Contagious Fire: Fact & Fiction

By Thomas J. Aveni, MSFP

The Police Policy Studies Council

December 2006

On the weekend of November 25-26th, after a dramatic NYPD shooting incident, local and national media sources screamed inflammatory headlines, such as; “Fiancée of Slain Groom Calls Police 'Murderers'”[i] and “Unarmed Groom Killed By NYPD Bullets.”[ii] And, so we were told of how seven NYPD officers, members of an undercover team that was investigating drug and prostitution activity at a seedy bar, committed an unspeakable atrocity against three young men who were (by omission of salient background information) characterized as innocent victims of “trigger-happy” police. But, in your heart-of-hearts, you know the other side of the story wasn’t being told. 

Certainly, provocative actions by the three “unarmed” suspects initiated the tragic series of events that transpired that morning. People who frequent disreputable night clubs, have extensive criminal records, solicit prostitutes, announce (within earshot of police), “Yo, get my gun!” and then use their vehicle as a battering ram against undercover police vehicles, are seldom innocent victims of the dangerous circumstances that they’ve created. But this article isn’t about placing blame for what transpired that day. It’s about setting the record straight about officer-involved shootings that involve numerous officers in incidents that have been erroneously termed “contagious fire” episodes.  

What do we know about incidents in which multiple officers are involved in a gunfight? Unfortunately, what we know is dwarfed by what we don’t know. And that is precisely the reason why so many “experts,” with few facts, have been allowed to offer what are at times outlandish hypotheses about why these incidents often result in tragic consequences. Even the terminology bandied about is problematic, and contributes to even greater misunderstanding. Having admitted this, it would be best to begin establishing acceptable terminology with which to begin examining at this phenomenon in more detail.

“Bunch Shootings”

            The genesis of the term “bunch shooting,” as it applies to multiple officer shootings, is unclear. The first time that the author can remember seeing this term used was in a 1992 article [iii] that appeared in the Oregonian newspaper – an article that made some oblique references to the fact that officers that fired in “bunches” tended to fire a higher ratio of rounds per officer, per incident. Since the article loosely examined incidents involving an agency that had been transitioning from revolvers to pistols, and which had suspended handgun training for nearly two years due to manpower constraints, it was difficult to discern whether the Portland Police statistics offered a reliable insight into the “bunch shooting” phenomenon.

The Contagious Misnomer

            When looking for the wellspring of the term “contagious fire,” we are drawn to the field of clinical psychology. There we find the likely genesis of the term in the phrase “emotional contagion.” An ‘emotional contagion' is the tendency to feel emotions that are similar to and influenced by those of others. This sounds innocuous enough, right? Not really. This is often cited as being analogous to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, instigating a stampede of undisciplined, panic-stricken people. Does this analogy best represent the behavior of police when involved in a bunch shooting? There is a paucity of evidence to support any such conclusion.

“Synchronous Fire"

The term, “synchronous fire,” is gaining acceptance as a label for multiple-officer shootings, and it deserves closer examination. The generic definition of synchronous action is that which occurs or exists at the same time, moving or operating at the same rate. In the real world, synchronous fire generally isn’t what that generic definition would imply. A bystander may hear what he thinks is a steady stream of gunfire, but upon closer examination, we’ll find that some officers fired while others did not, or that some fired their magazines empty while others did not. However, there is another dimension to synchronicity, and it’s one that may be worth embracing.

Swiss Psychologist, Carl Jung, postulated [iv] that “synchronicity” was best described as, "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." Jung spoke of synchronicity as an "acausal connecting principle" (i.e. a pattern of connection that cannot be explained by direct causality). In Jung's mind, cause-and-effect seemed to have nothing to do with it. Jung explained that synchronicity, while not a matter of coincidence, is the experience of two or more occurrences that are logically meaningful (but inexplicable) to the persons experiencing them.

Jung’s definition of a synchronous event could logically explain the phenomenon of parallel events or circumstances that we see in multiple-officer shootings; interconnected in space and time, yet not cleanly connected in causality.

“Mass Reflexive Response”

In 1999, four NYPD “street crimes” unit officers found themselves involved in the tragic mistake-of-fact (low light) shooting of Amadou Diallo. After mistaking an object in Diallo’s hand for a gun, the four officers fired a total of 41 shots at Diallo, striking him 19 times. Thereafter, a new phrase began creeping into the NYPD lexicon; “mass reflexive response.” The definition that we’re given for “mass reflexive response” is;

"Gunfire that spreads among officers who believe that they, or their colleagues, are facing a threat. It spreads like germs, like laughter, or fear."

When examining this definition, few would challenge the central part of this definition regarding officer perception of events; “….who believe that they, or their colleagues are facing a threat..” But, when bracketed between the rest of the verbiage (“Gunfire that spreads… germs, like laughter, or fear”) this definition becomes  extremely problematic.

Additionally this definition is also interchangeable enough to be used verbatim to define “contagious fire,” and it often is. Before you allow this terminology to seduce you, let’s examine the core issues that are routinely overlooked by “experts” and the media.

Lowlight, Multiple-Officer Confrontations 

            We all recognize the fact that threat identification is extremely problematic under low light conditions. So much so that up to 75%[v] of all police “mistake-of-fact shootings” occur under low light conditions. So what does this have to do with police bunch shootings? The correlation between low light conditions and bunch shootings that end in mistake-of-fact tragedies is quite compelling. Daylight shootings, and even diminished light shootings where facts are clearly established, tend to have far fewer unarmed suspects shot mistakenly. And, when confronting the question about whether we are more concerned about whether the decision to shoot was appropriate or whether the number of rounds fired was “excessive,” it’s quite clear that the root of community outrage originates in why we shoot more than how many rounds that we fire thereafter. A high volume of fire may throw gasoline on the fire, but community outrage is almost always initiated by the perceived lack of justification for using deadly force.

            Case studies of bunch shootings that have occurred under low light conditions aren’t as ubiquitous as we’d like, but what we do have at our disposal exhibits many common tendencies.  There are many cases to cite, but two compelling examples come immediately to mind.

June 3, 1999, on Interstate 80 in Parsippany-Troy Hills, New Jersey, Stanton Crew, was shot and killed by four police officers from several jurisdictions. Police had boxed in his car with their vehicles and he allegedly tried to escape by maneuvering around them. His driver’s license was suspended for lapsed insurance, and as he drove home, a cop tried to pull him over for “driving erratically.” Reportedly afraid that he would not be able to afford the fines for driving an uninsured car, Mr. Crew allegedly sped up, going 70-80 mph for ten miles. He then crossed the median and drove five miles in the other direction before being boxed in. Police claim they feared that Mr. Crew was going to run them over. Cops fired 27 shots at his car, killing Mr. Crew and wounding his passenger. Though reports stated that police feared Crew’s vehicle presented a threat to their safety, after-action analysis suggested that the police units that boxed-in Crew’s vehicle found themselves in a crossfire of their own making (see photo), with police rounds striking other police vehicles. This likely added to the confusion present as to the degree of threat that Stanton Crew presented. Analysis: Vehicular pursuit, low light conditions, suspect behavior that was perceived to be assaultive, and possible confusion about the origin of gunfire striking police units, and we have four officers firing 27 rounds at an “unarmed” individual.

February 20, 1998, on Route 195 in Swansea, Massachusetts, at about midnight, an incident occurred in which four officers from two adjoining jurisdictions engaged Richard Parker in a brief vehicular pursuit for what was initially a motor vehicle violation. As Parker lost control of his vehicle at exit 185, he exited his vehicle and had four officers engage him with a total of 50 rounds fired. Six of those 50 rounds strike Parker, but he survives the incident. Officers, hampered by adverse light conditions where the chase culminated, stated that they saw Parker’s hands come together as he exited the vehicle. They also stated that they saw something reflective in his hands. Post-incident analysis indicated that Parker’s shiny leather gloves likely misled officers into believing that he had a handgun, as did his physical posture as he exited his vehicle. Analysis: Low light conditions, along with compelling situational and behavioral cues exhibited by the suspect, resulted in 50 rounds being fired by four officers at an “unarmed” suspect in a few brief seconds.

Pandemonium, Not “Panic”

Events of May 9, 2005 in Compton, California, were brought into the living rooms of millions of Americans. Captured on video was the aftermath of a 12 minute vehicular chase in which 13 deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department engaged an “unarmed” suspect with over 120 rounds of handgun fire. The suspect, 44-year-old Winston Hayes, was hit only four times and survived. Yet another example of a low light multiple-officer shooting, there was apparent confusion (before any rounds were fired) after one deputy fell near the suspect’s moving vehicle. Again we have a low light shooting that likely sprung from confusion and mistake of facts. However, as you watched the deputies fire, with many standing upright without utilization of cover, panic was not outwardly apparent. Was there a “mass reflex” of 13 deputies to fire simultaneous volleys? Or, in the confusion of the night, did 13 deputies make 13 individual errors in judgment? Can one officer’s error influence the decision-making of other officers? Absolutely, it happens all of the time. But, this is a far cry from being anything we might liken to an “emotional contagion.”

Influence of Adversary’s Weapon

Does the capability of an adversary’s weapon have a discernable influence on the volume and efficacy of police gunfire? Absolutely. Observational research of Los Angeles County shootings (1998-2002) suggested that bunch shootings were three times more likely to involve suspects armed with shoulder weapons (i.e., rifles and shotguns). How critical is that as an incident variable? (see comparison table below) Anyone watching dramatic video of the 1997 “North Hollywood Shoot-Out” noticed how much distance officers maintained from the two heavily armed and armored suspects (Phillips and Matasareanu) who fired more than 1,100 rounds at many of the more than 350 officers who responded to that call. The suspects were armed with an assortment of fully automatic and semi-automatic weapons that included AK-47 variant rifles, an H&K 91 (.308) and AR15 (.223). Of the hundreds of pistol and shotgun rounds fired by police, the suspects sustained a total of only 40 hits[vi] (Phillips was shot 11 times and Matasareanu was shot 29 times). The body armor worn by the suspects defeated many of the 9mm and buckshot rounds fired at them by police. Greater standoff distances (between police and adversaries) diminish police hit ratios, which in turn tends to invite a greater volume of police fire.

Much was learned from the North Hollywood shootout about police preparedness for similar situations. But, overlooked was the fact that many officers were able to respond with discipline through their own fears. Emotional contagion? Where? Outwardly, it appears as if each officer experienced his/her own version of hell, more than likely oblivious to everyone else’s personal vision of hell. Mass reflexive response? Generally speaking, officers hunkered down behind cars and concrete walls and fired only when an opportunity presented itself.



Shots Fired Per Officer With Only 1 Officer Involved


Shots Fired Per Officer With 2 Officers Involved


Shots Fired Per Officer With More Than 2 Officers Involved


Hit Ratio In OIS With 1 Only Officer Involved


Hit Ratio In OIS With 2 Officers Involved


Hit Ratio In OIS With More Than 2 Officers Involved


* At the time this was originally published, shooting data for 2002 was only available to September 23rd.

Data provided did NOT include data for incidents where shots fired by officers had no suspect being struck by fire.

Toward A More Global Perspective

Much of the emotional hysteria that we see exacerbated by the media tends to focus on the fact that officers are now issued high-capacity handguns that “encourage” high volumes of police fire. This transition has nudged the number of shots fired per officer, per incident upward, but it has absolutely no bearing on our decision to employ deadly force. In 1973, when NYPD officers were all issued six-shot .38 Special revolvers, there were 1.82 fatal police shootings per 1,000 officers; in 2005, there were 0.25 such shootings per 1,000 officers, bringing the absolute number of police shootings down from 54 in 1973 to nine in 2005[vii]. The NYPD’s per capita rate of shootings is lower than many big city departments.

With more than 37,000 uniformed officers, the NYPD is by far the country's largest police force. Its police shootings often become fodder for the national news outlets, yet NYPD seldom gets a fair shake in the media. At the time this article was authored, December 9, 2006, NYPD has killed a total of 11 suspects. To put NYPD shooting restraint in better perspective, consider that so far this year, at least 19 people have been killed by police in Philadelphia. Las Vegas, which has about 2,170 police officers, has had 12 people shot and killed by police so far this year. In suburban Atlanta's DeKalb County, police have fatally shot 12 people so far this year. DeKalb County, with 700,000 residents, is one-tenth the size of the New York City.

Clearly, so much is lost in the emotion and noise generated by special interest groups in the aftermath of a police shooting. If truth is truly the first victim of war, perhaps the same can be said for the media “mugging” of truth in the aftermath of a police shooting. When examining multiple-officer shootings, we tend to see several recurring variables that have profound training and policy implications. However, we see so many dissimilarities in specific officer behaviors that we should avoid succumbing to sweeping generalities. Characterizing officer shooting behaviors as being “contagious” or “reflexive” should be avoided until specific facts and circumstances have been exhaustively evaluated.



[iii] The Oregonian, April 25, 1992, “Shootings: Who, What and How Many”


[v] Aveni, Thomas. “Following Standard Procedure.” Law & Order, Vol. 51, No. 8, August 2003