Experts Say Firearms Training Needs to Come Out of the Dark
Law Enforcement News
Vol. XXX, No. 625
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
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
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
“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
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.