ve been discussing the more-or-less normal rules of engagement for the police.I am neither a lawyer nor an expert on police use of force policies, and the laws and policies vary from state to state. Almost everything I describe here, and almost everything you see in the videos (except where noted) is considered a legitimate use of force.
Unfortunately, cops don’t always stick to legitimate uses of force. Here’s a Texas cop guessing wrong and then creating a confrontation out of nothing and shooting a guy for no reason. The officer was charged but found not guilty at a sketchy-sounding trial. Similarly, here’s an officer who shoots a mentally ill guy who probably didn’t need to get shot. We’ve also got video of Denver cops shooting at a bad guy in a crowd, and injuring five innocent bystanders, for which at least one cop was charged. And here’s video of an Arlington, Texas cop shooting at someone’s dog, missing, and killing an innocent person.
That last video includes additional footage of a St. Louis cop shooting at a bad guy but hitting his own partner in the crossfire. It make sense that such blue-on-blue shootings would be a common risk of police work, since the person most likely to be near a cop when they do something stupid is another cop. That’s how we get this video of an officer shooting her partner in the confusion of a gun battle, or this video where a cop startled by a dog has a negligent discharge which hits another officer, or even this video where a SWAT team member fails to clear his gun properly and then calmly and deliberately pulls the trigger while it’s pointed another team member.
The best advice I could come up with after watching all these videos is that if you are confronted by one or more excited cops, and you want to minimize your chance of getting shot,
- Empty your hands and show them empty.
- Hold them away from your body, especially your waistband, ideally up by your head.
- Do not reach for anything, at least not without explaining.
- Do not approach anyone unless ordered to.
- Talk politely with the cops. Let them get a sense of you as a normal person.
- Cooperate with routine orders such as showing your hands, getting out of the car, sitting down, standing over there, letting them cuff you, etc.
- Keep calm and think clearly.
I’m not saying you should give up any rights by answering probing questions or consenting to a search, but there’s no point in starting a conflict you can’t win.
There’s another way of thinking about how you can get yourself shot by police, according to these videos, and it comes down to three criteria:
- Be a violent criminal who chooses to go out in a blaze of glory by taking on the cops.
- Be suicidal.
- Be mentally ill and have access to a weapon.
The more boxes you tick, the more likely you are to get shot.
Obviously, there are additional ways you could get shot if the cops are racists, sadists, or ego-driven sociopaths, but in this post I’ve been focusing on legitimate shootings. More importantly, I’ve been focusing on things that are under the control of the people who got shot by police. If you’re a young black male who’s been stopped by police, you can’t control whether the cop is a racist or a sociopath. You can’t make the cops be better cops. But you can empty your hands and keep them visible. You have that much control.
I’ll talk about some things cops could be doing better in the next post.
Update: Part 3 is now up.
|↑1||The biggest difference is that police officers have the authority to start confrontations by doing things like performing traffic stops, investigating crimes, and or serving warrants, and if those confrontations lead to violent responses, they can use lethal force to protect themselves. If we start a confrontation, however, we could void our right to self defense. Unlike the police, we aren’t generally allowed to start trouble and then shoot our way out of it.|
|↑2||It’s possible that some of the people in these videos who draw on the cops are actually trying to dump their gun, but often there’s no way to know.|
|↑3||As far as I know, the cops have not clarified whether they mistook the robot for a gun, although it seems the most likely explanation.|
|↑4||Yes, people have been shot for reaching for their wallet after the cop asks for ID.|
|↑5||I am neither a lawyer nor an expert on police use of force policies, and the laws and policies vary from state to state.|