By Jerry Cooper
In the early morning hours of September 4, 2015, officers of the New York Police Department exchanged gunfire in the streets of Brooklyn with an armed robbery suspect, Jerrol Harris. Harris reportedly fired “at least six” shots at officers during the confrontation.
Most news stories referring to the incident included in the caption the alleged fact that law enforcement officers fired 84 shots at Harris. One of the officers finally brought Harris down by shooting him in the leg.
I read several news reports detailing how four officers initially fired a total of 52 rounds, and then later, two other officers fired an additional 16 shots. Now I’m not exactly a math wizard, so I pulled out the calculator. In doing so, I discovered that 52 plus 16 equals 68. None of the reports I read accounted for the remaining 16 shots fired by police. We will just assume that some of us can’t do math, and some can’t accurately report. That’s alright, as the “84” is so widely reported, we will accept that number.
The incident, most particularly the hit-to-shot ratio on the part of law enforcement, conjures up visions of Keystone Cops. Again, using my calculator, I find that in this incident, the police only hit Harris with 1.19% of their shots. One of the reports I read emphasized this point. The same report also pointed out that one study reflects that on average, the NYPD hits suspects with only 34% of their shots. One anti-police and anti-gun website used these statistics to “prove” their point that police are wildly throwing bullets on public streets every day, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths each year. (Oh, please.) Multiple reports concluded that whereas the 1.19% hit rate is unsatisfactory, even the 34% figure reflects a major problem. Does it? Let’s take a closer look at some of the issues the NYPD officers might have dealt with on the streets of Brooklyn, as well as similar concerns other officers have faced in armed confrontations.
First and foremost, officers who are shooting at suspects are not shooting at paper, clay or metal targets, but at real live human beings. Much research has been done on the physiological and psychological aspects of law enforcement officers and soldiers displaying a resistance to killing our own species. This research obviously flies in the face of the rhetoric espoused by today’s activists and national media, who insist that the police go out hunting every day for someone (especially black males) to kill. Normal human beings are not, by nature, close-range interpersonal killers. (In the states I am familiar with, becoming certified as a law enforcement officer involves undergoing psychological testing, and therefore, I will pay deference to the great majority of law enforcement officers by assuming they are “normal human beings.”) Do these physiological and psychological factors have any effect on the accuracy of rounds fired at suspects by law enforcement officers? You bet they do. It would require too much space to go into greater detail in this matter herein, so I will simply refer the reader to Lt. Dave Grossman’s books On Combat, and the Pulitzer Prize winning On Killing. It has been my privilege to have attended several of Grossman’s lectures. He is a former West Point Professor of Military Science, and is an expert in the subject of stress and performance.
As for the number of rounds fired by the police in Brooklyn, I watched an online video of the incident in which I could clearly hear at least part of the shots being fired. Although the shots came in quick sequence, I did not observe that the rounds were fired as fast as I might have expected. In general, due to stress, officers do tend to fire at a rate that is too fast. As a use-of-force trainer, I constantly remind trainees of a couple of adages: “You can’t miss fast enough to hit”; and the more tongue-in-cheek, “When there’s lead in the air, there’s hope in the heart.”
My thinking is that something interesting happened twenty or so years ago when most law enforcement agencies transitioned from revolvers to semi-autos. All of a sudden, we did not have pistols that held only five or six rounds; we now had two to three times that many in the weapon, and many times triple that amount on our belts. So, what does one do with all these bullets? Sadly, I do not recall any trainer or policy-maker addressing that narrow issue. When we asked that question, we were usually simply reminded that we should now be thankful we have as much ammo as the bad guys on the street. In our minds, it sort of leveled the playing field. I am afraid that on many occasions extra ammo translates to “if you got ‘em, use ‘em.” I am reminded of an incident locally to me in which three police officers were engaged in a shootout with a couple of bank robbers. When the incident was over, it was determined that only one of the robbers actually had a firearm. So in effect, three well-armed officers shot it out with one bad guy. At the start of shootout, each officer had four full magazines, including the one in the weapon. The officers basically fired most of their rounds in very rapid succession into the car the suspects were using as cover, striking the areas where standard handgun ammo will not penetrate to the other side. There was a real possibility that the officers could have ran out of ammo. Fortunately, one of the officers realized what was about to happen and established more disciplined fire among the officers.
When multiple officers are at the scene of a shootout, there exists the possibility of sympathetic fire; that is, an officer shoots because another officer is shooting, and he or she assumes that the officer who first fires is justified in his actions. Under certain circumstances, sympathetic fire may be called for in the military, but as far as my training takes me, never in law enforcement. Every round fired by an officer must be legally justified. I do not know that any sympathetic fire took place in the incident in Brooklyn, but I’m simply making the point that under stress, it can happen.
If 84 rounds were fired in the Brooklyn incident, and one struck Jerrol Harris, then where did the other 83 rounds terminate? This is a very real problem and it should not be minimized. An officer is responsible for all the rounds that leave his or her firearm. It is imperative that whenever possible, an officer must assess the background before firing at a suspect. (Bad guys don’t play by such rules.) If bystanders are present, there are things an officer can possibly do to mitigate this situation. Thankfully, the last time I checked, there were no reports of any bystanders being struck by stray bullets in Brooklyn. The time of early morning, when very few people would be on the streets, was probably a factor here.
The fact that the shootout took place in the early morning hours means that this incident occurred in “low light” conditions. It is very probable that this fact played a major role in the high number of misses by the police. I do not pretend to know to what extent NYPD trains in low light conditions. (I remember back when I was supervising a basic law enforcement training class, there was a trainee who had previously been a Chief of some borough or township in Pennsylvania. As we were going over the training schedule on the first day of the program, the trainee/former Chief asked if there was a mistake in the schedule. He noticed where the class would spend several evening/nights at the firing range. When I advised him that the schedule was correct, he asked in a very sincere tone, “What are we going to do at the range at night? Are we going to shoot at night?” He said he had never heard of such a thing. This happened to be several years after the 1979 U. S. Supreme Court decision Popow v. City of Margate in which the Court said firearms training that does not include low light conditions would be “grossly inadequate.” Hopefully, any such training negligence would not occur in a large, professional law enforcement agency such as NYPD.)
In the Brooklyn shootout, at what distance from officers to Harris were the rounds fired? Most law enforcement agencies today only train out to 25 yards with handguns. I do not know if this is the case with NYPD. An officer firing at greater distances than that at which they are trained can create negligence in the case of stray rounds, and make it less likely he or she will hit their target.
Law enforcement officers are taught to shoot at center mass of the suspect. What is center mass? Center mass is the largest part of the suspect that can be seen. At least one news report says that Harris took cover behind a vehicle during part of the shootout. If this report is accurate, and if officers either tried to shoot through the vehicle or tried to shoot at whatever body part of the suspect was visible, then this would explain a great number of the misses.
How many rounds can an officer fire in one, two or three seconds? Even an ill-trained person can easily empty a full magazine in three or four seconds. A continuous feedback loop can also occur when the officer fires under stress; in other words, he or she just keeps doing what he or she is already doing, and in this case, pulling the trigger. Additionally, once the brain tells the finger to pull the trigger, the action cannot be stopped.
How many rounds do these principles explain away?
What measures, in general, can a law enforcement agency take to achieve a better than hit-to-shot ratio than 1:84?
Firearms training should include instruction on how to set up disciplined fire in a shootout situation when multiple officers are involved. At least one agency with which I am familiar refers to the procedure as “rolling thunder.” Other agencies may know it as something different. In rolling thunder, you want to slow the rate of fire down and make sure that not all officers are firing at the same time. This should also prevent a situation in which all the officers are simultaneously engaged in reloading, which is a dangerous state of affairs.
Junked cars make for great firearms training. What areas of a vehicle can an officer actually shoot through to stop the threat on the other side? Likewise, what areas of the vehicle do you not want to waste ammo firing at? Windshields also deflect rounds. (Hint: if you’re shooting through the windshield from the outside [front], you may want to aim a tad high, as the projectile will many times take on a slightly downward trajectory once it strikes the windshield.)
As most police shootings occur in low light conditions, obviously firearms training must take place in such conditions. This must be done on the range and using firearms simulators. The better simulators have the ability to make all training scenarios go dark, requiring use of a flashlight to successfully negotiate the scenario.
Of course, “. . . when there’s lead in the air, there’s hope in the heart . . .” is a myth. Trainers must get officers to slow their rate of fire down and get on target. One study conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that the location of the first round fired by an officer in a shooting is a good predictor of the outcome. I am a firm believer that we can learn an important lesson from my favorite Wild West hero, Wyatt Earp. Concerning the fact that he was never so much as grazed by a bullet, Earp explained to author and journalist Adela Rogers St. John: “A good gunman shouldn’t figger to pull the trigger but once. If he does, it means he’s in a hurry and the chances are he don’t hit you. Any gunplay I ever happened to get mixed up with, the winner was always the man who stayed calm, kept his mouth shut and took his time.”
A thorough investigation and analysis will determine what actually happened in the Brooklyn incident, and if NYPD needs to make any adjustments in firearms or use of force training. It has been my purpose here to generally address police shootings in which many rounds are fired, and not to analyze the Brooklyn incident in particular.
And what of the statistic that on average NYPD officers hit suspects with rounds fired only 34% of the time? If this is in fact the case, then NYPD officers, trainers and administrators deserve to be commended. Research shows that a trained, experienced law enforcement officer will hit the suspect only 20% of the time. (This 20% success rate also holds true for the military. Even my personal experience using a firearms simulator with interactive video scenarios to train officers bore this statistic out.) This rate is due to any number of factors, a few of which have been presented here.