The Tools of Law Enforcement – Lethal Force and Fire Arms Part I

Article By: Scott Hall
            Law enforcement officers have many tools at their disposal in order to combat crime.  Items such as the Truncheon, Pepper Spray and the Taser play a vital role in subduing and controlling the unruly criminals.  On occasion, law enforcement officers may need to use lethal force and though it is a last resort in many cases, it is still a vital part of the officer’s training.  In early law enforcement practices in the United States, acquiring a side arm was up to the individual who was influenced by what they could afford and what was available and used by sheriff’s, constables and deputies.  Training in the use of a fire arm in those days was not a class that was held by their respective departments, rather, the skills acquired were by whatever experience the officer encountered.  The fire arm a law enforcement officer uses has a rich history including decisions to make the fire arm more “uniform”, a fact that Theodore Roosevelt initiated (Guns.com).  His presence on the board of commissioners with the NYPD (New York Police Department) was crucial in developing standards for law enforcement.  This article will reflect on the history and importance of the need and use of the fire arm.
NYPD Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt in 1895Image via Wikipedia Roosevelt as NYC Police Commissioner

            Starting around 1895, the fire arm “Colt” brought about a revolutionary change in the standard gun industry, a flint lock pistol, with its innovative revolver design.  The .32 caliber pistol took hold and was popular for most law enforcement officials, shortly thereafter Theodore Roosevelt declared that this weapon should be used.  The benefit of uniformity also provided an oneness of purchase in that the ammunition could be bought in bulk and distributed fairly easily.  Along with the issuance of the fire arm, Mr. Roosevelt also declared that officers should be trained in its use and care.  A training standard that is still used in today’s law enforcement training.  This side arm evolved into the “police positive special” along with other titles, including a stigmata in more than just “Dirty Harry” movies, yes even the Magnum revolver was a part of law enforcement history.
            A fixture on most police, when handling a fire arm, safety is a major concern, not only for the safety of the officer who carries the armament, but for the safety of the citizens and perpetrators.  In a landmark case (Tennessee v. Garner, 1985), the US Supreme court ruled that the use of deadly force to effect an arrest or prevent the escape of a suspect unless the police officer reasonably believes that the suspect committed or attempted to commit crimes involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical injury and a warning of the intent to use deadly force was given whenever feasible.  This does not mean that when dirty Harry said, “Do you feel lucky?” qualifies as a warning, but when a law enforcement officer says, “Stop or I will shoot” we should take notice as the officer will not use those words lightly.  This standard of when to draw and what situations lethal force applies was partially spawned by the massive reports of police brutality during the civil rights marches and movements of the 1960’s.  Rumors of shootings and violent police beatings helped to shape the standard used by most law enforcement today.
            The decision to use such force of lethality is not one that is taken lightly, as the officer knows once this force is applied there may be a chance that a wrongful death lawsuit or other impending action may take place.  In most all cases where police discharge a weapon, a report has to be filed and reviewed as to whether or not misconduct or misuse of force was applied.  Within the final report, it must show what the circumstances were surrounding the use of deadly force, whether or not the use of such force was appropriate by regulatory laws and finally any future disciplinary actions that will be taken.  Examples of this procedure would be when an officer shoots someone and we see it on the local news, within a few days of mandatory leave a report is usually given and whether or not the officer violated any rules or regulations.  Procedures must be mandated as well as training the law enforcement officer so that when such incidents occur, the right decisions can be reached.
Jeff Cooper  tactical-life.com
            Some of the training in the use of a handgun is the stances or positions one should be using given a certain set of circumstances.  An article posted online shows just a few of those positions (policeone.com).  All of these were initially stemmed from Jeff Cooper, who is considered to be the father of “the modern technique of pistols”.  Mr. Cooper went through great lengths to teach officers of law enforcement the proper way to handle their sidearm.  Mr. Cooper put these regimes of ideas to use shortly after World War II (firearmusernetwork.com).  The combat triad or modern technique consisted of three primary things: 1) Marksmanship 2) Gun Handling 3) Mindset.  Mr. Cooper considered these essential and many have pointed out that some of these items had to have been developed before Cooper became an adult, however, even if in dreams they wanted to do it, Mr. Cooper accomplished it.  This is not the final answer to the training of officers, but these ideas did help to shape modern tactics in action.
            Law enforcement when approached with a situation that weapons are known, still have the mindset to not fire upon their suspect in a lethal way, unless the situation warrants lethal force.  Training in circumstances is vital and while it is true that not all circumstances can be covered, quite a few can.  According to an article posted online (statewatch.org), several training situations are worth a look.  Situations that range from armed subjects in the open to armed subjects within a vehicle or dwelling are covered.  This article is just the 5th chapter of a training guide written by the Association of Chiefs of Police and contains valuable insights for the professional and student.  A key point in this article comes around section 8.5 where it states “It is the duty of the Police to protect the public.”  This is a very strong point meaning the officer who fires that shot has to know that the public or them self is in immediate danger and that further harm may come if they do not apply force.
            History mythology would have us believe that the sheriff’s of the old west were rootin’ tootin’ cowboys with their shiny silver guns and total respect from the general public, until the outlaws came around then maybe it was time to “draw.”  In reality, no officer wants to have to use lethal force and in most cases, the officer will not employ this force, unless they feel the public or themselves are in danger.  Theodore Roosevelt gave uniformity to the officer’s weapon when lethal force was needed.  Actions from civil rights movements to popular civil unrest about the how and when to use such force have shaped American law enforcement protocol.  The law enforcement community trains continually on tactics of when to employ, how to employ and why to employ its lethal tactic.  There will always be room for debate and the news that we hear of shootings that occur will upset us, if we are not aware of the circumstances that person was faced against, including not knowing if someone else’s life was in danger.  Guns do kill people especially in untrained hands.  We will explore a bit of gun safety and why training is important in part II of this series of insights into fire arms and law enforcement.
Reading References including a link to the ATF:

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