Blue on Blue Shootings

Every year, American law enforcement officers have thousands of successful use of force encounters where the officer(s) involved does it right. However, we still have too many cases where a legitimate good guy is shot and killed despite circumstances...

Rarely, if ever, does the student ever fail to engage a target that is in possession of a gun.  There’s a fifty/fifty chance that they won’t shoot the plainclothes guy with a gun and a ‘badge’ overlay on his belt. How many times have you scored these paper targets and found bullet holes in the guns? This despite the fact that the gun is held waist level and we understand that a good stopping shot is in the upper chest?

Officers will instinctively, if unconsciously key in on the gun and put all of their focus on it. It is the gun that is their signal to fire and that is exactly what they do. Whether or not it has ever been verbalized, the lesson is that the gun, not the man, is the threat and the possession of a gun is the mental cue to fire. We are literally training our officers to kill people in possession of guns, motivation or actions be damned.

Thousands of man hours every year are devoted to training officers to shoot targets with guns and not shoot those without guns. This is practical live-fire, not classroom discussion. We see the end result on the street every year and scratch our heads wondering why.  After all of those in-service briefings, why do Blue on Blue shootings still continue to happen?

Paper targets do not display emotions or actions. We cannot divine the intent of a colored paper man in a flannel shirt holding a gun. What do we do? We shoot him because he is holding a gun. You will not find a full-color paper target with a man in a police uniform to mix into the shoot/no shoot scenario. Why, because no company on Earth would make one. Are you kidding? We can’t make a ‘target’ with a cop in uniform. Holy Hell, are you insane?

Pause for a moment. Did you ever think that in your shoot houses you might want to put ‘No Shoot’ targets that look like guys in uniform? If you can manage it, put a paper target of a guy in uniform in your next shoot house training session. Consciously observe the reaction of your officers as they enter a room that has been designated as “Man w/Gun” call or “Domestic Violence” and come face to face with a cop in uniform.

One School’s Solution

A few years ago I attended training at the Combat Shooting and Tactics school. I knew that the CSAT owner and chief instructor, Paul Howe, retired US Army, Special Forces, understood the problem of mistaken identity shooting. During a telephone conversation with Paul I asked for his thoughts on the situation. “A lot of shooters will work on shooting fast, but they don’t work on discrimination. Your target discrimination skills have to be on par with your shooting skills. See fast, shoot fast is how we do it.”

Howe went on and elaborated. “We teach our shooters for first observe the whole person, then the hands, and the waistline. Shooters must take in the entire situation, not just ‘Is he holding a gun? During, scenario training we put the paper badge photos in different places on the targets so the students must take into account the entire picture, not just the gun.”

Parting Thoughts

If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that all the briefings and policies are not stopping Blue on Blue / mistaken identity shootings and off-duty cops are being shot for simply holding a gun.

As long as we continue to carry on the live-fire training regime of shooting anyone with a gun this will continue to happen. It is the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result. For decades we’ve been trying to treat the problem of mistaken identity shootings the same way and wonder why they keep happening.

The very hard but honest question you must ask yourself is this; does our training teach our officers to instinctively shoot anyone that is holding a gun? It doesn’t matter how many times your people sit through a Justifiable Use of Force class and reexamine Ability, Opportunity and Intent, if all of your live-fire focuses on ‘kill the guy with the gun’ that’s what is going to keep happening, regardless of visible badge holders or Velcro pull-down signs.

Rather than simply train people to instinctively shoot anyone out of uniform with a gun, it may be time to rethink our Force on Force and reality based training scenarios. Will this take dedicated time and effort? I suppose it will. The other option is to simply continue to do what we’ve always done and be shocked and saddened the next time a patrolman shoots an off-duty cop.

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