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Why police officers often resort to lethal force as their first response

Police recruits at target practice.
Police recruits at target practice.
Ricky Carioti/Washington Post

The recent national focus on police-involved shooting deaths has raised a key question: why is a gunshot to the chest sometimes an officer's first line of defense, instead of last? Shouldn't something less deadly — a Taser, or a gunshot to the leg — be tried first?

This issue came up after the Tuesday death of 18-year-old Antonio Martin by a Berkeley, Mo., police officer. The St. Louis County police chief, Jon Belmar, called residents' suggestions that the officer should have used non-lethal force first "unreasonable."

"You aim a gun at a police officer, there's not a lot of time," said Belmar. "Most of us would feel we were in imminent danger of losing our lives at that point."

While the public often expects a police officer to use a Taser — or, if the officer only has a gun, to shoot the suspect in the leg — in any possible situation, most experts and police guidelines side with Belmar. They endorse lethal force as the only option for officers in what they see as life-threatening situations. And officers maintain that non-lethal options can prove impossible in high-stress, fast-moving situations.

The "force continuum" model recommends meeting deadly threats with deadly force

What force an officer is allowed to use is dependent on the level of threat he feels he's under. When dealing with a suspect who's believed to be armed, even a small movement can be all it takes for a police officer to feel he's in mortal peril. And by that point, he has very little time to make a decision.

"Officer-involved shootings happen extremely quickly," says policing lawyer Walter Katz. "Usually, the point from where the officer believes he has to use deadly force to the point where he uses deadly force — where he pulls the trigger — is about two seconds."

To guide their decision-making in use-of-force situations, nearly all officers are trained in the "force continuum" -- a model that matches levels of suspect "resistance" with the level of force it's appropriate for an officer to use. Police emphasize that the force continuum is supposed to guide officers, not to regulate them -- but it's still the primary way officers are taught what's appropriate.

Different police departments use different versions of the force continuum model. But nearly all agree that when an officer is facing a deadly threat, the proper response is to use deadly force.

When Tasers came on the market, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were marketed as an alternative to lethal force. But as they've come into use, that's not how officers are being trained to use them. A 2012 study found that out of 244 agencies surveyed that put "conducted energy devices" (the technical name for Tasers) on their force continuum, only five put them on the same level as lethal force. Ninety-eight percent of agencies recommended that, when presented with a deadly threat, deadly force was the only response.

For former police officer David Klinger, who's now a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, that's a sensible response. "If there's a man with a rifle, and he starts moving the rifle toward us, we're going to shoot him. Because the threat is there. So it's always predicated on the threat," he says.

Police feel there's no foolproof way to disable a suspect that's not lethal

Officers aren't supposed to shoot to kill. They're supposed to do whatever's necessary to disable the threat. The purpose of the force continuum is to help officers figure out how much force they need to use to get to that point.

This is where the public tends to get confused. Isn't the point of a Taser to disable someone without killing them? And what about shooting a suspect in the leg, so he can't continue to advance toward police or run away?

The answer is that when it comes to use of force, keeping officers safe is the highest priority. An officer isn't expected to do something that might leave him in danger, simply because it's less violent to the victim. And police simply don't feel either Tasers or leg shots are reliable ways to disable a suspect.

When a suspect pulls a gun or a knife — in other words, the cases when police are most likely to think their lives are at risk — experts argue that officers can't get close enough to use a Taser without putting themselves in danger.

Klinger says, "If you and I are going to try to disarm someone who's got a blunt instrument, we can talk to him, we can get to within 20, 15 feet and hit him with a Taser. I'm not going to approach somebody who's got a knife to Tase them." Instead, he says, he'd pull out his gun.

And if a police officer has decided that he needs to shoot someone to neutralize a threat, he needs to be certain the shot isn't going to miss. This makes aiming for a limb, like the arm or leg, difficult. The easiest target for an officer to hit, particularly in a high-stress confrontation, is the middle of the victim's body — what's called "center mass."

Police officers receive regular firearms training — so it's not that most officers are expected to be terrible shots. But Richmond, CA police chief Chris Magnus, whose officers receive monthly firearms training, says it's important for police chiefs and the public alike to recognize that training can't replicate what officers encounter in the field: from the stress of a confrontation, to the weather and lighting.

In the midst of all that, he says, "The notion that it's possible to shoot somebody just to the level that they're debilitated — to shoot a gun out of somebody's hand, to shoot them in the leg — that is the stuff of TV and movies. That's wildly unrealistic."

Aiming for center mass instead means that the officer is likely to kill the suspect. But Magnus believes that it's important for an officer not to pull out his gun in any circumstance where he wouldn't be willing to kill the suspect — and accept the consequences thereof. Even if the officer's goal isn't to kill the civilian, "you have to accept that that is a very real possibility."

So how are Tasers used?

In the 2012 study, the majority of departments that used "CEDs" (60 percent) put them on the same level as impact weapons, such as batons. 25 percent placed them lower, on par with "hard empty hand" tactics (like slaps); and 13 percent placed them even lower, on par with "pain compliance" tactics (like pinning a suspect's arm behind his back).

That's in line with what criminologist and former police union official Thomas Nolan says, noting the discrepancy between how Tasers were first marketed to police and how they're used today. "Cops are not considering that (a Taser) is an escalation of force," he says. "Instead of ratcheting down the instances of deadly force, they're ratcheting up instances of non-lethal force."