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13 considerations for using deadly force in a crowd

Firing your weapon to stop an imminent deadly threat may be the most difficult decision you ever have to make

All Set Up

Officers were dispatched to a fight at the Le Cue Club, a popular 24-hour pool hall, bar and restaurant.

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Taking a lifesaving shot is challenging enough for a law enforcement officer, especially when a deadly threat develops dynamically in the presence of a crowd. There are several factors an officer should consider before firing in such a setting.

Before outlining these factors, let’s examine a real-world situation involving Officer Gary Clements of the La Crosse (Wis.) Police Department, which provides context for this discussion.

The example

On July 3, 1984, Officers Gary Clements and Pat Marco were patrolling downtown La Crosse in a marked squad car during the bustling Riverfest weekend — an annual local festival celebrating Independence Day and life on the Mississippi River.

At 1:58 a.m., they were dispatched to a fight at the Le Cue Club at 135 South 4th Street, a popular 24-hour pool hall, bar and restaurant. Upon arrival, they found one of the combatants, David Brandt, still on the scene, while the other, Enrique Pazo-More, had left.

Officers Marco and Clements split up to interview Brandt and witnesses to determine if a crime had been committed. The consensus was that Pazo-More had initiated the altercation and, with his departure, the issue seemed resolved.

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Officer Gary Clements took one shot and stopped the threat in a crowd.

Courtesy photo

The situation escalated when Pazo-More returned, boldly entering from the back door and swiftly moving through the crowded bar. He was initially unnoticed by the officers until a witness, whom Officer Clements was interviewing, suddenly shouted, “That’s him!”

Officer Clements turned to see Pazo-More, who was visibly armed with a large butcher knife, signaling clear malicious intent. As Pazo-More approached, Brandt fled out the front door of the restaurant, closely pursued by Pazo-More.

Clements followed, catching up as the two reached the sidewalk. He described seeing Pazo-More on top of Brandt in a dominant position as if starting a wrestling match. Clements drew his weapon, a Model 15 Smith and Wesson with .38 Caliber +P ammunition, and positioned himself carefully, considering the surrounding crowd. Despite the chaos, Clements found a clear line of fire without endangering bystanders and demanded Pazo-More drop the knife.

In a swift move, Pazo-More slashed Brandt across the face before Clements could intervene. With no one in his line of fire and a wall as a potential backstop, Clements took the shot without hesitation, focusing intently on Pazo-More.

The shot resulted in the knife flying from Pazo-More’s hand, and he collapsed onto the sidewalk. Brandt quickly got up, his face covered in blood from the slash, not from the gunfire as Clements initially feared.

Immediately after the incident, Officer Clements called for an ambulance and backup, reporting an officer-involved shooting. Backup arrived promptly at the scene.

Despite the extremely crowded area, Officer Clements’ single shot successfully hit the would-be killer and was contained within him, instantly neutralizing the imminent deadly threat he posed.

During this tense and dynamic situation, Officer Clements had to consider not only Pazo-More and Brandt but also the surrounding crowd. His use of deadly force was later deemed justified and lifesaving.

13 considerations when using deadly force in a crowd

What special considerations exist when an officer is faced with the need to use deadly force in the presence of a crowd? Here are a few key points to consider.

  1. Ammunition: Duty ammunition should be purchased by departments after considering its effectiveness on impact without over-penetration. “Our department had just purchased the new +P ammunition, which was designed not to over-penetrate,” Officer Clements said.
  2. Training: Accuracy and proper decision-making under stress can be improved with ongoing and regular realistic firearms training, using a variety of realistic targets. Training should also include decision-making with realistic force-on-force scenario training. “Back then, we were shooting Camp Perry and just poking holes in targets. On the other hand, my military police training served me well. Training improved as my career progressed to where it is now, which is 1000% better,” Clements shared.
  3. Tunnel vision: Make certain breaking up your tunnel vision is one of your trained responses as a street officer, especially during stressful situations like this.
  4. Proper grip: Proper training will ensure when you draw your weapon, you will immediately acquire a proper grip, maintaining your finger off the trigger until the moment arrives when you decide you must fire your weapon to stop an imminent deadly threat.
  5. Muzzle discipline: As you move toward the threat, make certain you choose a ready position, which maintains proper muzzle discipline on the move. Avoid letting your muzzle cross anything you are not prepared to destroy. Officer Clements did not even draw his weapon inside the bar because he determined he could not safely fire it in the heavy crowd he was moving through.
  6. Scan and assess: While looking for the threat, constantly scan and assess for that threat, and in doing so, you will be breaking up your tunnel vision as well. As Clements did, part of your assessment will also help you locate a position of advantage once the threat is found.
  7. Selector on semi-auto: If your weapon has automatic capability, make certain when in a crowd you have the selector on semi-automatic.
  8. Know your target and beyond: This is especially important in a crowd. “I knew my backstop was a brick wall. If I missed, I wasn’t going to hurt anyone,” Clements said.
  9. Identify your target: Make certain you are identifying the problem and not an off-duty officer or legally carrying good Samaritan who ran to the sound of gunfire. On duty or off, use proper verbalization to identify yourself as you call for the compliance of the suspect. If you choose to verbalize, your choice of words should let all present know a professional has arrived, who is part of the solution and not the problem.
  10. Acquire your target (sights): You must use your sights to ensure you stop the threat — without striking one of the people you are trying to protect.
  11. Isolate the suspect: This is when the adage “Aim small, miss small” applies. “I was to the side of Pazo-More with a wall behind him and I aimed at a spot in the middle of the suspect just above his belt,” Clements said.
  12. When appropriate, apply the “greater danger rule": This means that if the suspect’s actions pose a greater danger to members of the crowd than your act of taking an aimed shot to stop their imminent threat, then it is reasonable for you to do so.
  13. The special munitions options: When planning for crowd control events, it’s advisable to have a well-equipped less-lethal special munitions operator, often referred to as a “grenadier,” available to handle threats within a crowd. These tools have proven valuable in neutralizing deadly threats in many situations, particularly during crowd management.


Firing your weapon to stop an imminent deadly threat may be the most difficult decision you ever have to make, especially when the situation unfolds dynamically within a crowd. With that in mind, here is a positive thought to conclude with: Although no bullet that leaves the muzzle can ever be recalled, here’s hoping that every shot you are compelled to take under the circumstances will be long remembered by the people whose lives you have saved.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.