The Anonymous Cop: A Reader Asks Why We Shoot to Kill

October 16, 2020, 7:30 AM

This is our second twice-monthly column by a veteran police officer from a Southeastern Michigan department. Insights of a cop on the job and the public understanding it can foster outweigh our usual policy of not publishing anonymous work.
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By the Anonymous Cop

A reader asks: “Why do cops shoot to kill?”

Short answer: We don’t.

Here’s a better explanation, with context, because that’s what this column is about.

Police train to use our guns to stop the violent actions of suspects that are leading to harm of others or themselves. More colloquially, on the range, we are told: “Fire ‘til the fucker falls.”

The point of that kind of vulgar statement is that the threat needs to be neutralized. In real life, we don’t have time to aim at a knee, take a shot, see if the guy goes down. We make immediate responses to make the situation safer for everyone else.

In firearm training, we learn to aim at the center mass of a human being. The torso is a big target and easier to hit. Plus, bringing anatomy into it, the torso holds all of the vital organs that we are hoping to hit and cause enough blood loss that the suspect will collapse and stop the assault.

If you have handgun experience then you know it's challenging to be accurate even from a relatively close distance where you and the target are not moving. We train a lot, and every time there is range day, I see more than one veteran officer fail to hit the target well enough to qualify.

Seriously, some of us have shot the same course of fire twice a year for the last decade, and it really should be pretty damn easy. The target doesn’t move, you don’t move and 25 feet is the farthest shot you take. The target is a life-size human silhouette.

If officers can barely qualify in that situation, then when their adrenalin dumps in a life-threatening situation where they are moving and suspect is moving, it’s amazing anyone hits anything. Aiming and hitting a leg or arm or shooting a gun or knife out of a suspect’s hand is impossible.

Life isn’t the movies. And yes I do blame cop shows and other entertainment media for the public having unrealistic expectations of what we can do in the field in real life. Also, the vast majority of cops go their whole careers without firing at someone.

But when it does happen, with the body jumping in to fight-or-flight mode during a life-or-death situation, you lose all fine motor skills. Your fingers don’t work as well.

I have had officers tell me they were unable to reload after firing. Some didn’t hear their own shots. Others can’t recall aiming because it happened so fast, and they have no idea how many times they fired their gun.

'Oh Shit' Moment

It is actually a life-or-death moment. For the majority of officers, if they’re being honest, they’d be thinking: “I have to do something I never thought I would do or wanted to do, and I have to do it right now or something terrible is going to happen to me or someone.”

An “oh shit” moment, as we say. And in that moment we are lucky to hit anything. We can’t shoot to wound.

So why do we shoot so many times? Often media reports and social media comments focus on how many times an officer shot someone.

I understand why it seems crazy to shoot someone more than once. Isn’t that excessive?!

No. Not if you know what actually happens.

The short answer is one shot doesn’t work.

The more holes in a person, the more they bleed, and the quicker they become incapacitated. If someone is shooting at you, it is not a good idea to fire one round, hope you hit them, see if it caused enough damage for them to stop shooting at you, decide that maybe it didn’t, take another shot to see if that one worked and so on.

Not only will you be dead from how many times you have been shot by the bad guy, but others – innocent bystanders, your partners – may be wounded or killed.

I have seen people shot multiple times and survive. And I have seen people shot multiple times who keep on firing, running, doing whatever dangerous thing they were doing.

One of my friends was undercover during a drug arrest, and the dealer began shooting at the arresting officers who were in uniform. My friend pulled his gun and shot the drug dealer in the chest point blank five times. Nothing happened.

Hitting a Drug Dealer

He said he could see the rounds hitting the dealer’s shirt and making holes, but the dealer was focused on the uniformed cops. He had no reaction to actually being shot by someone else.

My friend actually looked down at his gun, confused, thinking his gun wasn’t working properly. He then thought to fire at the dealer’s head. That one shot destroyed his brain, and he was dead instantly.

An autopsy showed that one of the first rounds hit his heart. He was dying, but kept shooting at the arresting officers.

Another officer I worked with stopped an armed robbery suspect who pulled a shotgun. The cop fired his pistol 12 times and hit the suspect five times before the bad guy collapsed while firing into the dirt. They were only seven feet apart.

When I asked the officer how many rounds he fired, he confidently replied “three.”  He was so scared, so full of adrenalin during this “oh shit” moment that he has no memory of shooting that many times.

So we don’t shoot to kill and we don’t shoot to wound. We do what we have to do to survive and stop the suspect from harming us or someone else.

All while thinking: “Please fucker, just fall.”

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