Analysis: The ultimate high-stakes hostage shot

Though relatively rare, hostage situations are a reality of policing, and the life you’re asked to save may be that of a child


Just two months into 2021 and there have been two separate incidents where a child was used as a human shield against law enforcement officers.

What happened

On January 9, 2021, Phoenix (Arizona) dispatch received a 911 call of a male in possession of a gun who was fighting a female near a hotel. Officers from the Phoenix Police Department were dispatched and while en route, a second call was received from the male’s wife stating he had taken their baby and was shooting at cars. Officers arrived on the scene to find the suspect in the middle of the road with a pistol in one hand and his toddler in the other. Bodycam video shows one officer deploy with a patrol rifle fitted with a low power variable optic (LPVO). The officer can be seen quickly adjusting the magnification. The suspect continues to disregard police commands and points the gun at his child. The officer then fires one shot to end the threat.

On February 2, 2021, a 21-year-old male crashed his vehicle into a house before forcing his way inside a house further down the street, taking a mother and her 10-year-old son hostage. The suspect fired upon responding Austin Police Department (APD) officers and SWAT was called to the scene. APD reports that at one point the suspect came to a door holding the 10-year-old in a “hostage position.” A SWAT officer then ended the threat with a well-aimed shot.

Three key takeaways

These two incidents provide key takeaways for law enforcement, including underscoring the vital importance of access to rifles for patrol officers, and officer familiarity with equipment.

Looking at the Phoenix incident, no one is going to take a hostage shot under those circumstances at that distance with a handgun. To arrive to a child hostage situation, assess the scene, quickly make adjustments and deliver one single accurate shot shows that the Phoenix officers were familiar with their equipment and confident in their abilities. The faster an officer gets a rifle in the fight, the better the chance of a good outcome for the victims.

Though relatively rare, hostage situations are a reality of policing, and the life you’re asked to save could be that of a child. Officers must continuously train in order to feel confident taking such a shot. I’ve condensed preparation and training into three elements: mental management, knowing your equipment and shooting drills.

1. Mental management

This training takes place away from the range and doesn’t require any equipment.

Mental preparation doesn’t just happen, it must be deliberate and focused. In short, honestly ask yourself, “Are you prepared to take a deliberate head shot?”

It’s one thing to take a life to defend yourself, but it can be different to take a life in defense of another. That’s why, as an officer, you need to know with every fiber of your being why you do the job. It can be different for everyone. It could be a belief that you’ve been blessed with the talent and ability to handle whatever comes, or a deep-seated desire to help others. Whatever the reason, you have to believe in it 100%. That belief is what’s going to get you through the incident and everything that comes after (a whole other article in itself!).

The only thing you have control over is your attitude and actions. Remember why you became a protector. Once you’ve established a mental management program that works for you, keep coming back to it the same as you would any other drill.  

2. Know your kit

If your agency allows you to carry a rifle on patrol, whether agency-issued or personally owned, take the opportunity. Do not be the officer who relies on someone else to bring the right tool for the job. That kind of delay could cost someone their life.

I’m an advocate for running personally owned firearms. I know everything about the rifle I carry. I know how many rounds have gone through it, and that the accessories are functioning, well-maintained and haven’t been messed with. In my experience, cops can’t help fiddling with kit, which is one of the worst things about agencies that require sharing of patrol rifles. I’ve seen day shift remove lights from shared rifles saying, “I work day shift, I don’t need a light,” and then happily turn that same light-less rifle over to graves.

Whether you carry a rifle mounted with an LPVO, holographic sight, or irons, being familiar with your rifle is what is going to build confidence. Know your holdovers. For example, I know my 25-yard point of impact (POI) is roughly 2.5” low of my point of aim (POA). Tip: Create a small holdover card and attach to your rifle or optic.

3. Shooting drills

I favor quality over quantity when it comes to time on the range and honing shooting skills (helpful, too, if you work at an agency with a smaller ammo budget). Single-shot drills at varying ranges, angles, positions and target exposures are what you need to succeed.

Start off slow and steady. Begin with full face, unobstructed targets from a stable shooting position and gradually decrease the size of the visible target area and increase your speed on taking the shot. You don’t have to get fancy with your target, these drills can be done on a paper plate, sheet of paper, or even playing cards. Whatever the size of the target, get in the mindset of aim small, miss small.

Once you master the static drill, incorporate movement. Throughout the drills change up your start position, meaning train from the low ready, high ready, depressed muzzle and extreme low ready. The best way to gauge your proficiency and progress is to run a shot timer. I was able to track my progression and set new goals after I incorporated a shot timer during drills.

Accuracy in shooting is a perishable skill. Running your quals once a year will not prepare you to take a hostage shot with a child victim. If you want to be confident and accurate, put in the time outside of mandatory training.

Train hard, fight harder!

NEXT: Sniper rifle accessories: What you need vs. what you want

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