By Steve Pomper
I recently wrote a follow-up piece about a district attorney’s prosecution for murder of a police officer who protected his community against a woman shooting a gun while driving a pickup truck.
It seems an aggressive prosecutor, critics, and biased media are mired in the number of shots the officer fired. Well, it seems to have been the precise number needed to end the incident without the suspect shooting any innocent people.
What the DA, media, and other critics don’t seem to give much thought is the reason one officer may do something differently than another officer, even during the same incident. Each officer has a unique perspective.
I remember an incident from years ago where a man was standing at the top of steps near a community center entrance. Behind him was a brick wall, it was night, and he was holding what appeared to be a handgun, prompting a police response.
As I recall, several cops showed up quickly, the location being a high crime area. Officers drew their weapons and pointed them at the suspect. Officers yelled repeatedly for the suspect to drop the gun. He didn’t.
Now, let’s pause for a moment. Though the officers were together, each had to assess the situation individually. Guns are not like other handheld weapons. They’re designed to project lethal force at a distance. There’s not a lot of peripheral vision going on when confronting a man, some 25-feet away, ready to shoot at you.
Each officer had to decide whether to shoot based not on whether other officers did or didn’t do but on their own belief their actions were necessary, and no alternative appeared to exist at the time. Oh, and no officer knew the suspect’s gun wasn’t real.
Each officer was taking in and processing data from the suspect and from his or her surroundings. Each had to focus on the suspect’s gun hand. What that suspect did with that gun is what mattered. At least, they didn’t have to worry about any innocent bystanders with a brick wall behind the man.
Ignoring multiple commands to drop the gun, the suspect raised the gun. With his free hand, he made a motion as if he were racking the slide of a semi-automatic handgun to chamber a round. And then he pointed the gun at the officers. This is often called suicide by cop.
The officers had already put their own lives at risk by waiting. A fraction of a second is all the suspect needed to point at the officers and shoot. Unlike the brick backdrop behind the suspect, behind the officers were businesses and houses full of people. Officers had to treat the suspect as if he had a real gun. They had to think about what if he fired and a bullet struck someone in a house or business.
But once the suspect pointed the gun at them, every officer except for one fired multiple times. Which, as with the case of the officer I referenced above, was fodder anti-police groups, and the media used to attack the officers. Critics were obsessed with the number of shots fired at “just one ‘unarmed’ person.”
It’s important to remember, it wasn’t as if the officers were on a firing line at a gun range waiting for the range master’s command to shoot. Each officer interpreted the situation from his or her specific vantage. They dealt with different angles, had distinctive reactions to various environmental stimuli, and were coping with the adrenaline surge that comes when you choose fight over flight.
What about the officer who did not shoot? Who knows, maybe that officer saw the suspect go down before the other officers did so didn’t fire. Maybe the officer’s weapon malfunctioned. Or maybe the officer froze (not good).
But here, we’re more concerned about the public understanding what it’s like to be one of several officers perceiving the same incident but from multiple viewpoints while reacting to various environmental and situational stimuli.
Retired Police Chief Michael Renalli, an author at Lexipol.com, wrote about this phenomenon in 2017. He cited as an example the U.S. Supreme Court case, Kisela v. Hughes. One of three police officers shot a woman acting erratically, armed with a knife, and standing within six feet of the woman who had called police.
The armed woman wouldn’t drop the knife. One officer shot at the suspect four times before she could stab the other woman. The suspect recovered and sued the police. This doesn’t necessarily make any of the three officers right or wrong for shooting or not shooting. They each viewed the incident from their own perspectives.
Renalli wrote, “The Court granted qualified immunity to Officer Kisela because there was no clearly established law that would cause a reasonable officer to know that deadly force under these circumstances would constitute a violation.”
Renalli added, “the fact that the attack never took place creates a bias against the officer for not knowing the intent of the suspect at the time.” As with the woman shooting from her vehicle, she hadn’t actually shot anyone yet. It appears, in these cases, people are challenging officers not for what happened but for what might have happened but did not.
Renalli continued, “The officer, reacting to the action of the suspect, is at a tremendous disadvantage… The suspect [has] already assessed the situation and decided on an action…. All the suspect must do is… [fire] his weapon.” Or in the knife case, stab the victim. Shouldn’t officers involved in life or death situations get the benefit of the doubt?
I remember seeing a roll call training video once. From the first dashcam angle, it looked like one officer just draws and shoots an unarmed man. Then we were shown the same incident from another dashcam from a different patrol car. There was a collective gasp. None of us could believe it when we clearly saw the suspect raising a gun at the time the officer shoots him.
What would have happened to that officer if that other camera angle hadn’t been available? The news would just have looped that first video over and over and likely overlooked protests from any eyewitness cops who’d said they’d seen the gun.
Just understand that each officer will perceive a high-risk incident from a unique perspective. Like proverbial snowflakes, no two officers’ responses are ever exactly the same because their perceptions are never the same.
During high-stress incidents, officers are attempting to herd all kinds of emotions, physiological fluctuations, and environmental stimuli into a straight line toward a positive outcome. And a big part of that positive outcome is to finish your shift alive so you can go back home to your family.