Far too often, officers find themselves in impossible situations. But solutions can be found while training, and we must consider them before they occur in combat. PHOTO AP/JOHN HARRELL
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There s a great scene in the movie Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise and Robert Duval. Cruise, playing the cocky and intuitively talented driver Cole Trickle, has an attitude problem that s getting in the way of winning races. When Tim, the race team s owner played by Randy Quaid, invites Trickle and Harry Hogge (Duval) to a come-to-Jesus meeting, tempers flare.
Harry accuses Cole of running on the ragged edge all the time, blowing engines and burning up tires. Cole accuses Harry of improperly setting up the car, causing him to burn up tires and blow engines. They end on an angry note, and Cole storms out.
Harry takes a long walk to the bar where Cole is cooling off over a beer. He tells Cole they need to talk on the radio during races. He indicates a willingness to do whatever Cole tells him to in order to set up the car so Cole doesn t have to change the way he drives. With Harry s resistance gone, Cole has no one left to fight with. He confides in Harry that he can t tell him how to set up the car because he doesn t know anything about cars. They agree to go down to the track and develop a vocabulary so Cole can talk intelligently to the pit crew about what s happening during the race.
Then Harry drops a challenge: He tells Cole that no matter what they do to that car, it s all meaningless if there are no tires left on it in order to finish the race. He tells him to go and drive for 100 laps anyway he wants. They will then change the tires, and drive 100 laps as instructed by Harry. Afterwards, they ll compare the tires. At the end of this little experiment, not only is there plenty of tread left on the tire Harry s way (Cole s way wore out the tires), but the elapsed time was much faster Harry s way.
There was no arguing with that. From then on, when it came to matters pertaining to the car, Harry s word was the law, and they began winning races.
What s the point? I recently got a call from a former student who was in a heated discussion at his agency with command staff. The discussion stemmed from a simple scenario in which an armed and irrational suspect was refusing to surrender with a gun clearly visible in his waistband.
The officer in the scenario was holding the suspect at gunpoint at close range, demanding he surrender. The suspect flagrantly disobeyed commands and told the officer he was going to pull out his gun and blow the officer s head off.
My student maintains that based on the realities of action beating reaction, the suspect could have drawn his gun and shot the officer before the officer would be able to shoot the suspect. Therefore, he believes the officer would be justified in shooting the suspect before the suspect made an overt movement toward the pistol, based on the suspect s statement he was about to kill the officer.
His command staff took a contrary position, indicating they believed it would be necessary for the suspect to make a movement toward the weapon before shooting him would be justified.
They called me: Help me, Obi Wan Ken Obi.
The U.S. Supreme Court talks about reasonable force, not necessarily about correct force. Too many agencies impose use-of-force policies that are far more restrictive than those that would meet the standard of reasonableness set by the Court.
Why would an agency use a subjective term like minimum amount of force necessary when the Court requires no such thing? It s unnecessarily confusing to an officer who must have clarity during a dangerous encounter.
So, can we shoot this guy? My answer is, well, it depends on what you believe about the situation. We have a near impossible dilemma here. This is one of those crappy instances where, for whatever reason, this particular officer has limited options through their proximity to the bad guy. Scientifically, there s no question the bad guy could have pulled out the gun and shot the officer before the officer could get off a shot. Don t believe me? Give Dr. Bill Lewinski a call at the Force Science Research Center ( www.forcescience.com ). He s put this question to rest using extremely sophisticated equipment.
Action beats reaction always. So, from the purely objective perspective of whether or not you re in danger of being shot by this bad guy, and in light of his stated intention that he s going to blow your head off, the answer is yes. You re in danger, and shooting first ought to seem reasonable.
But just for fun, for those of you who are a bit squeamish on the subject, let s expand the question a bit. Let s pretend you re psychic. You know exactly what the bad guy will do before he does it. And you know he means what he says he s going to pull that gun and shoot you. Does this change your mind one way or the other? Are you now justified in shooting this guy? Of course you d shoot the guy.
But you aren t psychic, and you re face-to-face with an irrational subject, a credible threat and the ability to carry out the threat. Are you scared? There s your jeopardy.
Shot Ain t Dead
A lot of people don t feel threatened in a situation like this. An ostrich doesn t feel threatened by the lion once its head goes into the sand. It doesn t feel threatened, but that doesn t mean it s not threatened. And there are a lot of administrations who would much rather you not shoot this guy.
Administrators are super sensitive to the negative exposure resulting from shooting such a suspect. But surely no administrator in their right mind would really rather have one of their officers shot than some crazy criminal who was intent on shooting that officer?
In one of my recent classes, I had a similar scenario occur. An angry man, who had been arguing on the phone with his estranged wife, put a gun to his head and walked toward the responding officer, telling his wife over the phone he was going to make the cop do it, indicating he would make the officer shoot him.
Every single student who went through this scenario refused to shoot this guy. They all had him at gunpoint. They were all within several feet of him. They all backed up, some 30 or 40 feet and even around the corner of a building as the bad guy walked toward them. But none would fire. None of them felt threatened. One even said he noticed the bad guy s finger wasn t on the trigger, so he wasn t a threat. If he touches that trigger, he said I ll shoot him. Hmm really?
Like Harry Hogge, I ran each of these little Cole Trickles through the following exercise. I told them they should fire the second they felt threatened, letting them know in advance the bad guy was going to shoot at them. They waited and waited. At his leisure, the bad guy placed his finger on the trigger, rotated the gun towards them and fired. The officer lost every time. They were dumbfounded.
So, we did something else. I told the officer to shoot the bad guy before he rotated the gun toward them, and told the bad guy to fire after the officer had fired. Most officers fired a single shot and were then shot by the bad guy. But they got the bad guy first, I can hear some of you whine. Life ain t fair. People don t evaporate when they get shot. They can shoot back. That s what we constantly teach our officers, isn t it? Shot ain t dead! This works both ways.
The Bottom Line
The reality is this type of standoff situation is bad, and I hope you never find yourself in one. Time, distance, cover, confidence in your abilities and movement are your friends. They give you options and a way out.
Strong alpha commands from behind a bullet barrier might provide this bad guy an opportunity to live. And if he does go for that gun, being anywhere except right in front of him will multiply your options, while limiting his.
Training drills like this provide awesome food for thought. I m delighted my former student and his command staff are having this quality discussion to figure out what to do if something like this ever happens, rather than post mortem over a slain officer while trying to pass the blame bucket.
Far too often, officers find themselves in impossible situations. But solutions exist, and we must consider them before they occur in combat. Leave the egos at home, hop in the race car and discover just what that race car can and can t do. If you have a position on an issue, test it and prove it.
Asking hard questions and providing realistic training to find answers provide very real experiences that will maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. Write some realistic use-of-force policies based on protecting officers and the society they re sworn to protect. Give your officers the ability to finish this race with engine intact and plenty of tread left on their tires we owe them that much.
Until next time, train hard and train safe.