Shoot to Kill?

By Richard Boettger

Why are police officers trained to shoot to kill, instead of shooting to wound, or not shooting at all?  There are, sadly, a lot of reasons that this kill practice will continue, and they do not make our justice system, from top to bottom, look at all good.

The main reason the kill policy will continue is our Supreme Court.  In 1989 they unanimously ruled that police violence had only to be “reasonable,” applying the 4th amendment standard of banning “unreasonable search and seizure” instead of the 5th and 14th Amendments requiring “due process” of law. This was a huge stretch of applying a principle requiring search warrants and probable cause to protect the citizenry from the government busting into their homes, as the British had, to saying any police officer needs only a “reasonable” fear for his or anyone’s safety.  This standard  basically approved of our police being encouraged to kill anyone at anytime they “reasonably” saw fit.

I first ran into this when my cousin described his firearms training as a game warden.  He carried a gun, as the poachers who were part of his job also carried guns.  He told me he was trained to shoot to kill, that there was no reason to shoot someone for any other reason.  He was a good student in that he firmly believed this was a great idea.  The first thing I found out when I began to look into this was that over 400 official organizations, not just police officers, have the state-sanctioned right to carry guns and kill us citizens with them, whenever they thought it was “reasonable” to do so.

This is not universally applauded by police at the highest level.  The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has tried for years to throttle back on the kill philosophy, but has been up against an overwhelming inertia to keep training new officers to aim at a citizen’s “center of mass” whenever they shoot, the heart being the target on the practice range.  

Official belief in the need for this is more a matter of faith than of statistics.  PERF points out that the government keeps no official statistics on citizens killed by police  despite a federal law in 2014 to do so.  A new study in the Lancet tallies 31,000 from 1980—2018, over 800 year (medical examiners had reported only 17,000 of these as caused by police shootings, the MEs’ way of protecting their friends on the force). The police do keep an official tally of officers killed by citizens, 55/year, and use this danger as good reason to “reasonably” kill in order to protect themselves.

I of course think one death/year is too many, but compare the 55 cops/year to the 341 people/year who drown in their bathtubs—that is, it is six times more dangerous to just bathe in your tub than it is to be a police officer.  Add this to the statistic that police kill 15 citizens for every single citizen who kills one of them, and I think it is worth questioning the “Shoot to Kill” philosophy, as a citizen myself.

No matter how questionable, this kill philosophy is unlikely ever to change, at least in America.  The main reason, surprise is not police unions, but rather We The (endangered) People ourselves.  It is almost impossible to get a jury of American citizens to convict a police officer, no matter how egregious the crime—think of the Rodney King beating, and he wasn’t even killed.  Derek Chauvin’s conviction for killing George Floyd was a perfect example of the exception proving the rule. Chauvin was convicted only because two, not one but two, top police officials testified against him—in addition to the shocking video recording.

In general, the only time police are convicted is if other police officers testify against them.  This is extremely rare. Of over 15,000 police killings over 15 years, only 110 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter, and only five were convicted—that is, one out of 3,000.  Yes, they can thank the Blue Wall of Silence, but it is normal for all professions, including lawyers and doctors, to refuse to testify against their own.  It comes down to juries.  It may be racism, lawyers finding a single white person in a jury to refuse to convict a white officer for killing a black man.  Or it may be We The People’s love of their police that causes juries to overwhelmingly forgive.  

I think, from my study of social psychology, that it is more likely the latter.  It is called the “just world hypothesis.”  None of us wants to live in a world where our friendly neighborhood cop is capable of murdering us.  We will stand on our heads to prefer loving him rather  than  fearing him.

So in the rosy world I’d like to be writing about in my Golden Years, I’d wish for police target practice to put the bulls-eye on the running man’s legs.  The charge is made that it is a TV fantasy to hit such a small target. But take the case of those egregious circumstances where a nut with a knife is ranting at 6 officers surrounding him for 15 minutes, and then suddenly one shoots and the poor bipolar soul goes down in a hale of bullets.  Or any of the other shootings where the perp is actually running away.  Or it’s a ten year old with a toy gun, or the unarmed lady who called the police because she heard an intruder on her property.  In these minimal danger settings I would like to hear even a single example of a Shoot to Wound bullet being fired.  

But we the people prefer, in our juries, their continuing to shoot to kill. You should see what a scared little white mouse I am whenever for whatever reason I need to talk with an armed man or woman from any of the 400 agencies who follow the same guidelines: shoot me to kill me, with neither remorse nor sanction.  Squeak!

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