Police Seek Ways To Avoid Firing Gun
By John Woolfolk and Glennda Chui
Posted on Sun, Jul. 20, 2003
Trained with high-tech video simulators and armed with an array of non-lethal
devices from pepper spray to Tasers, police in San Jose and other California
cities are among the most progressive in efforts to avoid using deadly force.
But while police cite improvements, it's hard to say for sure how effective
those efforts have been in reducing shootings by officers like the one last
Sunday in which a San Jose policeman fatally shot a young mother he thought was
attacking him with a kitchen tool.
``To come to any reasonable conclusion about deadly force application
diminishing as a result of this technology, I'd have to tell you it's just not
there yet,'' said Thomas Aveni, a 25-year police veteran in New Hampshire and
leading authority on police shootings who has trained more than 12,000 officers.
``The jury is still out on that.''
Police do not routinely report statistics on shootings by officers, and experts
say many departments are reluctant to release information for fear of lawsuits.
Many non-lethal devices have not been in use long enough to provide meaningful
The fatal shooting last week of 25-year-old Cau Thi Bich Tran has outraged those
who believe the officer should have first tried less lethal tactics. But police
Chief Bill Lansdowne has said non-lethal alternatives would not have helped
under the circumstances.
Shootings are rare
It is difficult to use the number of incidents as a benchmark for success or
failure because shootings by officers are so rare. In San Jose, the community
and police officials were alarmed in 1999 when officers shot eight people,
killing all but one. Training was intensified and the department has touted the
steady drop in the years since: five in 2000, four in 2001, and none last year.
But already this year San Jose officers have shot four people, two of whom have
Ultimately, those numbers are driven by circumstance and split-second judgments
made by officers responding to threats -- real or perceived. Nonetheless, police
officials and deadly force experts say that training and access to non-lethal
weapons decrease the number of shootings by officers.
And in that regard, experts say departments in the West, and especially
California, are making the biggest strides.
``Some of the most progressive agencies are in California,'' Aveni said. ``I
think California is way ahead of the curve on less-lethal force application.''
Police in San Jose and San Diego, for example, train with state-of-the-art
``force options simulators'' that confront them with video images of suspects.
The officers shoot real guns with blank bullets, and risk being hit with plastic
pellets meant to simulate hostile fire. The exercises teach officers not only
how to shoot moving targets, but when not to shoot at all.
Officers in both cities are equipped with pistols, batons and pepper spray. San
Jose police must call to request rubber-bullet Sage guns and Taser guns, which
fire darts that deliver a 50,000-volt shock. The weapons can be delivered to
officers within 15 minutes of a call. San Diego police keep Tasers and bean-bag
guns in their cars.
Police see benefits
San Jose Independent Police Auditor Teresa Guerrero-Daley said in her most
recent annual report that while it is difficult to prove, the adoption of such
training and equipment played a role in San Jose's three-year decline in
shootings by officers.
San Diego police Lt. John Leas said technology has benefited his department,
``We're finding better-trained officers are more confident,'' Leas said. ``They
are not so apt to jump to the handgun to resolve a problem.''
San Jose and San Diego are similar in both size and crime rates. Over the past
five years San Jose police shot an average of 0.43 people and San Diego police
shot an average of 0.78 people per 100,000 residents a year.
In one regard -- access to Tasers -- two other departments in the West have
taken a step further. Phoenix and Sacramento recently put Tasers on every
Those departments report favorable results, though they said yearly figures for
shootings by officers were not readily available.
In the first six months of 2003, Phoenix police used Tasers twice as often and
fired their weapons only half as much as they did in the first half of 2002, and
all of the 2003 shootings involved suspects with firearms, said Sgt. Laurel
``It has been extremely effective for us,'' Williams said. ``It has resulted in
less injuries to officers and suspects.''
Sacramento police also said the adoption of Tasers and other less-lethal gear
has prevented shootings.
``It saves a lot of lives on both sides,'' Sacramento police Sgt. Jim Jarosick
San Jose police have said costs have prevented them from giving every officer
Tasers. The Taser guns used by police run about $400 apiece, but there is added
the expense of training, which requires that officers be pulled from duty and
And while Tasers have become the preferred non-lethal device, there are issues.
San Diego has concerns about putting a Taser next to an officer's gun. They cite
an October accident in which a Madera officer reached for her Taser to subdue a
flailing handcuffed suspect, but pulled her pistol by mistake and killed the
man. Jarosick said his Sacramento department's Tasers are bright yellow to avoid
Whether Tasers or other non-lethal weapons could have prevented last week's
tragedy in San Jose is impossible to say. San Jose's policy requires police to
use only the force needed to subdue a suspect, and if possible to use spoken
commands and non-lethal weapons before firing. The policy allows officers to
immediately shoot if necessary to protect themselves.
Experts say departments across the country have similar policies.
Policies are structured that way in part because existing non-lethal weapons
have limited range and effectiveness.
``Many of these less-lethal devices put officers at unacceptable risk,'' Aveni
said. ``They require officers to get too close and they don't work as often as
you expect them to work.''
Police are haunted by an FBI statistic that 85 percent of officers killed on
duty died before drawing their guns.
``Most shootings occur within a radius of 10 feet and take no longer than 2.5
seconds,'' Sacramento Sgt. Jarosick said. ``That's not very much distance and
not very much time to react.''
But whatever the limits of non-lethal weapons and high-tech training, police
experts say it's a worthwhile investment.
``In the older days, an officer basically went hand-to-hand or backed away and
resorted immediately to the handgun,'' San Diego Lt. Leas said. ``In the last
two years, what we've seen is a more confident police officer on the street,
willing to look at alternatives to deadly force.''
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved.