Should you shoot someone breaching the U.S. Capitol?

Decisions to use force, especially deadly force, are unquestionably the most critical an officer will ever make


This article is reprinted with permission from Calibre Press

By Jim Glennon

A loaded question and a loaded title, right?

Police keep a watch on demonstrators who tried to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.
Police keep a watch on demonstrators who tried to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Calibre Press articles generally focus on police training and decision-making is an essential part of all training. We also address issues that impact the profession and today we find ourselves with no lack of impactful issues.

Should you shoot someone breaching the U.S. Capitol?

I repeat the title because decisions to use force, especially deadly force, are unquestionably the most critical an officer will ever make. They’re very often made in the blink of an eye, under extreme stress and being processed with incomplete information and restricted cognitive abilities. They’re also something that officers will have to explain, justify and live with for the rest of their lives. That’s a fact that those disparaging the police on a regular basis never talk about.

The police are taught that if their lives or the lives of innocent others are in imminent jeopardy, they are legally allowed to use the force necessary to stop the threat. The advent of body cameras and our ability to review force encounters confirms that in the vast majority of cases where officers decide to use deadly force, they are justified in doing so.

Go to YouTube and look at the dozens and dozens of examples of that. People charging officers with knives and guns and after receiving multiple warnings to stop, still deciding to attack. The legal justification is clear; the officers had to shoot.

A terrible decision to have to make, but a decision that was obviously necessary. The decision was to save a life by taking one.

It’s life altering.

But what if the decision is not so clear cut?

Should you shoot to stop an unknown level of threat or consequence?

Case in point: Congress is in session. We basically have the entire House of Representatives and members of the Senate all in one building. There are countless offices in that same building filled with staff members and rife with top-secret documents and electronic equipment storing government secrets.

And someone with a backpack ignores law enforcement orders, breaks through a window and begins climbing through. They’re breaching the United States Capitol.

Now what? Watch this footage and think about what YOU would do…

Forget what you have seen; the videos of the mob and rioters disrespecting our laws and brazenly overtaking and occupying the Capitol building on January 6th. Imagine it was just one person effecting the breach.

What do you do if you are a Capitol police officer or a member of the United States Secret Service?

Go hands-on?

What sane person would ignore orders from a duly appointed, armed law enforcement official? What is their purpose, goal, intent?

What about that backpack? What’s in it?

What if it contains explosives? Anthrax?

What if it doesn’t contain anything but clothing and a rambling political manifesto?

The decision to shoot or not to shoot would take place in less time than it took me to type those questions.

Now imagine that it’s not just one person breaching. It’s one thousand.

When I watched the movie "White House Down" I wondered how possible it would be to take one building, whether the White House or the Capitol. I thought the movie, while very entertaining, was too farfetched to be believed.

Not now.

The shooting of the former military veteran by a sworn Capitol police officer climbing through that window is tragic on so many levels.

But disregarding emotion, was it a good shoot?

What would you have done?

The second-guessing is already starting.

How about these scenarios?

Let’s forget the Capitol.

Imagine this: A riot is in full swing. A man with a Molotov cocktail, the wick burning, isn’t running toward the Capitol full of elected Representatives and Senators, but a house with regular citizens in it.

Do you shoot to stop?

A burning cart is being pushed toward a car dealership. You have no way of knowing if anyone is inside the business.

Do you shoot to stop?

A police station has officers trapped inside unable to escape because the doors have been locked from the outside by attackers who are setting the building on fire.

Do you shoot to stop?

Thirty people are smashing windows and storming a store filled with frightened women who locked the doors because of the violent behavior of the rioters. Do you allow them to break, enter, pillage and perhaps assault and rape those women?

How do you stop them?

Conclusion

This job has never been easy when it comes to making deadly force decisions in the moment. The second-guessing is easy. It’s also arrogant and presumptuous.

It’s usually done with malicious bias, self-righteousness and complete ignorance of the deadly realities and immense complexities of these situations. It also totally disregards the humanity of the officers involved and the emotional, psychological and often legal aftermath they face. For doing their jobs. For protecting others.

What happened at the Capitol a few days ago is mind-boggling on so many levels. It was an embarrassment to the country and what we stand for. It was unnecessary. It was egregious.

The question will forever be: Was it preventable?

Could someone in power have done something, anything, to have prevented that moment where the Capitol police officer was put in a position to discharge his weapon and kill the women coming through the window? Why was she the only one shot?

Were there clear warnings to those approaching the Capitol that they would in fact be shot if they attempted to breach? Was there a plan to convey that message to the masses?

Was there too much of an attempt to de-escalate and avoid force on the part of the command and consequently the officers on the ground?

Did the fact that the multitude of other protests in major cities over the past eight months – protests that quickly exploded into violent, destructive riots, in many cases with impunity – impact the mindset of the protesters in D.C. on January 6?

Finally, did the Capitol police officers fear that if they used force their own careers would be in jeopardy?

While those questions are being asked and will be examined and investigated in the aftermath, it was a Capitol police officer who was put in the position to make the decision to shoot.

Let’s think of that officer while we scrutinize the unfortunate moment. Let’s consider his humanity.

He made a decision. A decision he didn’t want to make.

Why did he have to?

What do you think? Email editor@police1.com.


About the author

Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard (Illinois) PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book "Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement."

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