When Police Shoot
Police Magazine, October 2000
By Rick Parent
By the very nature of their
profession, police may at times be confronted with a potentially lethal
threat. In most of these instances, police personnel will have no other
option but to discharge their firearm in order to protect their life or, the
life of others. A recent study of police shootings in the Canadian province
of British Columbia revealed that several factors have played a significant
role in the outcome of a shooting incident. At times these factors have
resulted in both the police and the offender, becoming unintentional victims
of police firearm discharges.
For police personnel, this study revealed that in several instances,
officers have been the victim of their own weapons. Accidental discharges,
cross-fire situations and intentional discharges, resulting in bullet and
concrete fragment ricochets, have resulted in several police officer
For example, in some instances police personnel were forced to discharge
their firearms at offenders while they were located inside concrete
buildings. Occasionally this would result in a 'spray' of concrete
fragments, causing unintentional injuries to both police and the public.
While the vast majority of these incidents resulted in minor police
woundings to the face and outer extremities they nonetheless underscore the
possibility for more serious injuries.
One of the more frequent police injuries appears to be caused when officers
attempt to 'shoot out the tires' of suspect vehicles. The automobile and the
wheels that it rests upon are largely made of steel. The concrete or asphalt
roadway that the vehicle rests upon serve to further compound the situation.
When a high speed lead bullet is discharged in the general area of a
vehicle, ricochets and metal fragments abound. Unlike the scenes depicted by
'Hollywood', the 'shooting out of a tire' can be a precarious and dangerous
FATAL POLICE SHOOTINGS
An in-depth analysis of fatal police shootings revealed that five key
factors were apparent during shootings incidents the resulted in death.
These five factors include:
1. The Commission Of A Serious Criminal Offence
During five fatal shootings, the deceased had just committed a serious
criminal offence. In one additional incident, the deceased was wanted by the
police as he had recently committed several serious criminal offences. These
offences include murder, attempted murder, robbery, aggravated assault and
In the majority of
these cases, members of the public had been victimized and had
requested that the police attend to deal with the perpetrator of the
crime. On occasion, the suspected individual(s) had completed their
criminal activity and were fleeing from the scene when police officers
arrived. In all of these instances, the police officers were required
by law and profession to arrest and detain the suspected individual
for court purposes as well as to ensure that the offence would not be
re-committed. However, upon recognizing the interveners as police
officers, the suspect(s) reacted with a lethal threat to the officer(s)
or innocent bystanders.
During one incident,
two plain-clothes police officers were engaged in a stake-out,
attempting to locate an individual who had committed several serious
crimes. As a result of the individual's criminal activities, there was
an outstanding nation-wide warrant issued for his arrest. Upon
locating the wanted individual, the police officers identified
themselves. This immediately prompted the suspect to produce a loaded
hand gun and level it at one of the officers. The two police officers
responded this deadly force as they feared that their lives were in
incident, the attending police officer observed what appeared to be a
hostage taking that took place after the commission of a serious
criminal offence. The suspect had committed a robbery and had escaped
from police officers at the scene. While being pursued on foot by a
police officer, the suspect was observed by a second officer. The
second police officer observed what appeared to be a weapon in the
possession of the fleeing suspect and believed that the suspect was
about to take a hostage. In response, the officer discharged his
firearm owing to the perception that an innocent by-stander was about
to face a lethal threat.
In another case, the
Emergency Response Team was summoned to deal with an armed drug
trafficker who had barricaded himself in his residence. As the team
members attempted entry to the suspect's fortified residence, a
gunfight ensued. The suspect had responded to the intervention by
shooting and killing a police officer. After the incident was over,
the suspect also succumbed to a fatal wound.
During two incidents,
uniformed police officers were routinely patrolling their respective
areas when they were suddenly dispatched to a reported crime in
progress. Shortly after arriving at the designated location, the
officers faced a perceived lethal threat. Upon suddenly confronted by
the police, during the commission of a crime, the suspect(s) responded
by threatening the lives of the police officers or an innocent
bystander. During both of these incidents, the suspect(s) were in
possession of loaded hand-guns while committing their crimes.
Two police officers
were summoned to deal with three suspicious males. One of the three
appeared intoxicated and as a result was arrested. During the arrest,
the two police officers were overpowered. The suspect took each of the
officers' guns and began shooting at the police officers. One of the
officers was able to obtain a shot gun from his vehicle. The police
officer, fearing for his life, shot and killed the suspect before the
latter could discharge any further rounds at him and his partner.
In summary, during five of
these six incidents, the suspect(s) had attempted to kill the apprehending
police officer(s). The deceased individuals either levelled a gun at the
officers or had actually fired their weapon at the police. In one of these
incidents, a police officer was killed. In another incident, a police
officer was hit and wounded by the assailant's bullet.
In addition to the commission of a serious criminal offence, the
significant consumption of alcohol and or drugs by the deceased suspect is
believed to be present in over half of those cases involving the police
use of deadly force. It was frequently reported that the deceased had a
very high level of impairment at the time of his or her death.
3. Mental Disorder/Irrational Behaviour
Mental disorder, or characteristics consistent with that of a deranged and
irrational person, were displayed by roughly half of the individuals who
were shot and killed by the police. These findings are based upon the
actions and behaviour of the suspect during his/her encounter with the
police. Also noteworthy is that, in roughly one third of these instances,
the deceased had a recorded history of mental disorder. Most frequently,
schizophrenia was cited as the primary condition in the deceased's
documented history of mental disorder.
4. Mistaken Facts
During one incident, police officers entered a residence during the
execution of a search warrant for narcotics. Upon entering the residence
they were suddenly confronted by an individual pointing a rifle. In
response one officer fired a single shot, killing the individual. It was
later learned that the firearm was in fact a non-lethal pellet rifle and
that the individual had been target practising inside his residence
moments before the police unexpectedly entered.
A subsequent police investigation and a Coroner's Inquest determined that,
although the shooting was an unfortunate incident, it was legally
justified due to the circumstances. The evidence indicated that the police
officer who fired the fatal shot feared that his partner was going to be
shot by the deceased. It was only after the fact that it was possible to
determine that the rifle was a pellet gun.
5. Victim-Precipitated Homicide
The term victim-precipitated homicide refers to those killings in which
the victim is a direct, positive precipitator of the incident.
Victim-precipitated homicide, that is essentially an act of suicide refers
to those incidents in which an individual, determined on self-destruction,
engages in a calculated life-threatening criminal incident in order to
force a police officer or another individual to kill him or her. The
characteristics associated with victim-precipitated homicide include the
existence in the individual of a desire to die that is accompanied by a
direct and conscious role in his or her own death and the fact that the
death was primarily a consequence of the decedent's own actions.
In eight separate cases, individuals displaying irrational or bizarre
behaviour had engaged the police in a life-threatening manner, prior to
being shot and killed. In additional to their bizarre behaviour, these
suspects often displayed several of the characteristics associated with a
disposition towards taking one's own life. These suicidal characteristics
were readily apparent in the suspect's actions, statements and demeanour
immediately prior to his/her death.
This study suggests that police should give serious consideration to
establishing rigorous training in regards to firearm deployment and in
dealing with mentally deranged individuals. One of the significant
findings of this study is the frequency of injuries that have occurred to
police personnel as a result of discharging their firearm during the
apprehension of a suspect. In addition, this study also documented two
incidents in which a police officer's firearm was taken away by a suspect.
Once in possession of the firearm, the suspect used it on the police.
addition to firearm deployment and retention training, police officers
require training that will allow them to identify irrational cues when
confronting an individual who is armed and dangerous. By identifying these
cues, the police officer may be able to assess which strategic option is
appropriate for the circumstances at hand. Significantly, the option of
retreat or 'tactical withdrawal' should be included within the police
response. If possible, police officers should physically distance
themselves from individuals who are bent on forcing a victim-precipitated
homicide. For example, a tactical withdrawal by the police may serve to
neutralize the actions and intentions of the suicidal individual. It may
also allow the police to formulate a plan of action that will involve a
calculated response with the application of less-lethal force.
In this regard, police managers must recognize the need for further
research and the development of less-lethal force options. Less-lethal
weapons provide police personnel with further force options that can be
utilized to subdue a violent individual. Importantly, these less-lethal
force options inflict less severe injuries to both the suspect and the
Alternate weaponry, such as the less-lethal Taser, typically does not
require a hit to a critical area such as the heart or brain in order to
cause immobilization (Law & Order, 1992:112). As this study has
demonstrated, in situations were the suspect is behaving irrationally, the
threat of using a firearm is frequently ineffective and costly - to both
the officer and the victim. There is a need to look beyond the present
limits that have been set regarding force options and firearm deployment
if law enforcement agencies are to effectively deal with the societies
that they police.
©2004 The Police Policy Studies Council. All rights reserved.