Police shootings are far too often controversial in the public's eye. Multiple officers shooting at one suspect raise additional controversy. However, when the media immortalizes the shooting by labeling it a Contagious Shooting the involved officers' nightmares begin. Their names and past law enforcement records create a media frenzy, causing increased stress on the officers, their families and their department. The underlying public thought always seems to be aren't the police disciplined enough not to do this? Although a large number of incidents where multiple officers have discharged at a single threat are justified, it is the few incidents that a Contagious Shooting has occurred that creates public distrust.
Contagious Shooting! Doesn't this imply over-firing? Or to bring it to modern terms, transmittable diseases like H1N1! The general public perceives this terminology as an occupational disease within law enforcement with no vaccine. There are many examples of a Contagious Shooting with just as many explanations from experts. Police may refer to it as the fog of the moment. Some involved officers state that their firing was reactionary and unintentional. Naturally this leads to the question: is it the officer or the training?
Law enforcement predominantly instructs its officers to shoot at a range, but is the range realistic to street scenarios? Officers respond to most calls alone or with a single back up and resolve the issue. During a domestic call for service for instance, one officer can read off the other and understand the threat. However, when officers shoot to qualify at the range they shoot with 15 or more officers simultaneously. Law enforcement is conditioned to shoot in unison. Everyone who has been at the range understands the scenario that when range control gives directions, such as shoot three rounds with the weak hand and you are the first one firing before anyone else, you question yourself, "Did I understand the command?" Then the volley of gunfire starts and an overwhelming calm comes over you; you were right. This gut wrenching feeling stems not from if the officer firing was correct, but rather years of conditioning where the officer has been accustomed to a comfort circle of hearing numerous shots when they discharge.
We know that under stress we revert to training. If we train on the line to shoot with 15 other officers, and find the neighboring gunshots comforting when we shoot together, then why is it a surprise that we would react similarly under stress? The goal is for officers to identify a threat before discharging. If every officer on the firing line is conditioned to shoot in unison, then what threat are they identifying? Would it make sense to have the targets not turn in unison? For example, only odd numbered range targets turn then even then and then a varied series. This simple deviation from the standard, although more time consuming on range staff, would mandate officers to shoot based on their own perception and not as combined group.
Law enforcement officers have milliseconds to make life changing decisions that affect suspects, the community and themselves. If an officer observes their partner firing and does not perceive a clear threat, but rather the suspect acting erratically, they will often fire. This is primarily because they feel endangered. They don't feel as if they have time to sort this out, and may feel like they are leaving their partner hanging. They become unsure of themselves to perceive danger accurately and rely on their training to put them in a comfort zone. They perceive danger, their heart rate is racing, they believe that their partner is in harms way; so they fire. It is a comforting natural stimulus stemming from training. Additionally, the police culture is heavy into machismo. Perhaps this also lends to the swaying decision that if they don't fire, their threat perception will be questioned by fellow officers and they will be ridiculed and even called a coward for not firing. In a profession that relies on backup, being shunned by fellow officers can be career ending. So should the term Contagious Shooting be altered to Conditioned Shooting?
The basis of Conditioned Shootings can be linked to other dangerous law enforcement responses. Officers allow emotions, adrenaline and stress to dictate their actions over logic; blurring actions to consequences. A notable difference between firing a weapon and any other action conducted by officers is the instantaneity of the discharge. It is unforgiving and rarely allows for supervisors or other officers to intervene and clarify the threat assessment.
In conclusion, the outcome of a Contagious Shooting can mimic that of the deadliest disease; however, the department's goal should be to identify the symptoms and obtain some preventative treatment. Perhaps pre-cursors of a Contagious Shooting can be directly linked to current training methods, threat assessment or individual discipline. Regardless of the pre-cursors, departments can not afford to allow a single dose of Contagious Shooting to harbor in their organization.