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In this incident, it was fortunate that I had much more information relative to what was happening than the other officer. The other officer only knew
that there had been a report of a hold-up, and he saw me with my gun drawn and waving him away. When the door opened, he instinctively took the
correct action. From that point on, he was guided totally by his own observations.
Think about how dangerous this situation was. One of the suspects could have stood behind another suspect and drawn his gun without being observed
by the officer. I'm certain the fact that one of the suspects was eyeballing me through the crack in the door had some bearing on that not happening.
While I was almost certain that the other officer had the suspects at gunpoint, I couldn't be 100% certain. Here's where things could have gotten dicey.
Put yourself in my spot. What if the other officer was a person in whom you had little confidence in his judgement. The other officer begins firing his
pistol into the doorway. You begin firing through the door. When the smoke clears, you find out that the three men in the doorway are victims of the
While I knew that the other officer was probably confronting three armed suspects, he could only assume that all three might be armed. I had decided
to begin firing if the other officer fired, because I was not willing to subject him to return fire from the suspects just to make that all conclusive
verification that he had the right men. It was a terrible decision I had to make, and one that I was grateful I didn't have to act on.
This incident got even scarier after the fact. We learned that one of the suspects had just been paroled from prison after serving ten years of a fifteen
year sentence for armed robbery. When he was apprehended for that robbery, he engaged a police officer in a gun battle; until, he ran out of bullets.
The club they robbed had over fifty patrons inside. The suspects made all the club members lie on the floor and empty their pockets. Two of the
suspects picked up all the money and valuables as the third suspect covered them. The man who almost certainly saved my life was in the kitchen when
the robbery began. He crawled out from a second floor window onto the roof of a first floor addition. When he dropped to the ground, he confronted the
suspect with the shotgun. No words were exchanged. That fourth suspect obviously didn't have the stomach to shoot him, and the man escaped and
There's one last thing you should learn from this story. Never rely on information you receive from 911, for it will almost always be incomplete. In this
instance, it was way off the mark.
Contagious Shooting is a Real Phenomenon
The problem of contagious shooting is real. It has always been around, but the acquisition of the higher ammunition capacity semi-automatic pistols by
police has made it more noticeable than in the past. When police officers were armed with six shot revolvers, you were always conscious of your limited
fire power, and you never wanted to have to reload your revolver under stressful circumstances. Think about this...with your semi-auto pistol, you can
fire over thirty shots reloading once with a magazine in the time it would take you to fire twelve shots from a revolver reloading once with a speed
Contagious shooting occurs when police officers fire their weapons simply because another or other officers are firing theirs. The most obvious example
of contagious shooting occurs when a suspect vehicle is involved. Understand this...firing at a moving vehicle is rarely ever justified. Okay...a man
drives his car through the doors of a shopping mall, and he begins running over people. Since you obviously don't have your car inside that mall to use
to stop him, and he's made it clear he intends to run down as many people as possible, your use of deadly force would be justified. While your bullets can
do nothing to disable the car, you're going to try to incapacitate the driver just to limit the damage he's doing.
But...then again...you've got to consider your chances of hitting such a small moving target. How many times will you miss, and where will your bullets
go in a mall crowed with people. You'd probably be better off firing your pistol repeatedly into one of those big potted plants you see all over malls.
While people may not hear the car coming at them, or they take the time to identify any noise they hear, they'll certainly recognize the gunshots and
seek cover more quickly. Shooting at cars is a really bad thing, and it's probably the most common example of contagious shooting.
I hate to say this, but, as your career progresses, you'll identify a few police officers who you don't want behind you when you hear shots fired in front of
you. When you're creeping down an alley looking for an armed person, and you glance behind you only to see another officer with gun in hand and
visibly shaking, you want to change your position. There are some who through fear, adrenaline, and the sudden occurrence of gunfire will fire their
pistols before identifying a target.
Then...there's the simple matter of inexperience. As a new police officer, you're not going to want to appear timid. You could find yourself in a
situation where an officer fires his or her pistol. You draw your weapon, but you can't immediately identify the target at which the officer is shooting.
Or...you clearly see that the officer is firing on a suspect, and you draw and begin firing. In your zealousness not to appear timid, you don't realize that
the other officer has ceased firing, because the officer has incapacitated the suspect. We're talking seconds here, and in most instances, when you hear
the gunshots, it will all probably be over, before you have a chance to participate.
I know you've heard the saying, "Just because everybody does it doesn't make it right." When it comes to you shooting at people, that saying should
take on a whole new meaning.
Let's look at something easy. You confront a suspect who you've been told is armed with a gun. You stop him in a residential park area where he's
standing with his back to a hillside. The first thing you should notice is that if you have to fire you're weapon, any shots fired by you will either hit the
suspect or impact harmlessly into the hillside.
As you hold the suspect at gunpoint, you order him to first drop the gym bag he is carrying. Here's where he starts something that you're going to see a
There will be times when you're confronting people who may be armed, and they'll fiddle and fuss all over the place. Their hands will be
moving in and around their waists as they turn and twist, and they'll simply cause you enormous frustration as you order them to stop
while you intently focus on those hands.
In one of my experiences with a suspect who was reportedly armed, the suspect simply would not stop his gyrations; until, he successfully
removed the pint of liquor from his back pocket and dropped it to the ground hoping I'd not notice. This guy was afraid I'd arrest him for
carrying an open container of alcohol on the street. Sure...it sounds stupid, and it is stupid, but you'll learn quickly that people act
stupidly all the time.
Back to your armed suspect. He finally drops the bag, but as the bag falls, you clearly make out the sawed-off handle, he's holding in his hand, of the
sawed-off shotgun he was concealing in the gym bag.
You're pointing your pistol at the suspect. What do you do now? Do you order him to drop the gun? Do you wait for the suspect to raise the gun so that
it's pointing at you? I don't think so. This suspect had ample opportunity to drop the bag while it contained the gun. This suspect has made his
intention very clear, and you are now in a deadly force situation.
Now, this suspect has a single barrel, single shot 12 gauge shotgun. You have a 9mm pistol containing 17 bullets. You know your going to apply deadly
force. How many shots are you going to fire? Your training has taught you to fire two shots in quick succession. Remember, your intention is not to
kill this suspect, your intention is only to incapacitate him. You know to fire at center mass only because the torso presents the larger target. You're
not that far apart, so the critics will say you should shoot the gun out of his hand. Yea, right...screw those idiots...your life is in real danger here.
You fire two shots from your pistol. One bullet hits the suspect in the chest, and the other strikes the suspect in the right shoulder. The suspect
immediately drops the shotgun as he stumbles backward and collapses. Your use of deadly force is over. The suspect has been incapacitated, and he no
longer presents a threat to you since he is no longer in possession of the shotgun.
Second take. You fire the first two shots into the suspect's chest and shoulder. The suspect stumbles backward, but he is still in possession of the
shotgun. Even though he's been seriously wounded, he attempts to raise the shotgun. You fire two more shots. Remember, you're under a lot of
stress. The suspect turns slightly as you fire, and one bullet misses, and the other grazes his left arm. These two shots do nothing to incapacitate, and
the suspect continues to raise the gun. You fire two more shots. One is a miss, and the other strikes the suspect on his right inner thigh. At this point,
you have no way of knowing, but you've just inflicted a fatal wound to the suspect with your sixth shot. On the hit to his right leg, the bullet has pierced
the femoral artery, and the suspect is bleeding to death. The hit to the leg does make the suspect fall to the ground, but he continues to grasp the
shotgun. As he lies on the ground, he attempts to bring the shotgun to bear on you. You fire two more shots. One passes between his arm and torso
and into the ground while the second shot strikes his right forearm. After all those shots fired, your eighth and final shot to the forearm finally
incapacitates the suspect when he drops the shotgun from his right hand.
Obviously, if you'd only had six shots, you'd be in trouble since it was the eighth shot that incapacitated this suspect. The reason you fired at two shot
intervals was to aid you in staying on target. The more shots you fire in rapid succession, the farther you'll be drawn off target by the recoil of your
pistol. Realistically...in this incident, as described, with such a tenacious opponent, you'd have probably fired more than eight shots and more successive
shots. While your training is critical, the factors of stress and adrenalin are going to affect your response simply because you're fighting for your life.
The critics will never be able to wrap their brains around the realities of a life and death struggle.
Now...look at this very same confrontation with only one difference...there are three police officers present, and each officer observes the same actions
by the suspect. Can you imagine how many shots will be fired in the few seconds of the gunfight. Can you speculate how many hits and misses might be
involved. In this instance, the critics will be quick to allege contagious shooting based only on the number of shots fired while ignoring that all three
officers observed the suspect's aggressive actions.
When it comes to shooting at people, there will never be any absolute standard for you to follow when you decide to shoot or not shoot. The following is
a true life example where the outcome could have been a totally justifiable use of deadly force, or it could have been justifiably labeled as contagious
You're walking foot patrol when your dispatcher assigns you to respond to a nearby private club to take a robbery report. You ask the
dispatcher if the robbery is in progress, and the dispatcher tells you -- pointedly -- that it is not in progress. Your response is for the report
only, and no back-up unit is assigned.
As you're about to enter the front door of the club which opens to a steep, narrow stairway to the second floor where the club is located, you
hear a voice shouting, "Officer! Officer! You turn to see a man running toward you from the opposite side of the street. Vehicle traffic is
heavy, and the man is nearly struck twice as he runs toward you yelling, "Officer, don't go in there!"
In seconds, the man is standing in front of you breathlessly saying, "Officer...three guys...with guns...they're robbing everybody. Another
guy...in the alley...has a sawed-off shotgun." Incredulously, you ask, "They're still inside?" The man responds, "Yea, yea, they're still in
You instinctively tell the man to run as you press yourself against the wall of the building. You draw your pistol as you get on your radio and
call for back-up. Almost immediately, a radio car stops directly in front of the building. It turns out that the officer had responded just as a
routine back-up. You soon become aware that he does not know what's happening as he steps from his car. He's shaking the microphone of
his walkie-talkie next to his ear. You transmit again making it clear to the officer, and everybody, that he is in danger.
Your frustration builds as the officer continues to shake that microphone as he walks toward the front door oblivious to what's happening. It's
obvious to you that his radio is malfunctioning, and you begin yelling his name. You're only about fifteen feet apart, but with the noise of the
street and his attention focused on that stupid microphone, he simply doesn't hear you. Just as you're about to run forward and physically
remove him from in front of that door, he looks toward you. The expression on his face relieves your frustration somewhat, for the sight of
you with gun in one hand and frantically waving him off with the other hand sends your message loud and clear.
It's too late. Before the officer has a chance to react, the front door of the building opens. The officer instinctively draws his pistol and takes
a point shoulder position pointing his pistol at "whoever" is in the doorway. This is where I really screwed up. When I'd taken up my position,
I chose the wrong side of the door. The door was windowless, and the door opened toward me. I could clearly see an eyeball peering at me
through the opening between the door and door frame, but I had no idea who, or how many people, the other officer was confronting.
The other officer was shouting commands, "Show your hands...come out of there...show your hands!" The ensuing seconds were agonizing.
Ask yourself this question:
If the other officer began firing his weapon, would you fire
your weapon sending your bullets through that door?
I had already made my decision in that regard. Fortunately, I had complete faith in that officer's judgement. If he had fired his weapon, I was confident
that he would only do so if he was certain his life was in imminent danger.
Most fortunately, for both the other officer and me, the three suspects had stuffed their handguns inside their pants just before their exit from the
building. That steep, narrow stairway I mentioned earlier prevented them from scattering or fleeing. The officer had the drop on them, and they knew
it. A lot of luck was with us that day, the suspect in the alley with the shotgun fled instead of coming to the aid of his accomplices.
You have to get an understanding of the critics and those who actually listen to them. First, the critics believe that deadly force should never be used.
Secondly, they don't understand the meaning of deadly. These are the same people who believe that police officers should be trained to shoot to wound
people, because they simply can't understand that the difference between wounding and killing a person with a bullet is totally beyond your control.
From this viewpoint, it's easy to criticize multiple shots fired since any moron can understand that more bullets fired increases the odds for more hits;
thus, the use of deadly force may actually turn out to be deadly. But, even that circumstance is not a certain factor. You could fire ten shots at a
suspect. The first shot is a fatal wound while the additional six hits from the nine additional shots are not fatal wounds. What's the difference? Well,
who knows. Perhaps one of the other six hits prevented the suspect from returning fire inflicting a fatal wound to you, before he succumbs to the first
fatal wound inflicted by you.
Hopefully, you'll never have to fire your pistol in the line of duty. More hopefully, you'll never find yourself firing your
pistol, along with another or other officers, in a use of deadly force situation.
While every use of deadly force by a police officer will evoke criticism, that criticism will always be magnified in
proportion to the number of officers firing, and the number of shots fired. When multiple shots are involved, the
criticism will include the number of times a suspect is hit as well as how many times the suspect is missed. In other
words, it's a no win situation.
There were many critics when police departments began replacing six shot service revolvers with the higher ammunition
capacity semi-automatic pistols, so it should not surprise you that criticism of the use of higher ammunition capacity
weapons should follow.
Whenever more than one police officer fires his or her weapon simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously, in the same
incident, the label of "contagious shooting" is quick to be applied. When a suspect is armed with a gun, and he is an
obvious and immediate treat to your life, or the lives of others, and more than one officer fires more than one or two
times, the contagious shooting label will be applied, but it won't stick.
The fact that the suspect is armed with a gun will make the force justified; however, critics will still seize on the number
of shots fired, and the number of hits and misses. When the suspect is armed with a knife, the critics will add the
element of excessive force, and they'll insist that one shot would have been sufficient. When the suspect is perceived to
be armed, but it turns out that he's not armed...well, now you have problems.
When you go through your firearms training, your instructors will stress the point that you, and only you, are
responsible for the decision to fire your weapon, and that responsibility extends to the point of impact of every bullet you
fire. Responsibility. That's the one word you must never forget when it comes to your decision to fire your pistol. While
the definition of responsibility is rarely applied to a lot of people, it will always be applied to police officers.
When it comes to criticism, you should just accept the fact that there will be critics of nearly everything you do. When it
comes to your discharge of firearms, those critics will only increase in numbers. The vast majority of your critics won't
have the slightest idea of what they're talking about; however, the only time their reckless criticism will be correct is
when you provide a reason for them to get it right.