By Ed Appel and Tom Conley, CPP
Legislation in New York that mandates police officers shoot to wound violent assailants is impractical and risks the lives of police and innocent bystanders alike.
The recent resurrection of a bill in the New York State Assembly (A02952 ) has once again set off alarms throughout New York’s law enforcement community. The legislation would require police to use minimal force to stop a person even if that person were armed and dangerous or using unlawful force. This proposal would change the state law from the current standard of shoot to stop the threat, which gives police the discretionary authority to use deadly force, to what has been called a “shoot-to-wound” standard.
The impetus for the bill was a tragic case in which a 23-year-old unarmed man named Sean Bell was fatally shot on his wedding day. After leaving his bachelor’s party with two friends, Bell drove his car into a police detective and then an unmarked police van twice. In the ensuing confusion, police fired 50 shots into the car, striking all three men and killing Bell. After the incident, three officers charged in the shooting explained that Bell appeared to present a threat as he seemed to use the car to attack them while one officer believed a passenger had reached for a gun. A judge exonerated them on all charges.
While one can sympathize with the desire to prevent future tragedies, the real effect of this legislation, introduced by Assemblywoman Annette Robinson (D-Brooklyn) and sponsored by Assemblyman Darryl Towns (D-East New York), would be to hamstring police efforts to protect the public, further endanger officers already at risk in such confrontations, and tip the balance of power toward violent criminals.
The fundamental problem with the “No-Kill” bill is that it asks police to accomplish a nearly impossible physical feat—to shoot a person in the arm or leg as they are in motion, rather than aiming for the larger target area of the torso, as they are currently trained to do. Only Hollywood gunslingers shoot the weapon out of an opponent’s hand or wound a limb. In the real world, officers under pressure, with their lives on the line and possibly operating at night with little light, are unlikely to shoot with that much precision, no matter how well trained they are.
Ron Avery, head of the Practical Shooting Academy and a member of the Force Science Technical Advisory Board, explains that shooting for an assailant’s center mass
, a body’s largest target, is considered the most effective option. Faced with the threat of deadly force, officers risk death if they shoot for a smaller, faster-moving target, such as an arm or leg, with the intent to wound rather than to incapacitate, according to Avery. Yet if this proposal becomes law, an officer who does what Avery and similar experts advise could be charged with manslaughter if the shooting resulted in a fatality.
The unintended consequences of this ill-advised legislation could harm the public too. If police are forced to shoot for limbs, more shots could miss, hurting innocent bystanders. And bullets that do hit an extremity may be more likely to pass through the assailant’s limb and hit an unintended target. Moreover, to comply with the law if it passes, use of certain weapons such as shotguns and automatic SWAT firearms would be discouraged, allowing gangs and organized criminals to out-gun the police.
Another basic flaw of this proposed legislation is the assumption or implication that a firearm should be used as a means of nonlethal intervention. Shooting to wound is a misapplication of firearms. If wounding or nonlethal force is a reasonable option given the situation, police use the appropriate tools, such as batons and stun guns. By the time that an officer fires a deadly weapon, studies have found, less lethal measures have generally already been tried. Simply put, when police shoot their firearm, it’s because they judge deadly force as the only way to stop the threat of unlawful deadly force.
Accidental deadly shootings of innocent persons are, indeed, great tragedies. But in the quiet, bright light of day, second-guessing of the relatively few incidents in which police mistakenly fire when other, better options might have existed is simply unfair. In this case, it’s the bill that needs to be allowed to die so that officers’ lives are not needlessly put at greater risk than they already are.
♦ Ed Appel is a retired 28-year FBI Agent and owner of iNameCheck, which specializes in Internet intelligence. Tom M. Conley, CPP, is the president & CEO of The Conley Group, Inc. headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, and is a senior-level commissioned officer in the United States Navy Police. Both Appel and Conley serve on ASIS International's Law Enforcement Liaison Council .
♦ Photo of NYPD officers by Nightscream/WikiMediaCommons