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A letter to the American public: Why ‘shoot them in the leg’ is not an effective strategy

When law enforcement practices become political fodder, both officers and civilians lose


Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participates in a town hall with moderator ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

If you followed the 2020 presidential election, you saw how quickly fact-checkers jumped on questionable statements. Unfortunately, it didn’t look like the fact-checkers were interested in some of Joe Biden’s unfounded claims during a town hall.

For instance, the former vice president made comments about how police officers did not like community policing or that good police were too “intimidated” to report the nefarious behaviors of bad cops. While Biden’s statements had me scratching my head, my jaw dropped when Biden discussed the need for de-escalation training, stating, “instead of anybody coming at you and the first thing you do is shoot to kill, you shoot them in the leg.” Apparently, this is the second time he’s suggested this course of action.

Police Use of Deadly Force

There is no question that the media has helped drive a false narrative on police shootings through a shock and awe approach to stories about police use of force that has prompted politicians to use police reform as fodder for their campaigns.

Regardless of media and political rhetoric, policing cannot be reasonably defined through the lens of singular adverse events. There are about 700,000 police officers in the United States who make an estimated 53 to 63 million citizen contacts in a given year. Sources consistently indicate that police officers shoot and kill about 1,000 criminal suspects per year. Statistically, that equates to 0.002% of police contacts resulting in a police shooting-related death.

If fact-checkers cared, they would find that most police shootings are associated with armed suspects. Yet, even in cases of unarmed suspects killed by police, research has shown those suspects place officers or others in jeopardy of serious injury or death. Yes, there are police shootings that may have been avoided or catastrophic behaviors by a handful of police, but contrary to the trending discourse these are the outliers and nowhere close to the norm.

Shooting the Leg or Arm of a Life-Threatening Criminal Suspect

Most of us haven’t been involved in a police shooting or other types of combat where death could be imminent, which is why a convincing conversation on the topic of “shooting them in the leg” is difficult to do on paper. One way to paint a picture is using the analogy of a more typical stressful experience such as a traffic collision or even a near-miss collision.

While an imperfect comparison for a police shooting, a car crash/near miss can be a proxy for understanding a rapidly evolving, time-compressed environment that may result in imminent harm.

Imagine for a moment, that split-second when the brake lights in front of a car you are traveling behind illuminate unexpectedly. Your chest immediately tightens as the fear of what is about to occur sets in.

There is no time to analyze the rate of closure, potential avenues of avoidance, or the appropriate application of brake pressure to avoid a skid. Instead, most people will immediately and automatically turn the steering wheel left or right and press the brake to the floor. An investigation may find the wheel should have been turned left, instead of right, or that locking the brakes on the wet road made things worse. However, based on standard driver training and experience, what decisions were reasonable in those 1 or 2 seconds?

Now, consider the case of Aaron Hong who confronted police officers with a sizeable knife. Officers attempted to de-escalate the situation by retreating and literally begging Hong to drop his weapon. Instead, Hong charged an officer who, fearing for his life, fired seven rounds. When the shots are fired, both Hong and the officer are in motion. Hong, struck by at least one bullet, falls to the ground only to get back up, attack the officer and attempt to disarm him. He is ultimately shot and killed by another officer. This event is just one of many similar situations that demonstrate bullets, even those fired at center mass, don’t always stop a deadly threat.

The Hong shooting provides other considerations. One, the officer in this scenario has no time to analytically consider all variables and possibilities while Hong continuously closed the distance in a threatening manner. Second, the officer has no time to stop, take a steady shooting stance, align the front and rear sights of his weapon on a leg and then fire. While this process might take a few seconds, empirical research has demonstrated that a young male such as Hong, could cross 21 feet on a flat level surface in an average of 1.5s. The valid inference is that aiming for a leg can result in the officer being stabbed – either by missing or failing to stop the threat.

Police Training and Center Mass shooting

Police officers have used tactics such as keeping distance, using cover and communicating with threatening suspects long before the word “de-escalation” became trendy. While each is an essential tool for mitigating the use of force, officers also know that some people and situations cannot be de-escalated for a variety of reasons. Most prominently are those situations in which suspects do not allow for communication while continuing to place officers or the public in significant danger. Therefore, officers are also taught to use reasonable force, including deadly force, to stop – not kill – an ongoing threat to life and limb. As a side note, the femoral artery is located in the leg and could just as easily result in death.

Police officers are also taught about their reactionary gap with a potentially threatening suspect. Most laypersons simply do not comprehend how quickly a violent confrontation can occur. Human beings can be amazingly fast with punches, kicks, knife stabs and handgun presentations. All of these can occur in less than half a second from a seemingly innocuous start position. In some cases, police officers have been shot and killed by suspects who draw and fire before the officer even perceived what happened.

Lastly, police officers are taught to aim for the center of mass when using deadly force for good cause. Police trainers and firearms experts know this point of aim provides officers with the best opportunity at surviving a deadly force encounter based on the challenge of hitting a moving target with a small projectile while operating under intense stress.


In closing, our society contains folds of significant violence where personal accountability is less and less a national priority. All the while, an ideology espousing the sanctity of human life has informed and reformed police practices on a national scale. I simply hope that the politicians and pundits who were vital to those reform efforts do not forget the sanctity of a police officer’s life is equally important. In the end, policing practices should not be used as off-the-cuff fodder for political expediency.

Be safe. Be vigilant.

NEXT: Walk a simulated mile in a cop’s shoes

David Blake, Ph.D., is a retired California peace officer and a court-certified expert on human factors psychology and the use of force. He has significant experience teaching use of force and human factors psychology to law enforcement officers in several states. David has undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice and psychology. He has authored over 30 professional and peer-reviewed journal articles on the application of human factors psychology to first responders and their operational environments. David continues to conduct research on police deadly force and human factors psychology. He is the lead consultant at Blake Consulting and Training.

Contact David Blake.