Faith, Love, Politics, and Social Justice

Why Police Don’t Shoot People in the Legs

First let me say, once again, that I am very supportive of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and nationwide against police brutality and racism. I want it to end too and I am very thankful it is happening and very prayerful that this movement will lead us toward a more just way of being a nation. But, in order for that to happen, I also think it is important that these protests lead to concrete ACTION plans that stand a chance of going somewhere and that is going to take a lot of education. Knowing something about the history and roots of systemic racism is obviously important. But it is also important to know something about the nuts and bolts of policing. That is where I think I might be able to help and why I am blogging about it, trying to answer questions that activists ask me.
Yesterday, I tried to answer the question “Why don’t ‘good cops’ turn ‘bad cops’ in.” Today I am going to try to answer another question that keeps coming up, “Why don’t police shoot people in the legs?” Here is why:
1. It is virtually impossible to do. Police receive firearms training that is much more extensive than that most civilian gun owners receive. In addition, they are required to demonstrate proficiency with firearms at least once a year at the firing range. As a result, most cops can hit a paper target with much greater accuracy than most. Many probably could deliberately hit something smaller than a human chest, like a human leg – at the range that is. But the range isn’t the streets. Firing at a paper target, under optimal lighting conditions, where the target doesn’t move and no one is shooting back at you is way different than shooting a person who is moving when you feel your life is threatened. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers on this. (Firearms instructors may correct me here.) but I think the average “hit ratio” in a street gun battle is about one in ten for police and one in twenty for civilians. That means, on the average, if a cop fires ten rounds, only one is likely to hit the suspect anywhere on the body. That is why police are trained to aim for “center mass” or the chest and not even try to aim for a leg or other smaller target.
2. There is no such thing as “shoot to kill” versus “shoot to injure.” That only happens on TV. In real life, there is only shoot to stop.
3. Shooting is deadly physical force. Period. Police are not legally justified in using a gun unless they are in a situation where deadly physical force is justified, such as they have good reason to believe that there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to them or someone else and there is no other way of stopping the threat than to shoot. Asking them to use guns as “less than lethal” weapons – or any other way – is asking for more trouble, not less.

So what DOES make sense? In my opinion, it makes sense to demand that police stay within the current legal and department guidelines for the use of deadly physical force, that police-involved shooting investigations be thorough and transparent, that black and brown suspects be treated the same way white suspects are treated, that police receive more and better training in all areas including firearms training and not just the paper target kind, but also the “shoot – don’t shoot” kind, such as what is available via the FATS (Firearms Training Simulator) where they have to make simulated judgment calls about when to shoot and when to hold their fire, where the race of the suspect can be controlled for and things like a tendency to shoot black people more than white people can come to light and corrected.

Those kind of reforms stand a chance of actually being implemented and, more importantly, actually saving lives.

Saying “they should shoot people in the legs” while totally understandable, isn’t.

4 responses

  1. Christine Robinson, Albuquerque, New Mexico

    Thanks for sharing your experience as a cop. Helps the rest of us walk a mile in another person’s shoes.

    August 21, 2014 at 10:50 pm

  2. Roger Tranfaglia

    Its just EASIER to aim for and hit center mass under ANY conditions…….do you REALLY think a bad guy is going to aim for your legs???????……….HUH?????????

    August 24, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    • Lee Cruse

      This article is right on the money. However, “center of mass” is not necessarily always the chest. You shoot to hit your target, and when the target is not standing still approaching head on (like the paper at the range) the center of mass visible to you may actually be some place else.
      I also think that many police officers are not “gun people” so they do enough to qualify but not much past that point.
      Many CCW people do even less, however, there are many that go well past the “police minimum”. We should always encourage all people to get as much training as possible, on both the legal, physical gun shooting and on the proper mental attitude necessary for effective self defense. Access to less deadly alternatives are also important many times.

      August 24, 2014 at 6:01 pm

  3. Not all police is US police, some other forces do aim by preference at legs if circumstances permit to do so., if one looks at the Dutch investigations of police shootings (not vehicle related ones) “good” leg shots seem to be at least as common as “good” body shots.

    August 29, 2014 at 6:45 pm

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