Experts Say Firearms Training Needs to Come Out of the Dark

Law Enforcement News

Vol. XXX, No. 625       Fall 2004
A publication of John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY

      Current research shows that a substantial number of police shootings – particularly those involving unarmed suspects – occur at night or in a darkened setting, yet few law enforcement agencies train their officers how to shoot under those conditions, according to experts.

      According to data collected by the Houston Chronicle, 59 percent of the 189 shootings that occurred in Harris County from 1999-2004 occurred between sunset and sunrise. In at least five cases involving unarmed suspects, according to the newspaper, officers appeared to have mistaken an object for a gun in low light.

      Seven other unarmed people were shot after making some type of furtive movement, The Chronicle said, and four others after refusing to show their hands. Officers said they accidentally fired in six of the cases, and the rest occurred either inside a vehicle or while suspects struggled with police.

      Research conducted in Los Angeles County, Baltimore County and New York City by Tom Aveni, a sworn officer, and trainer with the New Hampshire-based
Police Policy Studies Council, turned up similar results.

      Aveni cited news media studies showing that as many as one in three police shootings involve an unarmed suspect – “a very common thread,” he noted – and of those, his own research found, roughly three quarters occurred under low light conditions.

      Most state training councils do not mandate low light training, Aveni told Law Enforcement News. Officers are required to go to the range once of twice a year to qualify, but under daylight conditions that bear little resemblance to the environment in which they do their job.

      In many if not most of these shootings, visual acuity is well beyond the threshold of legal blindness, said Aveni. To replicate that environment, all training facilities have to do is turn down the lights.

      “When I see officers getting into trouble, it is not because they’re missing what they’re aiming at,” he said. “It’s because they’re shooting at things they haven’t clearly identified. That is the dirty little secret; we’re shooting a lot of unarmed people who haven’t been properly identified as an imminent threat.”

      Statistics cited by the Houston Chronicle showed that half of those shot by Prince George’s County, MD, police during the 1990s were unarmed. One-third of those fatally shot by Miami-Dade County Fla., officers (1990-2001) had no weapon, and in Los Angeles County, 17 percent of those shot (1996-2002) were unarmed and not attacking or driving toward officers.

      David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, and the author of “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s-Eye View of Deadly Force,” believes that as much information as can be gleaned from real-life situations should be integrated into training.

      “I can’t say that no police are ever trained [in low-light conditions], but it’s a training issue where many officers don’t get the opportunity to fire under those circumstances, absolutely.” He told LEN. “We want to make our training as realistic as possible so police officers are able to have spent some time in a variety of environments if they find themselves having to make a life and death decision. To the extent to which officers are not getting realistic training is the extent to which we’re not preparing them as well as we should.”

      Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer, takes issue with the way most firearms qualification is conducted. Just shooting at a target, he said, is an “old thing… divorced from the reality of the streets.”

      At one Southeastern department, Klinger noted, the firearms trainer there will base a training scenario on a recent shooting. For example, an officer once had to fire at a suspect from inside his cruiser. What the trainer did was fashion a car door out of cardboard and have officers sit in a chair behind it. They had to draw their weapons and turn their bodies, aim out of the window and hit some targets.

      Trainers can augment the traditional firearms qualification with motion, movement and noise, said Klinger.

      “Lights may be bright in one room, dark in another, and you have to move from a low light environment to a bright light, and vice versa – all the things officers have to do were they confronted with these types of things in real life,: he said.

      Klinger contends that it is a police administrators’ fear of doing something untraditional that blocks that type of training. Most are very conservative, he said, and are opposed to veering from “the old tried and true way.”

Aveni believes that time and money are the obstacle.

      “If you want people that are better trained, it’s going to require money you may not have allocated in your budget, or it’s going to require that you actually have inadequate numbers on the street,” he said. “It’s a dilemma for most agencies.”

      One department that is progressive in its low-light training environments, according to Aveni, is Baltimore County, Md.

      There is a kind of SWAT mentality that has crept into police training, he said. Instructors will tell officers that if they turn their flashlights on, the enemy is going to see them and shoot to kill.

      “I have not been able to document a single law enforcement incident in which an officer was shot because he turned his flashlight on, “ Aveni said.

      What Baltimore County does is train its officers to use their lights, but to use them intelligently, he said. If you have to switch a flashlight on, use it behind cover, or to blind an opponent.

      “I find people literally walking into untenable situations that they don’t see until it’s too late,” said Aveni.




copyright 2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved. a Steve Casey design.