Heroics or recklessness? You be the judge

An FTO and his rookie confront a violent suspect who advances toward them with determination — a pistol in one hand, shotgun in the other.

The officers, guns drawn and crouched behind their open car doors, repeatedly order him to stop and drop the weapons. He keeps coming, clutching the guns. When he gets within spraying range, the FTO OCs him and resolves the incident without injury to anyone.

Does that trainer merit a medal for not shooting? Or should he be punished for needlessly jeopardizing his life and that of his trainee?

This encounter and the provocative questions it raises surfaced recently in the electronic newsletter distributed by the well-known law enforcement firearms expert John Farnam of Defense Training International, Inc.

We contacted the man who, as deputy chief in charge of patrol operations, was intimately involved as a reviewing administrator after the incident. We promised him anonymity in exchange for candor. We’ll call him Chief Solomon.

See if you agree or disagree with his judgment.

The confrontation resulted from an early afternoon call for police to handle a “violent domestic disturbance” between a man and his girlfriend in a neighborhood of modest homes in a Western city of roughly 50,000 population. The FTO, experienced on the street, and his recruit driver, just weeks out of the academy, pulled up about 50 yards from the location — a small duplex — to wait for backup.

“The offender sticks his head out the front door, looks around, stares straight at the patrol car, then ducks back in,” Solomon says. “Just a bit later he suddenly reemerges, this time with the guns in his hands.

“He strides down the block, directly approaching the car. The two officers scramble behind their doors for cover, draw down on him, and start yelling commands. ‘Stop! Drop the weapons!’ Over, and over, and over. Even a deaf mute would know from the visual evidence that they’re the police.

“He keeps advancing, but keeps the guns pointed down and says nothing. When he’s almost right on top of the car, just a few feet from the officers, the FTO (on the passenger side) blasts him with pepper spray, disarms him, and cuffs him. End of incident.”

Neither of the offender’s weapons, as it turns out, was loaded. Later it was determined that he apparently had intended to “teach his battered girlfriend a lesson for calling the police” by provoking a suicide-by-cop.

With everyone unscathed, some in the department — including the FTO’s sergeant — thought the officer should be given a medal for bravery and valor. Solomon had a markedly different idea.

“When that proposal came to my desk, I thought, ‘That’s crazy! It’d be a dangerous precedent to set.’

“Instead, I advocated that he be disciplined, sent to mandatory training, and removed from the FTO program. I was adamant that my officers not be afraid — or hesitant — to shoot when the situation warrants, as it, by my analysis, did in this situation.”

The buck was passed up to the city’s director of public safety. To Solomon’s relief, he did not order that the FTO be honored. But by the same token, he did not support Solomon’s call for punishment. The matter was simply not acted upon, “allowed to die on the vine as a pocket veto.”

Thus, says Solomon, “he failed to send the proper message that this administration wants officers to act decisively, with deadly force, in appropriate circumstances, and that they will be backed up when they do.”

Opponents of Solomon’s position (including, understandably, the FTO) have argued that whether to fire at that particular offender was a legitimate judgment call. Not shooting was appropriate in the minds of the officer’s supporters because the gunman never actually pointed his weapons at either officer but kept them down at his side.

“I heard it said, ‘No one died. Everything turned out hunky-dory. Would you prefer that an officer shoot someone and then have litigation to deal with?’ ” Solomon recalls.

“Well, I don’t want to see suspects get shot unnecessarily. But I also don’t want to see officers shot. And I don’t want to see recruits trained to put themselves in that kind of horrible jeopardy. This rookie was scared. He was taking all his cues from the FTO.

“In not shooting, there’s a failure to recognize how quickly things can change in a volatile situation. Reaction is slower than action, and the suspect, even starting with his guns down, could have suddenly delivered a snap shot at the FTO or the rookie before they could fire back.

“If you are dealing with someone who’s armed and walking up on you and disobeying your commands and you wait until his gun is pointed at you, you have waited too long. I know I was not the one out there facing the threat, but in my estimation this was a plainly obvious situation. I would have shot long before that offender walked up to the car and got within pepper-spray distance.”

Farnam, for one, emphatically agrees. “Officers who would rather take suicidal risks than shoot when clearly indicated need to find other work,” he states. “We don’t carry guns in vain. Commanding suspects who are visibly armed to ‘drop their guns’ more than twice is tantamount to suicide. When officers think they are required to expose themselves to such risks, we have failed them…and the public.” To reward such behavior, he asserts, is to legitimize “stupidity as virtue.”

Solomon remembers that when he worked the street himself as a young officer, “my partner and I often told each other, ‘I sure hope I’m not the first officer to shoot somebody around this place.’ We had no confidence that the administration would treat us in a just manner following a shooting. When I became an administrator myself, I didn’t want my department to perpetuate that kind of thinking.”

And yet, he found an “appalling” amount of support for the FTO’s no-shoot decision among the troops under his command. “If that confrontation was a scenario in training, I think most officers would have shot that suspect,” he speculates. “But in training, they know they’re not going to face an IA investigation, they’re not going to get sued, they’re not going to get blasted in the media, they’re not going to be impotent from stress for three months.

“On the street, all those factors come into play, and officers can hesitate. They can hold their fire to be extra certain that they absolutely have to shoot. Everyone wants to avoid a tragedy — that’s good — we don’t want a bunch of trigger-happy cops in this country. But unreasonable caution can put an officer at a point where he’s unwilling to shoot when he really ought to.

“Somehow we have to find a way to transport the good decision-making that we get in training to the street. We have to be willing to critique non-shootings as well as shootings. We have to encourage open, candid discussion of this topic within agencies so officers, supervisors, and administrators all know what’s expected. We have to engage the media and the community so they understand, too.

“Otherwise we’re going to have more officers willing to put themselves at foolish risk. And some of them won’t be lucky.”

What do you think?

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