Fighting the contagious fire phenomenon

One reason contagious fire happens is that we unintentionally reinforce it with our firearms training

The phrase “contagious fire” is offensive to many in law enforcement. The reason some find the term offensive is because it has been misused to incorrectly portray police shootings. Some argue that contagious fire doesn’t even exist. Other terms have been proposed by law enforcement and general media writers as being more descriptive or accurate, but since most officers are familiar with the term “contagious fire,” I’ll use it throughout this article.

First, let’s discuss what contagious fire is not. A number of officers firing their weapons should not be described as “contagious fire” if each individual officer perceived a threat and made a reasonable deadly force decision based on that threat.

A large number of rounds fired are also not necessarily indicative of contagious fire. It most likely means that the threat of death or serious bodily injury continued to exist and that officers continued to shoot to stop the threat. So when politicians claim that it’s unacceptable for over 50 shots (or some other arbitrary number) to be fired, they’re wrong. It’s completely acceptable, and necessary for survival, to shoot more than 50 rounds if the threat continues to exist.

For example, in the 1997 North Hollywood shoot-out, bank robbers Phillips and Matasareanu (heavily armed and wearing extensive body armor) fired over 1,000 rounds at police officers and civilians. Officers fired hundreds of rounds in response. I don’t think anyone could rationally characterize that as contagious fire or as inappropriate.

There have also been incidents in which police were criticized for shooting multiple rounds at a driver of a moving vehicle, even after the vehicle struck an officer. Media reports bemoan the shooting of an unarmed person, failing to recognize a vehicle can be a 4,000-pound bullet.

In short, contagious fire can be defined as the phenomenon that occurs when one officer shoots, causing other officers have a proclivity to also shoot, even if they are unaware of the justification for shooting.

After an alleged contagious fire incident, any officer who fired a weapon can fall into one of three categories:

1. The officer fired after making a personal determination that deadly force was legally justified and appropriate. This officer either fired first or was unaware other officers were also firing.
2. The officer was aware other officers were firing, and fired only after making a personal determination deadly force was legally justified and appropriate.
3. The officer fired in the heat of the moment for no other reason than other officers were firing or for some other insufficient reason.

Does contagious fire even exist?
I’m certain that contagious fire exists for three reasons. First, officers have admitted to it. The second reason is I can, and have, induced contagious fire during firearms training. Finally, I’ve seen it occur repeatedly in force-on-force training.

In a critical incident, the first goal is to survive. After that objective has been met, the next goal is to survive the following administrative and possible legal challenges. When an officer uses deadly force, it must be because of an individual determination that the shooting was lawful as dictated by Tennessee vs. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), and was within department policy. “I shot because my buddy shot” doesn’t hack it and won’t bode well in court.

Why does contagious fire happen? One reason is that we unintentionally reinforce it with our firearms training. Think of a typical range day at a typical department. The officers all line up together on the firing line, the targets turn or the whistle blows, and all the officers shoot together until a cease fire signal is given. Our muscle memory is to shoot at the same time our fellow officers are shooting.

Proving contagious fire exists through training
While running FBI Firearms Instructor schools to certify instructors for other agencies, I’d always included several target identification courses. The targets would either consist of typical geometric shapes and colors or would be a series of life-size face photographs of diverse individuals. Each target board would contain six to eight of the different, smaller targets. I would ensure the compilation and placement of the smaller targets on each target board were unique. Targets would be faced away from the shooters. Once in position, I would call out a description of the “shoot” target and face the targets for a few seconds. The Firearms Instructors were to shoot only the called target before it faced away. On command, they would then step to the right to a new target stand, and continue the drill for several rotations.

Consistently, in every class, officers would shoot at their target upon hearing others shoot, even when their particular target board did not contain the called target. When asked why they shot at a no-shoot target, the typical response was either, “I don’t know” or “Everyone else was shooting, so I thought I was supposed to be shooting too.”

Remember, this is a class of Firearms Instructors in a low-stress atmosphere (other than they wanted to get their certificates) - not a bunch of new recruits. I would also occasionally call out a non-existent target, and again, inevitably some in the class would fire. The number of instructors shooting at “no-shoot” targets was even greater when we did the night-firing exercises and they were required to use flashlights to see the targets. This indicates they trusted their partner’s judgment (or eyesight) better than their own.

Understanding the deadly force policy
Another reason contagious fire may occur is an officer’s lack of confidence in understanding and applying the deadly force policy. This, too, is a training issue.

How do we correct this? First, all officers need to understand and be able to apply the law regarding deadly force in a high-stress, life-or-death situation. Every officer should receive regular legal refresher training. An officer must be intimately familiar with the tenets of the department’s deadly force policy. Uncertainty about when it’s lawful to shoot could lead to a delayed response, which could then lead to the officer’s death. Firearms training can be combined with a legal review. Officers can be placed in mock shooting incidents in which they have to make a deadly force decision, and then articulate the reasonableness of that decision. After running through this drill several times, officers should become comfortable with their decision-making skills and posses the ability to articulate the reasonableness of their actions after a use of force encounter.

Next, we need to recognize shooting a static qualifications course and calling it a day is not sufficient. You may have met the department’s policy requirement of having a passing firearms’ score for all officers, but you haven’t even begun to provide the necessary life-saving firearms training to your officers. Firearms training must contain dynamic training closely approximating a real-life situation. The International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) offers a book containing a number of great courses; many of which are based on actual police shootings. As Firearms Instructors, we sometimes forget our primary objective. It is not to have every office shoot a passing score on a qualifications course. Our purpose is to ensure every officer will survive, and win, a gunfight.

Preventing contagious fire
To combat contagious fire, we must also include target identification courses in our firearms training. All officers must have the ability to make an individual deadly force decision based on their perceptions and senses. In addition to stressing marksmanship fundamentals, decision-making must be a part of the deadly force equation. This can be strengthened through the frequent use of firearms training simulators and paintball, or force-on-force, training.

Finally, we must make shooting a “no-shoot” target unacceptable behavior. During SWAT try-outs, I wasn’t happy about a miss, but shooting a no-shoot target was unforgivable and an almost instant disqualifier from further consideration as a team-member.

Although credible reports of contagious fire are rare, it provides us with an opportunity to improve our firearms training, increase our legal understanding of the use of deadly force, and to increase the survivability of our officers.

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