America's law enforcement leadership groups have created new bizarre policy guidelines on warning shots, and patrol officers may end up paying the price.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police met last fall with ten other law enforcement organizations to create a National Consensus Policy On Use Of Force. The document is used as a template for use of force policies across the nation.
Martin Kaste with NPR pointed out that the new guidelines allow for the use of warning shots. It's fair to say that we were shocked.
Warning shots have been prohibited by police department policies for decades, and for good reason. The idea of a warning shot is an awful idea.
Warning Shots: A Flawed Concept
A warning shot is the discharge of a firearm for the purpose of compelling compliance from an individual, but not intended to cause physical injury. The idea is that the sound of a gunshot will coerce a suspect into immediately surrendering.
Massad Ayoob, a well-known expert firearms instructor, disagrees. "Movies show people firing a shot in the air and the running man stops," Ayoob says. "And that just ain't how it happens in real life."
When you shoot at people, they generally start running faster.
The idea behind the warning shot isn't the only flaw here. The actual execution of a warning shot is dangerous and foolish.
Physics, How Do They Work?
If an officer fires into the air, that bullet is coming back down, and somebody may get killed on its return to Earth. Firing into the ground is also dangerous. If the bullet strikes a hard object in the ground, like a rock, that bullet can ricochet back out.
It's likely for these reasons that the new policy guidelines on warning shots state that the warning shot must have a defined target. However, this creates its own problem. In order to shoot at a defined target, other than the suspect, the officer must take their eyes off of the suspect. In a deadly force situation, this is madness.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. The policy guidelines also state that a warning shot may only be used if deadly force is justified. To understand why this is a problem, you must understand when police officers are allowed to use deadly force.
When Deadly Force Is Justified, And Why Warning Shots And Deadly Force Don't Mix
Officers are allowed to use deadly force under two circumstances:
- To protect the officer or others from what is reasonably believed to be an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury.
- To prevent the escape of a fleeing subject when the officer has probable cause to believe that the person has committed, or intends to commit a felony involving serious bodily injury or death, and the officer reasonably believes that there is an imminent risk of serious bodily injury or death to the officer or another if the subject is not immediately apprehended. Officers shooting fleeing suspects must, when feasible, provide a verbal warning to the suspect that they are a law enforcement officer and that they intend to shoot.
The first circumstance is the most common. Officers, or another person, must be under an immediate threat of being killed. The word "immediate" means: at that exact moment in time; not in five seconds, not in 5 milliseconds, it means right then.
I would think that any law enforcement professional would know that it is not possible to utilize a warning shot when an officer or somebody else is under an immediate threat of being killed. Any delay would be reasonably likely to result in death. In other words, it's a really awful idea.
I am going to assume that there isn't any law enforcement leader who is so far gone that they actually think that this is a good idea, which leads me to believe the policy was created solely for using deadly force against fleeing suspects.
The second circumstance that allows officers to use deadly force involves shooting fleeing suspects. Yes, given the right circumstances, officers can legally shoot people in the back when they are running away (See: Tennessee v Garner.)
The standard for shooting a fleeing suspect requires that officers already provide a warning, if feasible, before shooting. If a verbal warning is not feasible, then warning shots are unlikely to be feasible either. If a verbal warning is given, then officers are utilizing a safe method of advising suspects that they are about to be justifiably killed.
Why The Change?
Besides just being an all-around bad idea, the real question that comes up here is: why? Why would this policy be changed? The excuse of giving officers an extra tool in their toolbelt is nonsense. Tools are useless if they are broken.
The only people getting a useful tool here are the people within the anti-police crowd who will have something else to unjustly criticize officers for.
If departments implement policies which allow for warning shots, then any time an officer is forced to shoot somebody in defense of life, they are going to be forced to defend the decision not to use a warning shot. Warning shots are inherently unreasonable, so it would be safe to assume that only an unreasonable person would ask an officer why they didn't use a warning shot. Unfortunately, it's bound to happen, and police officers are going to pay the price.