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The Dangers of Confronting Armed Suspects

A man with a gun in his hand is a deadly threat since he will always be able to raise and fire before you can react and respond.

*The purpose of this article is not to second guess officers on actions in the past.  Several of these incidents led to officer deaths.  We all make mistakes.   But if we don’t examine these incidents and learn what we can, tragedy and more officer deaths may result.

Times Square, NYNY (13 August 2012): On a sunny Saturday afternoon a man brandishing an 11 inch butcher knife and according to witnesses was slashing at random civilians, refused to drop the knife and continued to threaten police officers.  Over the course of seven blocks, after multiple orders to stop and several applications of pepper spray failed to stop or even impair the suspect, he was shot and killed by officers.

Laurens County, GA (12 January 1998): Deputy Kyle Dinkheller pulls over motorist, Andrew Brannan, for speeding.  During the course of the roadside contact Brannan began acting bizarrely stating, “Shoot my f’ng ass!” while dancing in the road and then aggressively toward Dep. Dinkheller yelling, “F’ng kill me man!”  Brannan returns to his pick-up truck grabs and loads an M-1 carbine while Dep. Dinkheller yells, “Put the gun down!” no less than five times.  A shoot-out ensues in which Dep. Dinkheller is wounded in the extremities, shoots the suspect in the abdomen, and is ultimately killed with a shot to the head.

Hays County, TX (3 August 2000): Texas Trooper Randall Vetter pulls over 72 year old, Melvin Hale for traffic violations.  Hale exits his vehicle with a .223 Mini-14 carbine.  Trooper Vetter gives the suspect no less than four verbal orders to, “Drop it!” or “Put the weapon down!” before he shoots at Hale.  Hale fires wounding Trooper Vetter who later succumbed to his injuries.  Alarmingly, after back-up officers arrive Hale is allowed to continually walk around the scene armed with his rifle even pointing it at officers at several points and is never shot by police.  A negotiator is called for and the stalemate continues for several minutes until Hale finally drives away and officers move in to rescue the mortally wounded Trooper Vetter.  It is unknown how many times officers ordered Hale to drop his gun or heard on a police loudspeaker, “Place the weapon down!”

Three incidents spanning 14 years which resulted in the death of two law enforcement officers with untold number of incidents occurring throughout this country before, during and since that time.

All of these subjects presented a deadly threat to the officers involved at the moment they brandished, drew or the officers became aware that they were armed.

No verbal warnings were required by law or necessary prior to the officers shooting.

Legal and Moral 

In the landmark Supreme Court case Tennessee v. Garner the justices in their decision referred to verbal warnings when talking about shooting dangerous fleeing felons.  The Court stated, “if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm, deadly force may be used necessary to prevent escape, and if, where feasible, some warning be given.

Now, two important points need to be made: 1) This case did not involve threats at that moment but rather involved a suspect who had made or presented a deadly threat prior and was escaping and, 2) “if, where feasible, some warning be given” prior to the officer shooting.  The verbal warning, e.g. “Stop or I’ll shoot!” are only required if time and circumstances permit.

There is no legal requirement for officers who believe that their life or the life of another is under the threat of death or serious bodily harm to give verbal orders to, “Drop the gun.”  As Pat Martin illustrated in his excellent presentation at an old A.S.L.E.T. seminar (Shut-up and Shoot!; 2006 ASLET Seminar), verbal warnings or commands when deadly force is clearly warranted is a form of hesitation.  The questions are do officers hesitate because: they are good people who don’t want to shoot another human being; hesitant because they don’t have clear policies or guidance and fear that their agencies won’t back them up; or are taught on the range or in their in-service and basic that they should do so?  Both of the suspects in the Dinkheller and Hale incidents shot and killed the officers after they were given multiple opportunities to “Drop the gun!” and did not do so.  Both the law and moral convictions are covered by stopping an armed suspect via gunfire.  After all, if you don’t shoot, you may perish as may innocent citizens you’ve sworn to protect.

Tactical 

A suspect with a gun in his hand can always shoot before an officer can react and respond.  It has been scientifically proven that a man armed with a gun can turn, pivot, roll over on the ground and other movements or physical gyrations and shoot before an officer can shoot, even if the officer has his gun in hand at low ready or up on target.

Further, a suspect armed with an edged weapon or bludgeon can run a significant distance (up to 30 depending on the officer’s reaction time and speed of draw) before an officer can draw and fire one round.

Original studies on this topic go back to Dennis Tueller (Salt Lake City PD, Lt, ret.) in his 1983 SWAT magazine article How Close is Too Close?.  What Tueller did on the range with a stop watch and role players (answering a student’s question as to how close a subject with a knife or club can get to you before they constituted a deadly threat) was advanced with research completed by the late Tom Hontz and Ray Rheingans (Justifying the Deadly Force Response; Police Quarterly; Vol. 2 No. 4; December, 1999).  Dr. Bill Lewinski and Force Science would continue on with this research adding additional movements such as 180° turns, shooting from a seated position  (as in shots fired by the driver of a vehicle out the driver’s window), and shooting from a prone position starting with a handgun concealed under the body.  All of this research has validated that a man or woman armed with a handgun can raise and fire, or turn raise and fire or fire and turn, before an officer with a handgun at low ready can react and respond.  See http://www.officer.com/article/10248725/fractions-of-a-second

What all of these studies and research have proven is that a man with a gun in his hand or a man with a knife you is closing in on you is a deadly threat.  Seek cover prior to engagement if possible since use of cover can save your life.  But understand that the suspect’s actions, if they choose to attack, will be faster than you can react and respond.  If you believe that your life or the lives of others is threatened then deadly force is appropriate.

In Sum 

“Many respectable writers agree that if a man reasonably believes that he is in immediate danger of death or grievous bodily harm from his assailant, he may stand his ground, and if he kills him, he has not exceeded the bounds of lawful self-defense.  That has been the decision of this court.  Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife.”              Supreme Court, Brown v. United States

In the multiple citizen videos taken in the NYPD shooting case involving the man with the knife we mentioned at the start, comments can be heard from “the peanut gallery” that the shooting was not justified.  A public fueled by too much television, ignorant of the law and the facts of deadly force encounters can make such statements – their butts aren’t on the line.  But the men and women of law enforcement who’ve sworn to protect as well as survive cannot allow armed threats against them to continue to exist – the costs are far too great.

 

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