Book excerpt: Misunderstandings, misconceptions and myths about police shootings
“Shots Fired” takes readers inside the minds of LEOs during officer-involved shootings
By Joseph K. Loughlin
Chapter One: The Things that People Believe
Here are some of the things people commonly believe about the police. As police officers, we have all heard people make these statements. On the news, in the paper, on the street, but also from family and friends, at the gym, at dinner parties, and even in conversation with people we believe ought to have some understanding of our reality:
- Why did the police have to fire so many bullets?
- Why didn’t the police just shoot the gun (or knife, bat, other weapon, etc.) out of the suspect’s hand?
- Why couldn’t they use their baton against the suspect’s knife?
- Why did the police not yell at the suspect to drop their weapon before shooting?
- Why didn’t the police talk the person down instead of shooting?
- Why did the police have to shoot him? Just let him go and arrest him later.
- Why did the police have to kill her instead of just trying to wound her?
- Why did the cops shoot so many times?
- Why did they shoot him in the back?
- Why didn’t they wing him or shoot the guy in the leg like they used to?
- Why didn’t the police use Tasers or other nonlethal methods?
Often, those questions are followed by statements about the police such as:
- Cops kill people. That’s what they do.
- They get to be judge and jury.
- They shot him for no reason.
- They just wanted an excuse to kill the man. That’s what they sign up for.
- They just wanted to be heroes.
- Cops are just one part of the criminal class policing the other.
- The guy didn’t even have a weapon. He was unarmed, for God’s sake, and they killed him.
- It was just a little knife. A small screwdriver.
- The cops shot him while he was handcuffed.
- All a cop has to do say he’s threatened and he can shoot someone.
In the pages and stories that follow, you will experience deadly force incidents through the eyes of the officers involved, see why so many of these assumptions are unfounded, and hopefully gain some understanding of these events, which will give you information to help evaluate—and question—the versions you will hear on the news and in social media.
I used to have my own share of mistaken beliefs. As a child, I remember watching John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gene Autry, Vic Morrow, and all the heroes of war or westerns on TV. One shot would knock a man off his feet and he would be dead. A shotgun blast would blow someone ten feet back and he would be killed with one round. Guys were blown through windows or off roofs. Multiple shots would bounce someone around like a marionette. Guns and knives would be shot out of the bad guy’s hands. Heroic cowboys could shoot a man on the fly as they were running, riding a horse, or jumping off a roof.
The movies made this even larger and grander. Cop movies showed the police shooting someone on the run or a gun out of someone’s hand or a well-placed shot in the leg dropping the bad guy in a flash. Clint Eastwood with his .44 Magnum would blow the bad guys right off their feet with one shot. The good guy would shoot multiple bad guys and they would each drop with a single bullet and never shoot back. As children, we would play cops and robbers, war, and all the other games, shouting, “I got you! Fall down!” And you were supposed to fall down. When video games came along, everyone blew apart or just dropped in place.
I believed what I saw and heard on TV—until I became a cop. Even today, TV, video games, and movies perpetuate many myths about what happens in armed encounters. Here are some of them:
- Bullets will knock someone down easily. One shot is all you need.
- A shotgun will knock someone down for sure. Blow ’em right off their feet.
- If you knock someone down, the fight is over.
- All police are well trained and able to shoot with precision and accuracy.
- Cops have better decision-making and memory due to training.
- Police have plenty of time to decide when and where to shoot.
- People armed with a knife or hammer are not as dangerous as people with guns.
- An unarmed person is not dangerous.
- After a cop has shot someone, she will just holster the gun and go on as though nothing had happened.
- The police get together and lie to protect themselves.
- Videos will tell the whole story.
None of these are true.
The real world is tremendously different from the world of fiction. There is almost no public understanding of what the officer goes through when involved in a deadly force incident:
- Not of the training officers go through to prepare for these events.
- Not of the mental, physical, and emotional reality of the events.
- Not of their stunningly short time sequence.
- Not of the aftermath.
In responding to a threat, time is a critical factor. Time to think, time to act, time to react, and do it all within imperatives of the law, department policy, and training strictures. These decisions often occur in the space of seconds, as statistics show many deadly force confrontations begin and end within three seconds. The reality of action versus reaction as it pertains to a deadly force incident is as much ignored or fantasized as is the reality of wound ballistics. But these factors cannot be ignored, dismissed, or minimized to fit the needs of the public in support of the offender.
There are many things we wish the public knew about officer-involved shootings before jumping to the conclusion that the cops got it wrong.
Even in controlled police training environments, you often cannot shoot straight or react quickly under duress. The adrenaline and fear are sometimes overpowering. Under extreme duress, you can be only feet from an individual and miss. In real cop life, it never happens when you are ready or comfortable. It happens in the rain, in the snow, in the middle of the night. Or when the subject seems compliant.
In reality, a person charging from twenty feet away can plunge a knife into you or put a hammer in your head before you can draw your weapon, sometimes even before you recognize you are in danger. In the real world, deadly encounters happen in milliseconds with little time to react. In the real world, people do not get knocked down by a bullet or blown off their feet and lie still. In the real world, someone who has been shot can still shoot back. Still charge at you. Still attack you with hands or fists, a knife, or other weapon. Rage, mental illness, and heavy-duty drugs often fuel these encounters and make people impervious to pain. People can actually run around with many bullets in them for quite a long time.
As a young, liberal-minded man training to be a police officer, I discovered quickly that the common myths are far from true. The first thing I learned is how quickly you can be overpowered and find yourself on the ground fighting for your life and gasping for breath. It’s frightening, even in training where the attacks are simulated. This can happen even when you are prepared for it. Verbal orders are ignored. Batons get ripped from your hands. Equipment fails. Guns get jammed. Tasers won’t deploy. Pepper spray fails. The department’s officer trained with a nonlethal weapon is on another call.
In the real world, events evolve suddenly, with a significant threat occurring well before an officer can draw a weapon. During our training, to give us a good example of how quickly a physical or knife attack could occur, the instructor would take a rubber knife and cover it with chalk. The assailant would charge us in a planned or surprise attack from twenty feet away after we started a dialogue and then we would observe the multiple chalk marks or handprints all over our clothing. The results were shocking. Sometimes, even when you are prepared for an attack, you fail. Then you learn, through muscle memory and repetitive practice, how to move forward through an attack like that, or back up if there is a place to go. Practice, repetitive training, and creating a confident mindset are paramount for survival. All of this takes time.
At the academy, we learned that for many, perhaps most, officers involved in shootings, the timing of the attack or gunfire is a total surprise. It often defied logic or physical laws. It was shocking to learn that people do not always go down even when they are shot multiple times. Ammunition and the power of the weapon itself are factors, but bullets are not magic. Even with someone who has sustained fatal injuries, the body still works, the mind still thinks, and the heart still pumps, giving the offender plenty of time to do damage and kill.
Many officers who were in shootings reported that the person was hit multiple times and just wouldn’t stop. Or the bullets would not penetrate and be stuck in the clothing, walls, doors, and floors after the smoke cleared. As one officer said, “You are watching it happen in front of you in total disbelief because it just does not make sense. It’s frightening. You think you missed or something is wrong that you are unable to explain.” Most times, after a deadly force event, the officer involved had no idea how many rounds were fired.
A fact that surprises many people is that all police are not trained to the levels the public and media believe. Officers need constant and consistent training to physically survive attacks and unfortunately, often cops do not get that. Unless you are on a specialized unit such as Specialized Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or Special Reaction Team (SRT), the average officer does not get much ongoing training. With all the other demands an officer faces at work, it can be difficult to keep up with these skills once you’re on the job. Most departments cannot afford the time, money, and training for officers beyond the basics necessary for qualification, or the minimum standards for carrying a firearm. Often officers must take it upon themselves to maintain their skills. And the stress of the moment changes everything. Your ability to react, fire a weapon, or employ self-defense tactics can go out the window fast.
After a police shooting, we will often hear Joe or Jane Average say something like: if I had a gun, I would just shoot the guy in the leg or wing him. You know, cops are trigger-happy. That is why they shot that man twenty-six times. These people have absolutely no idea. There are many valid and practical reasons for shooting multiple times; the most important is that you are trying to stop someone who is trying to kill you or someone else. That’s the objective: to stop, not to kill.
It’s easy to criticize or Monday morning quarterback after an event; here we ask you to visualize the reality of the event. When we bring a citizen in and put them in a scenario where they have to make a split-second decision about whether to shoot or walk them through a shooting scenario training like FATS, they all emerge in disbelief and with a new respect for what officers actually go through and for what happens in real life.
In the real world, anything that a person can grab can be a weapon: bottles, rocks, lamps, even a spoon. Anything. In the real world, people can kill, cripple, and maim with their hands and fists easily. There are various skill levels and physical abilities. Human beings are capable of tremendous physical feats and incredible strength. Some individuals are highly trained in martial arts or have military experience. It is all very unpredictable.
Whether the suspect is armed or unarmed, or appears not to present a threat, the evolution of deadly force events is almost always unexpected. Consider this example:
* * *
Hartford Police Department, Hartford, Connecticut
Officer Richard “Kevin” Salkeld: It was a beautiful day, high 70s, and low 80s. Sunny. I was partnered with Andrew Jacobsen. We were partners for a while and very close. We went to our first call, a domestic on Sisson Avenue and then cleared that. I was driving to Evergreen Mobil, Eddie’s Evergreen, it was called, and it’s two-for-one Gatorade. As we’re going up Evergreen Avenue, a car stopped, I think it was blue, and a guy rolls down the window, a black guy with all gold teeth, and he’s like, “Dude, somebody just hit my car, somebody just hit my car and took off. The bumper is back on Evergreen. The car’s a little red car with Spider-Man seat covers. You can get the license plate off the bumper.”
We backed up and sure enough the bumper was sitting there on the road. I think it was Drew who got out and put it on the hood of the car and it slipped off. Like twice he did it. So I’m laughing and I look up on the hill and there’s a little kid laughing. We finally get it on the hood and as we’re driving back up to the guy, there’s a red car parked and the guy whose car was hit has the red car boxed in a driveway and was swearing at the guy who hit him. You know, “Fuck you! Fuck you!”
The guy with the red car, he’s a little Spanish guy with curly hair. It’s just a routine hit and run, maybe an arrest or ticket. We walk up on the guy, trying to be calm. Drew and I, together we probably weigh 500 pounds, and the guy’s a little scrawny guy, couldn’t weigh more than 170. He would not let us pat him down. We’re trying to calm him down. We’re holding him back. All of a sudden it turns into a full-out wrestling match. I can’t get ahold of him and Drew’s trying to get ahold of him, and he’s just sliming through us. We end up on the ground. Then we’re back up on the back of his car, on the hood of his car, and then we’re rolling around. We’re trying to get him.
I don’t know how long it actually was. It seemed like five or six minutes, but it was probably less than that. And I’m like, “Drew, spray him, spray him.” Sure enough, Drew sprays him and, like, every time any officer’s ever sprayed, they miss. He totally misses him and hits me in the face.
So now I have pepper spray in my face, he has pepper spray on him, the guy’s got pepper spray. We’re doing everything we can, you know, and we still can’t hold him. We’re trying to hit him, hold him down, I mean, everything we can. There’s quite a crowd gathering while this happens. We fight all the way around the car, and Drew’s finally, like, “Call for backup, Kevin, call for backup.”
So I’m, “Unit 27, we’re at 31 Evergreen.” I remember yelling to Drew. He said 31, but it was actually 61, I think. I say, “It’s 27, we need backup, can you send backup to 31 Evergreen,” and all of a sudden I hear, Bam!
I knew it was a gunshot, but I thought Drew shot the guy. I thought for sure that he just shot him. That’s the only other gun I knew about. I drop my radio. I look up, and Drew’s got his arms around the guy’s waist and he’s screaming, “The guy shot me.” Drew doesn’t really swear and he’s like, “The motherfucker shot me! Kevin, shoot the motherfucker! Shoot him. He shot me!”
Once I heard Drew screaming, “He fucking shot me,” everything just slowed down as I look up and the guy’s pointing the gun at me. So I pull my gun. At that point, I got tunnel vision. I remember thinking I was, like, forty yards away from the guy when I started shooting at him, when he was shooting at me. I found out later it was probably only twenty or thirty feet at the most. My first shot hits him, unbeknownst to me, in the forearm, through the biceps, like eight inches from Drew’s head. Drew falls away and the guy kind of stands there and looks like he’s shooting at me again. So I shoot him again. He goes down to his knees and he’s still pointing. I think he’s still shooting at me.
Through the whole shooting, I remember just draining every ounce of energy into the shooting. And I felt things whizzing by me. I think he only shot at me twice in total, but I remember thinking, God, he’s firing like mad. And I remember it feeling like a half hour that all this happened and I think it was over in five seconds. It seemed like half hour for me by the time I got to Drew.
I’m walking towards Drew and I just keep shooting. I think I shoot him another two times. Then he kind of goes to the ground, but he looks like he’s shooting and I remember walking up to Drew and standing over Drew’s head. At the last, I remember the guy on the ground and I’m like, “This has to end. I’m exhausted,” and I remember aiming at his neck and shoot him in the neck and see it go through the neck. At that point, I figured he was dead. Everybody started screaming.
And I remember running over, calling, you know, “Officer down! Officer down!” So people came after that. Officers were commandeering vehicles to get there. There’s a picture of one of our soon-to-be chiefs running in flip-flops with a shotgun down the road.
By that time, I’m sitting with Drew, and Drew’s like, “Tell my wife I love her.” I’m friendly with his wife and everything, and by the time everybody got there, I’m mad. I’m yelling and screaming at the guy, “Fuck that, son of a bitch!” like it was a bar fight. I was still furious with the guy. Realizing that he was dead but not realizing it, you know?
People were trying to calm me down. Things get a little blurry right after, you know, except for Drew talking about his family and, you know, them tearing my clothes. I mean, I remember that at one point they’re holding me back, because I was so mad at the guy. I thought Drew was going to die. Once I got to Drew, and once that first officer got there, reality came back to me a little bit. But until that first officer got there, when it was just Drew, the guy, and me, it was just total tunnel vision and like the world just started rotating a little slower, you know?
We go to bring Drew to the cruiser and Drew’s like, “Just don’t drop my radio or me,” and the first thing we do is drop him before we ever get him to the cruiser, and then they run over his radio on the way. I just remember thinking, Oh, God. He thought he was going to bleed out. He didn’t, thank God, but I’m thinking, Oh, God, he’s going to die, his wife is going to kill me. We had been really good friends, you know, we had gone out with his wife, she’s always like, “Take care of my husband, take care of my husband,” you know? I didn’t know if I was hit or not. I thought I was, but it turns out I was not. So they’re stripping stuff off me. They end up stripping me down to my vest, can’t find anything, but cart me off to the hospital as well. Then we end up in the hospital, which is a whole other story in itself.
One of the guys on the civilian review board actually found the shooting unjust. I was like, How the hell? He shot my partner. He almost died. He was shooting at me. When is it just? At what point does it become just in your mind?
* * *
Officer Jacobsen recovered from his wounds and both officers remain with the Hartford, Connecticut, police department. Richard Salkeld is a detective in major crimes. Andrew Jacobson is a detective in the cold case homicide unit.
If police-community relations are going to improve, people need to understand the men and women who walk that thin blue line. As in the example above, the pages ahead will offer some reality. They will take you inside the scenes of many more police-related shootings. The objective is to share with you, though the eyes, and in the voices, of those involved what it’s really like for the individual officers. You will go inside their minds at the time of the shooting and see the aftermath of the event.
It is important to understand this reality—how suddenly these events can happen and the processes that the involved officers go through in what is often seconds to respond—and see for yourself how actual situations differ from movie and TV images. In the world of fiction, they go right back to work on some other case or head off into the sunset. The actuality of officer-involved shootings is nothing like that. Cops don’t just shoot someone, holster their gun, and walk away. At the scene of an officer-involved shooting, there are multiple elements that have to be managed and people who have to be cared for. A person who has been aiming a gun or shooting at officers one minute—a threat that must be stopped—immediately becomes someone whose injuries must be attended to the next. Other competing needs include crime scene investigation, evidence preservation, crowd control, and dealing with the involved officers. And it all happens really fast.
It is not the incident alone that is little understood. Another aspect that is usually not considered is the aftermath. These events are imbedded in the officers’ minds in ways that don’t go away. Ever. Shooting someone, even when it is absolutely necessary, is life altering, and nearly always emotionally and psychologically crushing.
Frequently, for the officers involved, the subsequent investigation (or, often, investigations) can be just as bad as the event; sometimes even worse. An officer involved in a shooting, even while she is experiencing the personal trauma of the events, still has to function on many fronts. There’s the external world to deal with—the world of the public and media speculation. There’s the official world of internal affairs, force review teams, and outside investigations. There are the questions, comments, and assumptions of coworkers. And there is the impact on families, both through the effects on the officer him or herself, the questions, assumptions, and treatment the family may experience in the community, and career and economic factors.
The incident itself may last only seconds or minutes; the aftermath may take months or years. The media spin and public reaction is often inaccurate and accusatory, making the involved officers look incompetent or even deliberately evil in the eyes of the public, an image that is rarely corrected by subsequent articles. Often there are conspiracy theories—for instance, the speculation that the cops all got together and lied to portray the incident in a certain way. They planted the weapon. They are friends and working with the district attorney. They investigate their own so there won’t be a fair and impartial investigation.
Added to that is the time it takes for internal affairs, the medical examiner, forensics experts, the department’s own criminal investigations division, and outside agencies such as the attorney general’s office to complete their investigations. Hours, days, or even months of questioning, reconstruction, and revisiting the events can make even the most righteous shooter second-guess himself and feel like a criminal. Officers must live with the pressure of months or even years of waiting for a resolution while the threat of prosecution and/or job loss may hang over their heads. During this time, they may be suspended, on leave, or performing a different job from the one they love or are trained for.
The pressure doesn’t only come from outside the job, either. There is the police culture to deal with—our own foolish rumors, conjectures, and critiques of each other. There are plenty of stupid comments cops make after an event of this magnitude, and even well-meaning colleagues often say the wrong things. Many officers have told me how upset they were by ignorant comments from their coworkers who have never been involved in a shooting. Comments like, “Hey, you missed him! What happened?” or “Fuck him, he deserved it!” or “Ya did the right thing,” or “You should have shot earlier. You are lucky you are alive.” Even “It’s just a movie, dude.”
It is never just a movie.
There are friends, relatives, families, and children to deal with in the aftermath. Spouses and parents whose friends have read the critical headlines. Other students in a child’s school who may have heard their parents discuss the incident or heard about it on the news.
Then there is living with the fact that you killed a human being, a huge trauma in an officer’s life that never goes away.
All of this transpires under a very complex legal umbrella with everyone concerned about covering his ass. The investigations are intense. Throughout the investigative process, there is the strong possibility of being sued, fired, and even prosecuted because of a decision made in microseconds under tremendous stress. Officers know that anything is possible. Life as you knew it is already over. “From hero to zero in a flash,” is a phrase common among police officers.
Often the most difficult and painful aspect for the involved officers is the rush to judgment. As I, and others in command positions, repeatedly say during times of community unrest, “God forbid they get the facts first.” We want to get the story out as soon as possible as well, but we know that any incident involving deadly force, and many involving any officer’s discharge of a firearm, will result in multiple investigations. Those investigations take time. Lots of time.
To reach any final conclusions about what happened, there needs to be results from crime scene techs, medical examiners, and forensic analysis. Only a nucleus of investigators will learn the full story as time goes on, conducting internal investigations along with multiple, parallel investigations by outside sources. While these careful, official investigations are taking place, significant damage can be done by initial, uninformed, reports. Frequently, when the final reports are issued and conclusions about the shooting reached, they will be reported in a few buried paragraphs. Pilloried in the headlines, exonerated in a paragraph.
Since we know that folks learn from the movies, TV shows, and what is presented by the media, police departments need to play a more proactive part in shaping that news to reflect public safety’s reality. That is why the first pieces of information and timing of the media release are crucial. But that is something we’re only slowly learning and putting into place, and because careful investigation takes time, it is a process that can rarely be as open or transparent as critics demand.
Policing is a dangerous profession—and the emotional spin, rhetoric, and inaccurate reporting of force cases can have the effect of pinning targets on all police officers. Look at what is occurring in some of our cities.
Take a look inside several real police shootings from inside the minds of the officers who have had to kill someone. Read these stories with an open mind and imagine yourself or someone you love is wearing that uniform.
The US Supreme Court has said: “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be viewed from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than with 20/20 vision of hindsight.” And that “allowance must be made for the fact that officers are often forced to make split second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular incident.”
This is a lot easier said than done.
1. Urey PW, Hall JC. In Defense of Self and Others—Issues, Facts & Fallacies—The Realities of Law Enforcement’s Use of Deadly Force (Carolina Academic Press, 2010), 133.
2. FATS is Firearms Training Simulator used in police and military training, which presents trainees with practice scenarios on a video screen in which they need to decide whether, and when, to shoot.
3. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).
About the author
Joseph K. Loughlin retired in 2010 as the assistant chief of police from the Portland ( Maine) Police Department after 28 years of service. He served as the interim chief of police during 2008 and 2009. During his career he held many special command positions including the commander of the Special Reaction Team and the detective lieutenant in charge of Criminal Investigations. He is a founder and ongoing seminar presenter for the police department’s Peer Support Team and Employee Assistance Program.
The nonfiction account that he co-wrote of a tragic murder and intense police investigation, “Finding Amy” has received national recognition and was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award. It is now in paperback version and published by Berkley Penguin books. There have been five national television documentaries on this case with Loughlin assisting in the productions. He is a dynamic public speaker and often presents on the Amy St. Laurent homicide case. Loughlin is a regionally and nationally known author of numerous police editorials and articles published about the work and officers experiences, perspectives on life, trauma and service. Presently he consults for an International Security firm.