Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A common misconception about police shootings

The San Francisco Chronicle did a write up on a story I'm following about the fatal shooting of a 13 year old boy in Santa Rosa.  Here's the story:  Friends question shooting of boy with fake rifle

Let me start with a bit of advice, then talk about the issue that compelled me to write this.  If you are in a situation where police order you to do something, do it.  Police are trained to prevent harm to themselves and others with deadly force if necessary.  If they give you an order, you comply.  Work out the lawfulness of the order with an attorney later.  That doesn't mean confess to something you didn't do (in fact, I recommend you don't speak to police officers about a crime).  Do comply with any order they give you in a confrontational situation.

The quotation that I thought was critical to address is this one:
"He was a great boy and I treated him like he was my son," family friend Alma Galvan said through tears, after visiting Andy's family. "Why couldn't the police just shoot him in the hand or at least in the leg? Why did they have to kill him?"
This displays a fundamental misunderstanding about pistols and the use of deadly force.   Going by most television involving the use of guns, anyone can pick up a pistol and shoot a gnat off a fencepost at 100 yards in the near dark, or hit a pinpoint target in a moving vehicle while driving a vehicle.  The truth is entirely different.  Hitting what you want to with a pistol can be incredibly difficult.  Hitting a moving target with a pistol is even more difficult.  Most police qualify with their weapons, but they aren't constantly on the range practicing scenarios and sharp shooting with them.  Like most firearms users, they probably couldn't aim for a hand or even a leg and in a stressful situation and hit it.

Even if the officer were capable of hitting a small target like a specific body part in an emergency situation, it would be unwise to try it.  If you use deadly force, you're in a situation where you believe you need to stop someone or something about to cause severe bodily injury or death to you or others around you.  That is the only reason to shoot someone or something*.  In that situation, it doesn't make sense to try to shoot to disable a body part.  You're shooting to end the threat.  A determined person with one hand disabled can shoot with the other hand.  A determined person shot in the leg can shoot from the ground.  You shoot for center of mass, and you shoot until you are no longer in fear of your life or of great bodily injury. 

So, whether the police should have recognized the realistic toys the boy was carrying were toys is something lawyers will have to decide.  Once they believed they were facing real guns, however, they weren't going to try trick shooting to resolve the situation.  If they really thought they were facing an assault weapon, they acted appropriately the perceived threat.   I tend to give police the benefit of the doubt, as they're doing a tough and often thankless job.  They aren't perfect, but I don't believe Santa Rosa police knew the young man was toting a toy when they opened fire.  If they hadn't believed the threat was real, they'd never have shot him.

*By "something," I mean an attacking animal like a dog, though I fully support firing on marauding extraterrestrials or zombies.

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