A first-of-its-kind effort describes police sniper use of force engagements in U.S.
The American Sniper Association has produced a defining resource designed to assist SWAT teams in structuring training, buying equipment and planning deployments
By Derrick D. Bartlett
What is the average distance of a police sniper shooting in the United States? The generic answer to that question for at least 30 years has been “around 70 yards.” It has been stated as fact in sniper schools, articles, books and conversations. When pressed for a source of this information, most people credit “FBI statistics.”
When the American Sniper Association (ASA) formed in 2000, one of its first orders of business was to obtain a copy of those statistics to see how current they were and perhaps do our part to update them. We were amazed to discover the FBI didn’t collect information on police sniper shootings. The statistic so many snipers, instructors and authors had been quoting and relying on was, in fact, a myth.
Realizing this information had never been collected, ASA seized upon this as an opportunity to impact the sniper community in a positive way. We initiated a project to gather statistical data about police snipers’ use-of-force engagements. We developed a survey that asked the questions we felt were of most interest and importance to sniper teams and administrators. We established the parameters of our survey field around the agencies involved, time span to be covered and the types of engagements that would qualify as sniper shootings. Then, using the labor of a group of dedicated volunteers, we went to work.
Survey methodology and criteria
The first thing we needed was a current listing of agencies around the country that maintained SWAT teams. The Justice Department’s annual report “Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, Data of Individual State and Local Agencies” provided an alphabetized listing of 897 agencies to contact.
To call and/or write to each SWAT team, we also needed some general information about each agency. The National Public Safety Information Bureau annually publishes the “National Directory of Law Enforcement Administrators,” which provides a complete listing of local, county, state and federal agencies from around the United States.
Agencies outside our initial contact schedule were made aware of the survey process through presentations by ASA personnel at tactical conferences, sniper schools, seminars and competitions nationwide. After we advised them of the survey and explained our goals, we gave interested attendees survey forms to complete. We also published notifications on our website and in “Sniper,” the quarterly newsletter of the advocacy and training organization Snipercraft.
Articles explaining the survey process and its objectives were published in several major tactical and law enforcement magazines. As a result, agencies contacted ASA to request forms. By monitoring national news and wire services, we became aware of sniper-related incidents that occurred around the country during the survey periods. In these cases, we followed up by directly contacting the involved agencies to obtain information.
The result of this process was that, although our initial contact pool was limited to agencies known to have SWAT teams, many agencies beyond the scope of that group voluntarily participated in the survey after direct contact with ASA personnel. This led to a more comprehensive survey by reaching teams that otherwise would not have been included.
After the data-collection phase of this project was complete, we spent time verifying the information gathered. Many of the agencies contacted in the initial phase were re-contacted to clarify vague or conflicting information. We spent hundreds of additional man-hours searching newspaper archives in attempts to find details about many of the documented incidents.
This project was ambitious at the outset and arduous in execution, but we were proud to finally produce the “Police Sniper Utilization Report.” This report was a significant accomplishment and is unprecedented in its scope. A comprehensive study of the use and effectiveness of police snipers in the United States exists for the first time in history.
The finished product is not a dry recitation of numbers and boring bar graphs. Instead, we have compiled data and relevant anecdotal information that will prove useful in understanding how snipers have been employed over the past three decades.
Beyond knowing the average distance of police sniper shootings, readers will find other, more important operational information – for instance, the longest and shortest distances encountered. The breakdown shows how many occurred in daylight, as opposed to low light. You will see how often shots passed through intermediate barriers, as well as how many passed through their intended target. Many more operational circumstances are recorded and quantified as well. The data in this report gives administrators, snipers and team leaders a clearer picture of real-world sniper operations. It has also helped dispel several misconceptions.
We hope this information will assist you and your SWAT team leadership in structuring training, buying equipment and planning deployments.
Highlights and lessons learned
Only shots that were the result of “a deliberate long rifle shot, by a person assigned to the sniper position, against a designated human target,” were recorded as sniper shots. This excluded shots by patrol, entry and perimeter officers and shots taken with handguns or submachine guns. It also excluded shots on animals, cars and other objects.
To date, we have collected reports of over 500 police sniper shootings that occurred between 1984 and 2022. Some highlights:
- Not surprisingly, the .308 was the most common caliber firearm used by snipers. Others employed have included .223, .30-06, .300 WM and .338.
- Contrary to common belief, fewer than half of the persons shot were struck in the head. Most suspects were hit in the body or extremities.
- Much traditional sniper training has been limited to prone, bipod 100-yard shooting drills. The report verifies that sniper shootings may be done from a variety of distances and are seldom from a prone bipod position. In fact, documentation shows nearly half of snipers have had to utilize standing, sitting, kneeling, squatting, or improvised positions. Hopefully, this knowledge will inspire teams to incorporate position shooting into their training programs. It certainly removes the most common excuses to avoid doing so.
- Nearly 98% of recorded police sniper shootings took place at distances less than 200 yards. This is contrary to the belief that snipers in rural areas deploy and shoot at long ranges.
- Night-vision equipment has played only a limited role in actual shootings to date. However, there is a demonstrated need for teams to purchase and train with night vision. Nearly 45% of the shootings documented occurred during low-light hours.
- We have documented dozens of instances where two or more snipers fired simultaneous shots at a single suspect. However, none of the reports received recorded sniper engagements on multiple suspects.
There is nothing in this report that could be viewed as critical of law enforcement. Since no agencies or persons are identified, it will not expose any participating agency to litigation. Therefore, we aren’t overly afraid of it making its way into the hands of attorneys.
However, the report carries with it an implied warning for every agency reading it. We have clearly documented what snipers face in real-world operations. Knowing what snipers are really doing should become the framework for buying equipment and designing training to prepare your team for the realities of the job. From this day forward, if a team chooses to do otherwise, they do so at their peril. This report will help quantify the standards all teams will be expected to meet. Every sniper on every sniper team needs to read these reports.
A living document
The ASA’s police sniper utilization database is the only one of its kind in the tactical world, and the information it provides is unique. The survey reports represent a constantly evolving work in progress. We know by the time we finish collecting data for a specific time frame, other shootings will have occurred. Others have gone unreported in our prior collection attempts. We continue to hope agencies that initially balked at participating will be convinced of the legitimacy of the project after seeing the series of reports.
Nothing it contains is meant to critique or second-guess the actions of any of the snipers or agencies represented. However, it is important the tactical community does not shy away from looking critically at its history and the lessons waiting to be learned. Where applicable, we have identified learning points found in specific incidents. In most cases, the responsible sniper team provided them. Others were drawn from objective analysis of the facts of the incident. The report narrative also contains training recommendations based on those lessons learned.
In the tactical world, information has incredible value. Ours is a profession involving split-second decisions that can save lives, and reliable information can literally make the difference between life and death. However, information is useless unless it is shared. What is contained in the report is information agencies have agreed to share with the rest of the tactical community, with the hope that it will make others’ jobs safer and easier. If you learn nothing else from reading the report, we hope you will come away with an understanding of how important it is to share your experiences with others.
Although the latest report is completed, the process is not. This is meant to be a living document. We encourage agencies to help us maintain current data by reporting any sniper-involved shootings to the ASA as soon as practical. We understand the issues raised by ongoing investigations and pending litigation. Our need is for statistical information. Our survey form requests only the basic details contained in an incident report. We don’t need investigative information that could be subpoenaed or otherwise used in a civil case. The individual officer or agency involved is not part of the database, and neither is identified in the final report. Most agencies around the country routinely provide uniform crime reports to the FBI. What we are asking for is the same sort of diligence in reporting sniper-involved shootings. All data and information collected will be considered sensitive and not distributed to the public.
Find a sniper utilization survey form on the American Sniper Association website, www.americansniper.org. If you have any questions or would like information on how to receive a copy of the report, please contact ASA at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863/385-7835. Limited copies of the 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021 editions are still available as well.
About the author
Derrick D. Bartlett is a 28-year veteran of law enforcement. He has retired from the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Police Department, where he served as a SWAT team member and sniper. Twenty-two years in special operations have provided him with opportunities to train with several elite units and renowned instructors. Derrick is a founding member and the current president of the American Sniper Association and an authority in the field of police sniper operations and training. As the managing director of Snipercraft, Inc., he has provided instruction for snipers and supervisors for hundreds of police agencies throughout the United States. He is a committee member of the National Tactical Officers’ Association’s Sniper Section. He is the author of the books “Snipercraft: The Art of the Police Sniper,” “Staring at the Crosshairs” and “Riding the Recoil.” His articles on police sniping have been published in numerous national magazines.