Lessons learned from lethal force encounters

A study of 125 officers in 87 incidents
Part 1 of a 2-part series

Researched by Darrell L. Ross, Ph.D.
Professor & Chair, The Dept. of Law Enforcement & Justice Administration
Western Illinois University

From the Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline

While serving as an expert witness in lethal force incidents on behalf of police officers, I frequently hear the plaintiff’s expert opine that: the officer created the harm; the officer put himself in harms way; that officers are trained to use the lethal force as a “last resort;” that officers are trained to use the “least amount of force necessary;” and that officers are directed to use levels of force incrementally over several seconds. In a recent case, a plaintiff’s expert opined at deposition that “officers must demonstrate a rational fear of an imminent threat to justify shooting.” Such comments are obviously erroneous and are not supported in any case decision. These types of statements commonly attempt to confuse a jury, attempt to distract them from the truth, but serves as motivation for performing more research.

In AD 378, Flavius Vegetius Reantus, a writer on Roman military history, wrote: “The courage of the solider is heightened by the knowing of his profession.” Similarly, the purpose of this research is to present contextual incident information about police officers who were forced to use lethal force so that other officers may learn from their experience. Over the course of two articles (part I and II) the highlights of the research are presented. The underlying finding of the research supports the fact contemporary training is paying off in high-stress and life and death situations. Police officers are performing extremely well under stress in the street and in court.

Research methods

Since 1988 I have been privileged to provide testimony nationwide on varying aspects of the police and correction officers’ use of force. From 1996 to 2007 I have been retained as the expert witness in 87 police lethal force incidents, involving 125 officers, and 95 police agencies. Of these agencies 70% represented the Central and Southern states. As the expert in each case, I had access to “all” case documents, including: officer reports, investigation files, crime scene evidence, plaintiff’s complaints, depositions and court testimony, the court’s decisions, suspect history information, personnel records (including training records), agency policies, Garrity interviews, autopsies, photos, etc. I toured the shooting scene in 65% of the incidents. Further, I performed over three hour focus interviews of each officer involved in the incident. The research represents longitudinal, multi-agency, multi-officers, multi-states, focus interviews, scene visits, and a content analysis of the case materials generated in each case. The findings of this study may not be reflective of all police shootings. The findings however, represent how these officers were trained, how they made decisions and performed under stress, how their training prepared them to respond in a lethal force situation, examine significant patterns and trends in contextual factors of lethal force encounters, and provides significant incident factors for administrators and trainers to consider when designing lethal force training.

Incident components & officer demographics

In their study on Violent Encounters, Pinizzotto, Davis, and Miller (DOJ, 2006 -- read about it), reported that such incidents comprise three components: the officer, the suspect, and the circumstances. This research, however, found one additional critical incident component, that being the operational environment. Each incident comprised numerous variables and I analyzed the officer’s response in regards to the contextual circumstances of the confrontation within the framework of the environment as he encountered the behaviors of the suspect. The majority (85%) of the incidents included four common circumstances: investigations of suspicious person/activity (32%); during a domestic call/arrest (20%); performing a traffic stop (18%), and after a pursuit (15%).

Environmental factors comprised over 80 variables. Common environmental incident factors included: 65% of the shootings were at night with low lighting; 85% of the officers did not use their flashlight; 85% of the incidents occurred on concrete/asphalt and dirt/gravel; 70% occurred within city/residential areas; and 85% occurred in an open, outside area.

All of the incidents involved male officers, 55% were white, and on average were: 34 years old; had 11 years of law enforcement experience; 70% were on patrol; in 93% the officer experienced his first shooting incident; 75% had been working from 6 to 10 hours prior to the incident and working 4.5 days on average; 55% of the officers had their weapon un-holstered prior to needing to fire it; 75% wore body armor; and on average 49% of the officers engaged in physical fitness 3 to 5 days a week. In 43% of the incidents one officer handled the incident, while there were two or more officers on scene in 57% of the incidents. Officers sustained a treatable injury in 30% of the incidents.

Suspect information

Limited suspect information is presented as there is not a “profile” or a “portrait” of the typical suspect the officer encountered. Contrary to popular belief that most offenders shot by the police are chemically impaired, 85% of the suspects were sober. Suspects with mentally illness history accounted for 25% and 15% were intoxicated. Officers encountered one suspect in each incident and the suspect died in 95% of the cases. About two-thirds of the suspects were white and about 45% had a prior criminal history. Of these suspects 60% served a prior prison sentence. Suspects used or attempted to use a vehicle against an officer in 40% of the incidents and in 25% the officer was actually struck or dragged with the vehicle. In 12% of the cases, the suspect attempted to use an edged weapon, in 10% the suspect shot at the officer, and in 35% of the incidents the suspect did not have a weapon/or the suspect acted like he possessed a weapon.

Shooting accuracy

About 85% of the incidents involved a dynamic and rapidly evolving situation where time to deliberate a response was severely limited. Commonly the officer fired his weapon within 7 feet of the suspect and had to decide to shoot in less than two seconds 95% of the incidents, although the average time of the duration of the confrontation averaged between 8 to 10 minutes. Due to the dynamic nature of the incident the officer did not have time to take cover or was moving to cover in 85% of the incidents.

There are a sundry of items that can reduce the accuracy of the officer’s shooting. In about 40% of the incidents the officer engaged the suspect physically prior to firing his weapon and the officer was moving to cover while firing in 85%. A lone officer is more accurate at firing his weapon than when multiple officers shoot. Generally one officer discharged 3-4 rounds and the accuracy rate is about 80%. When multiple officers fire they are more likely to discharge more rounds than a lone officer and their accuracy rate falls to 40%. On average officers discharged about four rounds per incident and a total of 352 rounds were fired, with an average accuracy of 65%. Errant rounds did not injure or kill others in the surrounding area.

Shooting aftermath

In 55% of the incidents an external agency performed the investigation and none of the officers were prosecuted. In every case a Section 1983 civil lawsuit was filed: 52% resulted in summary judgment, 34% progressed to trial with a 100% winning outcome, and 14% settled out of court.

Significantly 90% of the officers were still employed within two years of the incident and 30% had been promoted. About 25% stated that they experienced symptoms associated with post stress reactions. The officers reported that they experienced varying degrees of perceptual distortions including: 70% time distortions; 55% visual narrowing; 45% auditory exclusion; 80% depth perception; and 56% reported memory distortions. About 88% of the officers stated that they would not hesitate to shoot again under similar circumstances and 80% reported that they believed that their agency supported them appropriately during the investigation and civil action providing debriefing, counseling, legal counsel, and general support. About 25% of officers reported that they suffered marital problems after shooting and 10% ended up getting divorced. These officers reported that the shooting incident was one factor among many that led to the divorce.

This research shows that assessing lethal force encounters should be more completely assessed within a framework of four common components. The general findings reveal that these officers were well trained and prepared to survive a lethal force encounter. With this sample their successful outcome in the street and in court is evidence of sound academy and in-service training (more will be discussed about training in part II).

Officers had little time to deliberate about their response to the actions of the suspect. In a majority of situations the officers engaged in physical activity prior to or during the discharge of their weapon which can increase stress levels. This does not appear to have affected these officers ability to successfully defend their own lives or others and they experienced less perceptual distortions than previous studies have reported. These findings are also significant in that they provide further evidence into the contextual circumstances in which officers must connect cognition with physical response in self defense during a combat survival stress situation.

Read Part 2

Read the references for this article


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