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by Peter Moskos

May 22, 2015

Aiming for the legs

Right or wrong, American policing are taught to shoot center mass. And only center mass. The goal is not to kill, though the outcome of center-mass shot is usually death. The goal is to shoot to stop or incapacitate the threat. Once the there is no threat (which often happens before the suspect is killed), you stop shooting. This is how I was taught. This is what I have explained to many people.

It's simply too hard in the heat of battle to shoot a leg. Most police miss when shooting center mass. Shooting a smaller target is even more difficult. The idea against shooting to wound is ingrained in American police officers.

But here is a fascinating read from 2011 (one, two, and three) on how you can shoot to wound. How training is done in at least one other country (anybody know about others?). In the Czech Republic they do train police to shoot people in the leg.

It certainly makes me wonder if we could do the same. Are American police inherently worse shots? Why can't we change our training, if need be? If nothing else, training officers to have the option to shoot to wound would give police a justifiable choice. Now maybe you don't want to have choices in the heat of the battle, but you always have a choice (most officers, myself include, have been in situations where they could have used lethal force, but choose not to). Right now, officers are forbidden to aim for anything but center mass (or the head) (and yet I've spoken officers who would consider doing so in some circumstances, despite the prohibition on it).

Some highlights:
“Okay,” I said, “but what if the round passes through? What about the round striking an innocent person who happened to be on the other side of the target?” Now I had him against the ropes, surely these cops are mindful of the dynamic environment in which law enforcement plays out.

Again, he responded without hesitation. “That’s another reason why we aim to the legs. At the distance we usually fire — remember, two to three meters — the bullet has a trajectory towards the ground of only a few feet. A pass through is rare — we use hollow point bullets — but if it does occur, it is not likely to travel much farther.”
“Well, what if the guy is shooting at you? Dropping him to the ground with a leg shot may stop the forward attack but it is not likely to stop the threat?” he can still fire at you — and you won’t have time to assess the continued threat to see if he stopped!

He grinned at me, “If he is shooting at you? Well, then we use lethal shots — two to the chest, one to the head.”
He smacked it out of the park. If you are being shot at, well, then you use lethal shots — two to the chest and one on the head. Of course you do!
When officers recite the “we don’t shoot to kill” mantra — and believe it — we may reasonably conclude that they are not properly prepared to take a human life. Deluding officers into actually believing that police are not supposed to kill — or are even allowed to kill — creates a deadly mental block that will most likely surface in that critical moment of truth — when ending a life for the sake of the greater good may be necessary.

Further, the mantra sends the wrong message to the community. That message indicates that whenever a subject is killed at the hands of a law enforcement officer, then something must have been done wrong, for surely law enforcement does not shoot to kill — they only shoot to stop.
This is probably why American police are reluctant to adopt policies that suggest that shooting in certain scenarios might be intended only to wound, for fear that a wounding shot might accidentally kill. No, it is better for a killing shot to accidentally wound. American police routinely adopt policies that plan for the worst, and hope for the best.

Center mass shots will likely remain the only target area taught and supported by training in the United States. If we don’t have a justification to kill, then we simply teach to not shoot. We prefer a model where we aren’t forced to account so much for accuracy, rather our mission is to describe the elements of using deadly force. We prefer that our accountability virtually end at the squeeze of the trigger.

If the bullet hits and kills, that’s OK — if it doesn’t kill, perhaps that’s better?


bacchys said...

Shooting for anything but center mass is just stupid.

(Some) police need better training in when to deploy deadly force. The "first rule of policing" (Make it home for dinner) needs to be recognized as a universal right, not one just put on with the uniform. The warrior mentality needs to be stomped into the ground: there's no glory in holding to a "never retreat" mentality.

But once deadly force has been determined to be necessary, aiming for anything but center mass- and especially with a pistol- is simply asking for failure.

Peter Moskos said...

I don't think cops learn a "never retreat" mentality. I learned a "take cover" mentality, which can involve retreat.

Valawyer said...

I'm not a cop (actually a defense attorney) but this seems very problematic. If a situation justifies lethal force, you're probably better off using it with lethal intent. The legs have some large arteries and hitting one can easily result in bleeding to death or fatal shock. This may also leave the suspect with the ability to fight for several more minutes. If the situation doesn't justify killing the suspect, then you should never have fired the gun. Police have a number of less lethal alternatives that would be better used in that situation.

bacchys said...

Peter, I think your training may be out of date. From the mentally ill killed gun downed while holding a screwdriver in the door of his own home (http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/body-cam-video-shows-police-shooting-mentally-ill-man/) to Ofc. Steve Darden escalating the tensions with a young men who had allegedly been beaten up by his friends, there are a lot of instances where the officers involved apparently had no thought to taking a step back, mentally or physically.

At PoliceOne there's an idiotic article about cops needing a "warrior mentality." It's insultingly stupid. Our military doesn't need a "warrior mentality." I'm still pissed at the Army for peddling the "Warrior Ethos." Warriors are death-or-glory, never retreat glory hounds. In the military we need soldiers and in law enforcement we need police: not would-be heroes. Warriors get people killed.

Anonymous said...

Retreat has to be a tactical option. The "never retreat" mentality isn't current training. Some times you step back and wait for numerical advantage. Ask any small county sheriff's deputy what the plan is when he is out numbered and retreat is an option. I'm still on the job, so Pete isn't off base on this.

On the issue of shooting for a limb, Pete that might be a nice idea in some small Euro country, but it isn't reality. Center mass works for cops of every skill level. The only time a copper should shoot for a leg/arm, is when they are justified to use deadly force and center mass isn't an option. N. Hollywood Bank robbery shootout with LAPD SWAT at the car is a great example of when shooting the legs out of a suspect is a good option.


Anonymous said...

Considering the high quality of affirmative action applicants modern cities must accept it should be easy to teach urban police cadets to shoot for the big toe to incapacitate rather than kill. What could go wrong?

Anonymous said...

I think some of the anger in the Black community is the sense that the police are using excessive force when they unload a dozen or 20 rounds into a perp. Part of the gang culture seems to be shooting a couple of rounds and missing. Especially with the gangsta technique of aiming 45 degrees from facing forward.

In Chicago over the 4th weekend, a 16 year old was shot 20 times when he carried a 'small 38' and was crawling out from under a car. This seemed to play prominently in the mother's complaint about misconduct. Cutthroat Tunchie, the nickname of the 16 year old boy was killed by police. http://kollegekidd.com/news/chicago-mother-tamara-ball-seeks-justice-for-son-warren-robinson-aka-cutthroat-tunchie-after-fatal-police-shooting/

Biological mom, Ball, also complained about the police leaving her son in the street for hours after his death. There were 82 shootings over the weekend, so the south side police didn't have much time.

I have noticed that the police arsenal on the belt is so large that they can't sit in anything smaller than a Crown Vic and now only SUV's in comfort. Gun, Pepper Spray, Taser, Flashlight, collapsable baton. Two police with traditional batons and not too many other distractions in the belt could beat a perp with a smaller knife or weapon other than a gun -- in my opinion. Back when they only had a baton and a 38 special, didn't police have a reputation for corporal punishment by a defensive 'beating'?
And take pride in being able to fight very effectively without pulling a gun? And wan't the IRA and their foes (whoever they were) do kneecapping as a standard practice in leu of just killing the guy? Steven Hunter used the plot device that the hero highway patrol man staggered back to his feet a few minutes after being blasted by a shotgun that was unknowingly loaded with birdshot. In fact, birdshot is favored by a few NRA types as an effective home defense weapon. It doesn't penetrate walls and is pretty effective .. or ... will do a real number on a perp.

Whatever. I don't know anything about this stuff, other than television. But just unloading on someone ... even if it is justified seems like too much. However, if police are treated more or less the same for EVERY BAD OUTCOME, they have no incentive to do anything but shoot to kill using every bullet in their gun .. and worry about legal technicalities later. I don't envy anyone dealing with this. Residents of inner city neighborhoods and police.

Anonymous said...

And just to be clear, unloading means two cops, 12 rounds into a mentally ill guy with a steak knife. My steak knives won't even cut steak worth a damn.

Adam said...

On the topic of police shootings, the Washington Post published some
new findings for 2015:

Here's what I found most interesting:

●About half the victims were white, half minority. But the demographics shifted sharply among the unarmed victims, two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. ...

As Peter has written extensively, the overall numbers of those killed by police don't suggest racial bias on the part of the officers. Given the rate at which African Americans commit violent crime and the rate at which they kill police officers, the numbers seem about right. But what about the fact that 2/3 of the *unarmed* people killed by police were black or Hispanic? Are those numbers accurate? If so, that does seem too high, and it may be evidence of implicit racial bias leading cops to perceive a threat from an unarmed black or Hispanic person more quickly than they would from a white person.

Anonymous said...

A warrior is just a brave experienced fighter. You don't have to be a Death or glory Spartan to be an experienced fighter. Telling a man who "fights" crime, who might have to physically "fight" a criminal to get him in cuffs, or who might even have to "fight" for his life, or yours, or mine, that he can't have the mindset that he is a fighter is trying to castrate him, half the battle is your mental mindset. People like you are the type of people that want the friendlier smile and wave police, glorified secretaries there to take a report after the threat has come and gone. If you don't want any police thinking they are warriors then fine, let's do this, from now on police will stage like EMS does during a dangerous in progress call, and when the animal that raping and killing is done and has left and it is safe to come in, police will go in, count the bodies, gather the evidence, and file a report. Because we don't want warriors as cops, we shouldn't have to make a man face down a vicious muderder or a physically superior physically aggressive threat.

Adam said...


I doubt anybody would disagree that cops need to be mentally prepared to fight and even kill if necessary. There's a difference between being ready for a fight and being hyper-vigilant to the point of being ready to use deadly force at the first sign of danger. Seth Stoughton, a former cop and law professor, explains that in his article, Law Enforcement's "Warrior" Problem. I recommend the whole thing, but here's a sample:

What is the warrior mindset? In its most restrictive sense, it refers to the mental tenacity and attitude that officers, like soldiers, are taught to adopt in the face of a life-threatening struggle. In this context, the warrior mindset refers to a bone-deep commitment to survive a bad situation no matter the odds or difficulty, to not give up even when it is mentally and physically easier to do so. So narrowly defined, the concept is difficult for anyone to criticize. Unfortunately, the homage paid to the Warrior has expanded that uncontroversial definition beyond all recognition.

The warrior mindset has mutated into the warrior mentality. Like the restrictive version, the broad definition is motivated by the undeniable importance of officer safety. But where the restrictive version represents an attitude that officers should display in the most physically dangerous and psychologically precarious situations, the broad definition instructs officers on how to approach every aspect of their job. From their earliest days in the academy, would-be officers are told that their prime objective, the proverbial “first rule of law enforcement, is to go home at the end of every shift. But they are taught that they live in an intensely hostile world. A world that is, quite literally, gunning for them. As early as the first day of the police academy, the dangers officers face are depicted in graphic and heart-wrenching recordings that capture a fallen officer’s last moments. Death, they are told, is constantly a single, small misstep away. A recent article written by an officer for Police Magazine opens with this description: “The dangers we expose ourselves to every time we go [on duty] are almost immeasurable. We know this the day we sign up and the academy certainly does a good job of hammering the point home.” For example, training materials at the New Mexico Police Academy hammer that point quite explicitly, informing recruits that the suspects they will be dealing with “are mentally prepared to react violently.” Each recruit is told, in these words, “[Y]ou could die today, tomorrow, or next Friday.”

Matt said...


You accept that African-Americans are more likely to kill police officers yet you question why police officers are more likely to perceive African-Americans as threatening. Huh? Are you suggesting that officers ignore statistical facts because those facts are politically inconvenient? Obviously, I'm not being fair to you here, but neither was your statement fair to working street cops.

Adam said...

My thought (which I could have made much clearer) was that the 2/3 figure may suggest racial bias even if you account for the higher rate at which African Americans kill cops. Based on UCR data, about 45% of cop killers are black. But if 66% of the unarmed people shot and killed by cops are black, then that raises some questions. There are other factors that might explain the disparity, of course. My point is simply this: a lot of those in the protester camp suggests that cops kill blacks at such disproportionately high rates that it serves as evidence of racial bias. When you look at the overall data on those killed by cops and compare it to violent crime rates among African Americans, that claim doesn't even get off the ground. But this new data on the rate at which cops kill unarmed blacks as opposed to unarmed whites at least invites further inquiry.

Peter Moskos said...

I to am intrigued/worried about a large racial disparity in unarmed people shot. With the caveat that unarmed people can very much be lethal threats, I can't think of any good reason why blacks would be more likely than whites, when shot by cops, to be unarmed.