Collateral damage: When the armed citizen is in the crossfire

With good citizens carrying guns and willing to intervene on scenes, the decision of police to use deadly force has an added potential for tragedy

In a body-worn camera video just released from a June OIS, a dark and confusing fight scene ends in the death of an armed citizen from police gunfire in Oregon. While that story played out on, another story of a police officer assisted in a gunfight by an armed citizen in Illinois also headlined. While concealed carry and open carry advocates – including many in law enforcement – celebrate that only a handful of states prohibit concealed carry of weapons, the police officer’s judgment has been made more complicated.

When most states prohibited concealed carry, an officer could expect only bad guys and cops to be displaying a handgun at a scene. There was the assumption that an off-duty or plainclothes officer would identify themselves and avoid being shot, and a criminal would engage the officer or comply. With good citizens carrying guns and willing to intervene, the decisions (which were never easy) have an added potential for tragedy.

Double-edged sword

With good citizens carrying guns and willing to intervene, the decisions (which were never easy) have an added potential for tragedy. (Photo/Portland State University)
With good citizens carrying guns and willing to intervene, the decisions (which were never easy) have an added potential for tragedy. (Photo/Portland State University)

A recent case in Colorado where police shot a homeowner who had just rescued his grandson from an attacker in the home illustrates the dilemma of citizens taking care of their own protection who then interact with police responding to the call. Shocked citizens may call these shootings a mistake, but the vast majority are sound decisions based on the totality of the situation presented to officers at a moment in time.

Concealed carry instructors, firearms sellers and law enforcement must work together to make interactions between lawfully armed citizens and responding police officers safer. But, as with all training, the chaos of reality is the only test of its effectiveness and that test is pass or fail.

Responding officers

The public will always hold the trained police officer responsible in an exchange with a legally armed citizen. In the Oregon case cited above, critics claim that the civilian wasn’t actually holding the gun at the time he was shot, that he was a lawful concealed permit holder, that he was just keeping the gun safe for a friend, that he was a veteran and civil servant, and even that the campus police officers who responded to the fight call shouldn’t have been carrying guns in the first place.

As an informed professional (making a judgment from my writing desk after viewing less than 90 seconds of video), I see officers arriving at a violent fight scene with witnesses pointing and shouting about a gun, and a cluster of persons fighting and ignoring officers’ commands.  Based, as they say, on a “totality of circumstances,” my impression is that the officers had no reason to delay using deadly force when milliseconds away from the deceased’s ability to decide to finish this fistfight with gun. This OIS was not likely a “mistake” as critics will claim.

The calculus

The human brain calculates innumerable sensory inputs, then collects, prioritizes and matches them with pre-existing templates for response before kicking the muscles into action. Neither conventional shooting range training nor scenario-based training will ever replicate what happens in the explosive cluster of a violent event. Truly accurate presentation of body language, voice, behavior and facial expressions simply aren’t possible outside real events. And real events, therefore, never look like exactly the thing the officer trained for, or the behavior that has been imprinted on an officer’s brain hundreds of times from movies and television.

Inexperienced gun users will not be aware that responding officers won’t intuitively know who the bad guys are. It is natural to hang on the gun, and even to bring it around with you to face an officer. And nobody wants to just drop a $600 gun on the concrete.

Taking a moment to survey the scene, preferably from cover, can help enhance decision-making by observing what actors are involved as suspects, witnesses, or victims. Behaviors of gun carriers who are ready to reach or trying to keep the gun from falling out are different from others in the crowd.

Keeping commands simple and consistent with other officers at the scene can avoid confusion. If one suspect hears the command to “drop it” or “get on the ground” from Officer A and “don’t move” from Officer B, the suspect will delay complying while both officers perceive non-compliance.

Can an officer make more accurate decisions in the new wild-west environment with so many good guys with guns? They’ll have to.

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