A Thinking Person’s Guide to Police Shootings.

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  • 03/02/2023

The average private citizen knows vanishingly little about the complexities involved in deadly force encounters. Self-defense is not something you can master from reading books or watching John Wick movies. It’s something you must experience, something that requires hands-on training. And yet, while looking at a screen from the comfort of their reclining chair, the average private citizen feels equipped to pass judgement on those who are forced to make split-second decisions—or risk being killed.

“[A] trained officer draws inferences and makes deductions—inferences and deductions that might well elude an untrained person.”

Think of it this way: have you ever looked at something and said “that’s easy!”—only to get wrecked when you tried it yourself? A humbling experience, right? That same humility should be a million times greater when judging those who are forced to make split second decisions or risk being killed. The Supreme Court agrees. The knowledge, training, and experience of an officer produce a unique perspective that qualifies an officer to make said decisions, and grants them expertise the average citizen simply does not possess. In United States v. Cortez (1981), a case involving Border Patrol officers and their justification for an investigative stop, the Court observed that, “[W]hen used by trained law enforcement officers, objective facts, meaningless to the untrained, allow for permissible deductions from such facts...” so that “a trained officer draws inferences and makes deductions—inferences and deductions that might well elude an untrained person.” In other words, not all perspectives are created equal. A lack of training, knowledge, and experience can lead to uninformed or misinformed decisions and judgments by the general public.

While it’s not new to see “internet experts” pop up whenever something controversial happens, the torrent of terrible suggestions about self-defense being peddled right now goes beyond mere ignorance. Such advice can actually have deadly consequences if enshrined into public policy. Police officers and citizen defenders stand a good chance of getting killed or injured if they follow this advice. If that happens, those who peddle dangerous myths about self-defense and use-of-force have blood on their hands.

It’s worth exploring and debunking some of these dangerous myths.

[caption id="attachment_183370" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Mounted police. Mounted police.[/caption]


The use of a firearm involves the use of deadly force, and, for all states, deadly force is justified when there is an immediate threat of death or great bodily harm. A moment’s reflection should tell us that someone can easily pose this kind of danger, through sheer physical advantage, even if they are technically “unarmed.” A 6’5 male bodybuilder can easily overpower and kill a 5’2 woman, child, or elderly grandfather with his bare hands. And someone in a mounted position throwing blows with his fists while you are pinned on concrete (as was Trayvon Martin when he attacked George Zimmerman) is easily capable of killing you, even if you are both similarly built.

It is well-known that an average adult male with a knife can close a surprising distance (sometimes rendered at twenty-one feet) in about 1.5 seconds.

Sometimes, other weapons can be just as deadly, even deadlier, than a gun. It is well-known that an average adult male with a knife can close a surprising distance (sometimes rendered at twenty-one feet) in about 1.5 seconds. Even if we completely ignore the reactionary gap in processing a threat and initiating a response, most civilians and police officers (who utilize active retention holsters that require security mechanisms to be disabled) cannot even hope to get their firearm out in time, much less fire a properly aimed shot at center mass. In fact, recent research suggests that officers need at least thirty-two feet in order to adequately draw and fire. 

This is not to say, of course, that shooting someone is automatically justified if they’re within a certain distance. The point is that even at a distance, non-gun weapons (or even a threatening bodily posture) can warrant deadly force, given how quickly a suspect can close a distance. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to wait until a threat is only a few feet in front of you before using deadly force. 

A similar principle applies to what are sometimes called “facsimiles of firearms,” such as airsoft guns or cardboard cutouts in the shape of a gun. Unlike keyboard warriors, police officers and civilian self-defenders do not have the luxury of time to determine whether the gun currently being pointed at them is an actual gun or a fake, especially in less-than-ideal conditions. By the time they figure that out, they could be dead.

Once again, and understandably, the courts agree. In the case Elliott v. Leavitt (1996) out of the 4th Circuit, the Court ruled that: 

“The Fourth Amendment does not require police officers to wait until a suspect shoots to confirm that a serious threat of harm exists … no court can expect any human being to remain passive in the face of an active threat on his or her own life … the Fourth Amendment does not require omniscience … the Constitution does not require that certitude precede the act of self protection.”

[caption id="attachment_183366" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Black Lives Matter protest in New York City. Black Lives Matter protest in New York City.[/caption]


Waiting until someone is actively trying to kill you could prove fatal. Defensive shootings are always reactionary, and waiting too long to react could get you killed. In that respect, assailants hold an advantage over police officers and civilian self-defenders. If a suspect suddenly starts grabbing under his waistband or reaching in unknown spaces in his car, an officer who waits until he is able to identify what the suspect is trying to produce is likely to end up dead. In this example, the suspect is engaging in what is called a “furtive movement,” which signals to the officer that he is likely to be attacked.

Waiting until someone is actively trying to kill you could prove fatal.

This is not to say that an officer may shoot someone whenever he starts reaching. Instead, the point is that movements consistent with reaching for a weapon—and not consistent with anything else (e.g., producing a wallet) may reasonably be interpreted as signaling the imminent use of deadly force. Whether or not a means of deadly force is actually present is irrelevant. It would be ridiculous to say that we must first bet our lives on calling someone’s bluff. 

Hence, a reasonable belief that deadly force is about to be used against you is enough to justify use of deadly force. It is no different if someone were to menacingly say, “I am going to shoot you,” while reaching in his waistband as if he were pulling a gun. You would not wait to see if he was bluffing before reacting defensively.

One of the clearest examples of this involves individuals who commit or attempt to commit “suicide by cop.” One study found that individuals who attempted suicide by cop had a "high likelihood of possessing a weapon (80%), which was a firearm 60% of the time. Half of those with a firearm discharged it at the police during the encounter. 19% simulated weapon possession to accomplish their suicidal intent." A suspect may threaten to harm police with no real intent on harming them and without actively trying to kill them, only to provoke a deadly reaction by officers. Officers may still be justified in using deadly force based on what they perceive to be threats or deadly actions taken by the suspect which the officers reasonably believe are real. A suspect who pulls out a fake gun and yells, “I’m going to kill you” would be justifiably shot by police officers, even when it was later discovered the gun was not real. 

An important phrase to remember in all of this is “objectively reasonable.” Is the use of force considered objectively reasonable based on the facts and circumstances known at the time the force was used? For law enforcement officers, this standard was established in the landmark 1989 Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor. This decision affects every use of force policy across the country today. The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Rehnquist, noted: “the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation,” and that, “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”

[caption id="attachment_183371" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Police. Police.[/caption]


Can someone pose a deadly threat even when their back is turned? Yes. Someone who is being shot at may reflexively turn their back to “take the blow.” They may also square their back in order to create distance. This is not the same thing as disengaging from a fight. Someone who is running away can still pose a deadly threat if he pivots his arm and fires behind him or over his shoulder while on the move. Justified shots to the back may also occur during “furtive movement” shootings. A suspect who turns away from an officer and starts digging in his pockets or reaches into an unknown space may be trying to access a weapon.

The suspect acts, and the officer must react.

One of the most important factors to consider when evaluating wound placement is the recognized physiological factor of “action-versus-reaction.” The suspect acts, and the officer must react. The suspect has the advantage because he knows what he is going to do and when he is going to do it. The officer, however, is at a disadvantage: he must first recognize the action, make the decision to react, and then react. This creates a potential time lag which puts the officer at risk—risk that is compounded by the fact that most deadly force encounters begin and end in a matter of seconds. An officer may have already made the decision to use deadly force based on an imminent deadly threat, but, given the reaction time the officer needs to draw and fire his weapon, the suspect may not be in the same physical position, resulting in varied shot placement, which may include the back.  

It is the totality of circumstances that must be considered in evaluating any use of force. Not even a judge, sitting in the comfort of his chamber after-the-fact, possesses the appropriate perspective in evaluating reasonable force. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court observed that “with respect to a claim of excessive force, the same standard of reasonableness at the moment applies: Not every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment.”


Most gun owners—even those who have been shooting for a long time—are nowhere near as good as they think they are. Police officers aren’t that much better. If you factor in moving targets, pressure, and adrenaline, shots aimed at the arms or legs are very likely to miss. For that reason, both civilian firearms instructors and police academies routinely teach their students to aim center mass, as it presents the largest target area. This means that shots are more likely to successfully impact the assailant, which in turn means faster incapacitation. 

The fact of the matter is that using your handgun as a force option is considered deadly force, not “injury force.” Deadly force is intended to stop a deadly threat, and you don’t stop a deadly threat by shooting a suspect in the leg (contrary to what Joe “never was a cop” Biden may say). While the goal of deadly force is immediate incapacitation, it is completely unrealistic to expect this to occur with every shooting. Eventual incapacitation is more often the case, and the time between the shooting and eventual incapacitation is time the suspect may continue to pose a lethal threat. One recent tragic incident in Georgia illustrates why this is the case: a suspect armed with a knife was not only shot multiple times but continued to fight with officers after being shot and eventually grabbed one of them. While the suspect was eventually killed with no harm to the officers, this situation could have ended very differently for the officers. 


There is no inviolable law of nature saying that someone must go down after they’re shot twice. People and situations are variable. Hence, instructors teach their students to keep shooting until an assailant no longer poses a deadly threat. If a gun is deployed to stop a deadly threat, then that gun should remain in play until the deadly threat ceases. Sometimes, this only requires two shots; often, it requires more. (In one case, an assailant was shot 14 times before finally being incapacitated.) The situation will dictate how many shots it is prudent to take.

Many wounds are lethal, but their lethality is not instantaneous.

The human body is surprisingly resilient, and the effects of a gunshot are not always felt immediately.  Many wounds are lethal, but their lethality is not instantaneous. Individuals who have the willpower or are under the influence of narcotics are often able to stay in the fight even though they might have wounds that, in due time, will spell their demise. The goal is to immediately stop the attacker, not fire a shot or two in the hopes that he will eventually go down.

It’s also important to consider that not all shots that are fired are shots that will lethally impact the assailant. The stress of a deadly force encounter degrades a shooter’s accuracy, which must be accounted for when delivering shots. Since an officer or civilian self-defender cannot know at the moment how many shots are making their mark, it is prudent to keep shooting until an assailant no longer poses a deadly threat.

[caption id="attachment_183367" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Police sidearm. Police sidearm.[/caption]


As we’ve seen, the myths propagated by internet commentators are rooted in profound ignorance of what actually occurs in deadly force encounters. So how does one get better at understanding what police officers and civilian defenders must sometimes do? 

Unless we understand the environment from which these tactics originated, we will never fully appreciate why officers do what they do.

The first step is simply to adopt a position of humility. Self-defense and use-of-force tactics flow from years of street experience. Unless we understand the environment from which these tactics originated, we will never fully appreciate why officers do what they do. One way to do this is to go on ride-alongs with your local law enforcement agency. You won’t get to see everything, but you will get to see what policing is like first-hand. 

Another way is to pursue firearms training of your own. Like many activities, there are certain things that will make sense only after doing it yourself. Besides hands-on training, a good resource is the Active Self-Protection YouTube channel, which contains detailed analysis of hundreds of gunfights and deadly force encounters. Another excellent resource is Urey Patrick and John Hall’s book In Defense of Self and Others, which should be required reading for anyone commenting on this issue. The authors articulate the importance of distinguishing between reality and the fictional world some critics of police choose to live in.

One of the clearest examples of this disconnect is the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting, which took place in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Public opinion had already condemned Officer Darren Wilson, a guilty verdict largely fueled by a false narrative of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” But when all the facts, evidence, and totality of circumstances were known and presented in court, a very different picture emerged which exonerated Wilson from any wrongdoing. The U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama Administration and Attorney General Eric Holder found that Officer Wilson's decision to use deadly force was justified as self-defense.

Imagine training a skill for several months only to have a complete outsider tell you that they can do better. Nobody likes having their actions scrutinized by armchair quarterbacks. So let’s extend the same courtesy to police officers who are often placed in difficult situations and forced to make split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. Their job is tough enough already. When critics are offered the opportunity to show everyone how it should be done, they often fall short and walk away with a new perspective.

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