Should cops shoot to incapacitate?
The answer is “Yes!”
Rapid incapacitation of a dangerous assailant is and has been the goal of law enforcement shootings.
To incapacitate means to render a person or thing incapable of action. Shooting to incapacitate is the only method by which law enforcement officers can compel cessation of a deadly threat. When an injured person maintains the capacity to act, especially the capacity to inflict injury on another, then they are not incapacitated.
Whether incapacitation is achieved – let alone rapidly or reliably achieved – by aiming for “the pelvic region, abdomen, legs and arms of a person posing a deadly threat,” is a different matter. That is the premise behind a training program re-introduced by a Georgia police department. Let’s analyze this concept in more detail.
Incapacitation stops an assault
Human beings are amazingly capable of carrying on with serious injuries, including fatal injuries. Therefore, incapacitation of the assailant is the officer’s immediate performance objective when threats are deadly.
There are many law enforcement examples of seriously injured people killing others despite their injuries. The FBI Miami shootout in April 1986 is one. Another is the November 2009 ambush at a Forza coffee shop in Parkland, Washington. During that assault, an officer shot the assailant in the abdomen. The assailant carried on, leaving behind four dead officers as he fled the scene with an officer’s service pistol.
There are so many examples that it is likely every law enforcement agency in America has experience dealing with this reality. If not involving good guys, then with seriously injured bad guys harming each other in spite of their injuries to the pelvic region, abdomen, legs and arms.
Shooting to kill is not the objective
I have been a full-time law enforcement officer for more than 30 years and spent many of those years as a firearms instructor. To my knowledge, it has never been our objective to kill people. It still isn’t.
The desired result and goal of all police shootings is the immediate cessation of dangerous action by the suspect. When a suspect escalates a situation to a deadly threat, the law enforcement officer’s goal is to stop the imminent assault before the victim(s) can be seriously injured.
Lethal force as a pain compliance technique
The ability to hit a limb depends on the officer’s skill and equanimity, and the unique environment of each encounter. Obviously, the more dynamic the situation is, the less likely a limb will be intentionally struck. But assuming a hit is scored, it is not logical to suggest or assume we can rapidly incapacitate a person by shooting them in the pelvic region, abdomen, legs and arms (PALA).
To aim for PALA is to hope for the cessation of the threat, based on the assailant’s choice. It may work in some cases, especially when the assailant is not dedicated to resisting and the assailant’s weapon is not a firearm, so I won’t say never. But incapacitation should not be expected, and we should not, therefore, refer to the technique as “shooting to incapacitate.”
By avoiding the body’s physiologically incapacitating target zones we are, instead, hoping to achieve pain compliance. We hope that a person shot in PALA will perceive pain, will not want more pain, and will choose to comply in order to avoid more pain instead of continuing their dangerous aggression. Pain compliance relies on perception and psychology by a person whose pain may be blocked or ignored and whose psychology is already in question.
To help distinguish techniques, when an officer intentionally targets PALA we should call that “shooting for compliance.” Shooting for compliance is based on the hope that bullets will influence the dangerous person, not incapacitate them. With influence-based shooting, we must remember that compliance of any kind changes as easily as any human changes their mind. As long as the dangerous person has volition, a new assault remains possible.
Less lethal finally has a fit
Shooting for compliance creates a category of deadly force that is less deadly than shooting to incapacitate. Bullet hits in PALA are less lethal than bullets to the chest. If the law enforcement profession accepts the concept of PALA for initial targeting, then perhaps we will finally stop calling pepper spray and electronic weapons “less lethal” as we make room in our lexicon for more techniques that are, in fact, absolutely lethal. Any time a firearm is discharged at a person there is a foreseeable risk of death, even when the bullet impacts the person’s arm. 
In his 1992 Police Handgun Ammunition Selection, Martin Fackler, MD, wrote the following:
The only reliable way to stop the aggression of a fearless assailant is to disrupt his vital body structures. The heart, major blood vessels, and upper part of the spine are the vital structures of the torso.”
These vital structures, then, are our primary targets during a lethal confrontation.
Dr. Fackler continued:
Bullet hits in the torso cannot be counted upon to cause a person to immediately cease his actions. Even a total cessation of blood flow to the brain can allow 10 seconds of purposeful action …Luck is a factor that cannot be ignored: sometimes an apparently well-placed bullet will just miss every important structure you think it should hit. Just below the heart, for example, it is possible for a bullet to pass between the aorta and the vena cava without hitting either of these large blood vessels. Several well-placed hits is the only way to get around the luck problem.” 
Therefore, law enforcement officers are trained to fire multiple shots at vital body structures when faced with a deadly threat; and trained to stop shooting once the officer perceives that the deadly threat is no longer present.
What we can learn from real-world experiences
A police officer in my agency attempted to stop a suspect who was walking away from an attempted robbery. The officer exited his police car and commanded the man to stop. The man continued walking away and the officer followed, again commanding the man to stop.
The following unfolded very rapidly: the man suddenly turned, displayed a knife and advanced toward the officer; the officer stopped and, with his pistol ready, commanded the suspect to drop the weapon; the assailant kept advancing with the knife pointed at the officer; while backing up, the officer fired two shots, striking the assailant once in the pelvis and once in the leg.
The pelvis and leg were not the officer’s intended impact points – it happened very fast – the officer immediately fired two quick shots and PALA is where the bullets struck. The suspect took off running. He actually moved faster after being struck in the leg and pelvis. Despite multiple PALA hits he was not incapacitated. The suspect was eventually captured after he became stuck in a fence, with the knife still in his hand.
This experience is not an anomaly. There are many other examples.
On January 7, 2015, Columbus Regional Airport Authority police officers faced a knife-armed suspect. A police officer initiated a Terry stop in the airport parking area. After a brief discussion with the man and a request for the man’s identification, the man suddenly produced a knife and attacked the officer.
As the officer moved back from his attacker, he was blocked by a parked car and fell backward onto the hood. He fired his weapon from the hip at close range, striking the assailant. The injured attacker was pushed away and fell to the ground, allowing the officer to move to a position of safety. After a few seconds, the wounded attacker, with the knife still in his hand, got up and began to move toward the officer again.
A second officer arrived on scene and drew his duty weapon. With this officer providing cover, the first officer holstered his handgun and drew his TASER to subdue the man. The TASER was ineffective. Officer #2, a departmental defensive tactics instructor, was not carrying a TASER on his utility uniform. Since he is an expert with an expandable baton, he felt that he could disarm the man with his baton. He holstered his handgun, drew his baton and engaged the man using an impact strike. He was successful in delivering one blow with the baton, but the man retained the knife and continued walking (with a bullet-wounded leg) toward the airport terminal doorways.
As officer #2 again drew his firearm, officer #3 came out of the terminal and shot the advancing, knife-wielding man near the entrance to the terminal building. Officer #3 fired three shots, stopping the threat.
A bullet wound to the suspect’s leg (preceding two failed nonlethal weapons) did not stop the Columbus assailant from continuing on foot for a considerable time and distance until he was shot high in the torso.
On May 2, 2016, in Bali, officers tried to arrest a 49-year-old former MMA fighter. The man resisted arrest and stabbed one of the officers eight times, killing him. Moments later the man stood outside with the knife in his hand. Other officers tried de-escalation, hoping to persuade the man to surrender. Verbalization didn’t work. Officers fired warning shots and that did not work, either. When the suspect advanced at the large group of officers, officers began shooting him. Notice in the linked video how much time expired and how many gunshots it took to stop this knife-wielding assailant.
In Los Angeles, California, at approximately 11:30 a.m. on November 25, 2019, a man wielding a machete with an 18-inch blade robbed an auto parts store, carjacked a vehicle from a Chick-fil-A drive-through, crashed the car into police cruisers, took off running from officers then turned back to assault the nearest pursuing officer. The officer backpedaled. As usual, a forward-charging assailant quickly overtakes a backpedaling victim.
The officer fired eight shots at the encroaching assailant. Those shots did not stop the attack. The officer tripped and fell backward, which is not uncommon when backpedaling in a hurry. After the officer started shooting at the assailant the assailant ran with full volition until he arrived within reach distance (kill radius) of his intended victim. The assailant raised his knife to slay the officer lying in the street. Other officers, arriving just in time, responded with gunfire to the upper torso to save the supine officer’s life.
The L.A. incident reminds law enforcement officers of several things:
- How unpredictable human events are;
- How vulnerable LEOs are when facing an assailant with a knife;
- How quickly events can change when dealing with human volition;
- That backpedaling is a defensive maneuver and, as such, it cannot by itself stop an assailant;
- The limited effective means by which LEOs can compel cessation of an oncoming deadly assault. (The first eight gunshots didn’t work.)
It should also give pause for this reflection: what if the officer was alone when he fell? If there weren’t several other officers arriving within handgun proximity right at that moment, what then?
The Los Angeles incident demonstrates the interplay of chance. The officer was unlucky when he fell backward, to be quickly overtaken by the assailant. The officer was lucky when other officers arrived just in time to prevent the first officer’s slaying. Also, fortunately, those officers did not aim for an arm or leg.
On April 13, 2020, the South San Francisco Police Department responded to a call at 5:35 a.m. of two men fighting at a Chevron gas station. One of the subjects attempted to carjack vehicles from two different victims, attacking one person in the gas station with a knife and stabbing him. An off-duty San Francisco police officer witnessed the attack and attempted to intervene. He, too, was stabbed by the suspect before he could shoot the man. Despite being shot, the man fought off arriving police. Officers tried to subdue the man with a stun gun, but he again fought them off, got inside an officer’s patrol car and fled. Officers pursued him to a medical facility in Daly City, where the man attempted to drive through the gates to the parking garage. The man then rammed a pursuing police vehicle before exiting the stolen patrol car, pulling out his knife and confronting another officer. All of this while bullet-wounded. The man refused to comply with multiple commands to surrender. Officers shot the suspect again, which ended the conflict.
July 2, 2020, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a 32-year-old suspect was armed with two Ninja-style daggers. When police officer Brian Pray arrived, the suspect started advancing toward him in spite of the officer’s attempt to build rapport and de-escalate. Officer Pray warned, then tasered, then shot Ruffin, firing his service pistol at least seven times. The assailant was hit with TASER darts and four gunshots in the chest. This incident demonstrates the fallibility of de-escalation and non-deadly techniques in the face of deadly resistance. It reminds us that determined assailants are amazingly capable of pushing forward, even while being seriously wounded.
At 6:45 a.m. on July 14, 2020, in Delta Township, Michigan, a 43-year-old man stabbed a 77-year-old man at a dairy store during an argument about the younger man not wearing a COVID face covering. The assailant fled in a car. A deputy traffic-stopped the suspect at 7:15 a.m. in a residential neighborhood. The assailant exited his car with a knife in his hand, ignored the deputy’s verbal commands to drop the knife, then attacked the deputy. She fired 5-6 shots before the assailant dropped the knife. When the assailant picked up the knife the deputy fired another 5-7 shots before the suspect went down.
Wishful thinking doesn’t save lives
The collective law enforcement experience reveals a surprisingly high rate of failure when nonlethal techniques are used – and in these cases when non-incapacitating shootings occur – against determined, deadly resistance.
LEOs rightfully use non-deadly methods (de-escalation and warnings, chemical agents and/or impact weapons, etc.) when officers have ample distance, perhaps intervening obstacles (shielding), no other potential victims are nearby, the deadly assault isn’t underway, and the assailant isn’t armed with a firearm or other launching weapon. Such may also be an opportunity to aim at less lethal targets of the dangerous person’s body, provided the background is miss-safe and ricochet-safe. That is a lot of ifs, but sometimes all the proverbial stars align.
For instance, a few years ago an armed, serial rapist fled on foot from officers in my city. An officer fired two rapid shots. One round struck the rapist in the elbow. The man dropped to the ground, crying in pain. He surrendered but he was not incapacitated. Less lethal pain compliance worked in this case, even though the elbow was not intentionally targeted. Unfortunately, there is no way for law enforcement officers to predict who among dangerous people will submit to extremity pain, and who will take that as their “go” signal to begin an aggressive assault.
Police officers have a duty to protect themselves and others. A reasonable belief in imminent danger of serious injury creates the necessity for deadly force because only deadly force has the potential to compel cessation of a deadly attack within the time constraints needed to protect people against the present danger of serious injury. Depending on the circumstances and unpredictable variables, once the attack is underway it may be already too late to prevent serious injury or death.
When an armed attack is underway, any response less than deadly force is wishful thinking, a hope-for-the-best reliance on the assailant’s good faith or luck.
1. For one example see Mace v. Palentine, 333 F.3d 621 (5th Cir. 2003). A man wielded a short sword, an officer shot him, the bullet struck the man’s arm, the man died. (It is unclear whether the arm was intentionally targeted or the result of chance. Experience suggests it was the latter. Either way, the man died from the arm wound.)
2. All quotes in this paragraph are taken from Martin L. Fackler's article on “Police Handgun Ammunition Selection,” published in the Fall 1992 issue of Wound Ballistics Review, available online. Bold added for emphasis.