This will, without a doubt, stir up controversy, debate, and much, much ass-pain. The proposition in this article is intended to address one of most common, seemingly ignorant, questions ever asked of any law enforcement, anywhere — why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg? If you’d like to get in on this discourse, please do, but let’s have it done civilly and intelligently, shall we? (Now cue the outraged commentary from those who will make no effort to actually read this.) Mad Duo
Should Cops Make Limb Shots? Yes, Actually.
Georgia Tech University is currently in uproar over the recent police shooting of a troubled student who committed suicide by cop. The student was armed with a knife, and was shot one time after repeatedly refusing commands and walking toward police officers.
The shooting produced the usual outcry about police “murdering innocent citizens who were only armed with knives,” when the officers could have (allegedly) easily tased or pepper sprayed them. After almost every controversial police shooting, people who often have no idea what they’re talking about demand to know some version of, “why the police didn’t just shoot the criminal in the leg.”
This question, which is usually a suggestion, usually betrays a lifetime of TV and movie brainwashing, coupled with an absolute lack of training and experience.
What if it’s not a completely stupid question? Is it possible – just possible – that in certain, very specific situations, possibly much like the Georgia Tech shooting, an officer could try a limb shot instead of shooting center mass?
It would not be easy, nor would it take the place of available intermediate weapons like beanbag shotguns. The idea would also, right off the bat, have to overcome two major problems:
- People like those I described above who know nothing about lethal force encounters will assume police should always aim for a limb, and.
- Cops who will have a knee-jerk reaction against the very suggestion that officers should ever aim anywhere other than center mass, for any reason whatsoever.
Those not in law enforcement might not understand how strong police resistance to the idea of limb shots will be, and the unreasonableness of some of that resistance. Police agencies are stone-age bureaucracies highly resistant to change and overrun with liability concerns. That combination of institutional inertia and irrational worry has led some agencies to ban the smartest recent tactical innovations (things like weapon lights and red-dot sights), until leadership was dragged out of the 1970s and forced to accept those tools and the incredible advantages they give us.
Irrational liability concerns have led police officers to literally warn other officers not to carry tourniquets or trauma kits, because “…you can get sued if you try to treat someone and they die, but you can’t get sued if you just call for EMS because that’s all we’re required to do.” Irrational liability concern led one agency I’m familiar with to destroy just-expired body armor rather than honor a request from an American police officer in Iraq to donate them to the Iraqi police, because, “…if an expired vest fails and an Iraqi officer gets hurt they could sue us in the international courts.” I’m willing to bet a trillion dollars that most police supervisors will immediately reject the idea of limb shots because “…shooting someone in the leg just means they’ll sue us.”
Some of that resistance makes sense, of course. Cops know better than most that guns aren’t magic wands, bullets aren’t frickin’ laser beams, and a limb shot isn’t a guaranteed solution to a problem. Police know that the best method for stopping a threat is shooting center mass. That’s almost the only place you can hit anyway, and in any dynamic situation (i.e., with a running or charging suspect) there is almost zero chance of anyone actually making a limb shot. Cops know that any training to shoot limbs at all will be weaponized against law enforcement in courts of law and public opinion.
That’s where the reasonable resistance to limb shots will come from.
So let’s be clear, particularly with regard to fellow cops. I’m not suggesting we should try for a limb shot in all, most, or even 10% of shootings.
I’ve been a cop for decades. I’m well aware that a limb shot is impractical or impossible in the vast majority of police shootings. I know that in any dynamic, volatile situation a limb shot would be not only impossible but actually in the realm of fantasy. What I’m suggesting is that maybe we should consider developing a protocol for limb shooting only if several specific circumstances or conditions exist. I’ll go into those shortly.
As mentioned previously, a “limb shot protocol” could be another tool anti-cop types unjustifiably use against LEOs. It’s not the least bit difficult to imagine a Cop Blocker shrieking to the nearest camera, “That cop was trained to do limb shots, but he still shot that poor innocent AK-armed active shooter in the chest instead of the leg!”
Of course, anti-cop types would expect us to always shoot for the leg, even if the suspect is an ISIS terrorist sprinting down the street firing a flamethrower into school buses. Anti-cop people are going to accuse us of doing the wrong thing/committing murder/using excessive force and or generally being evil in pretty much every single case, so who cares what they think?
You know whose opinions we should care about, though? Regular people who have the reasonable belief that police should try to avoid killing certain suspects, if at all possible. Those regular people understand that not everyone who goes temporarily crazy, or gets stoned and grabs a knife, is evil incarnate. We don’t want to push the reasonable, caring public into the anti-cop fold. One way to keep them on our side is to open our minds, approach a problem from a new angle, and maybe try something that makes them say, “Hey man, those officers really tried not to hurt that crazy guy with a knife. They did their best.”
But before we talk about the possibility of limb shots, we need to discuss the reality of knives, guns and gunshot wounds.
What you’ve seen on TV and in movies probably has no relation whatsoever to what actually happens in knife attacks or gunfights. Bullet impacts don’t make people fly through the air. A knife to the stomach doesn’t instantly kill someone. Chest shots aren’t always fatal, and shoulder wounds aren’t always harmless. People can get shot or stabbed multiple times, even sustain wounds they can’t possibly survive, but stay on their feet and keep killing people. A person can be stabbed, or shot, and not even know it. A head shot at close range might not immediately kill someone, or might not even kill them at all.
Maybe most importantly, knife attacks are far faster and more brutal than most people realize. Here’s video of one from overseas:
One important thing to understand is that an attacker with a knife can murder someone even after he is shot. If you think bullets always put a suspect down or makes them stop their attack, you’re wrong.
That’s not just my opinion. You’re objectively wrong.
Here’s one example. A suspect in Mexico stabs multiple cops, killing one (who was armed with an AK), and keeps attacking after being shot. The action starts around 7:15.
And here’s another one. A French MMA fighter in Bali stabs a police officer to death, even after being shot. Note that not only did the MMA fighter keep attacking after multiple gunshot wounds, but the police officer who died managed to get up and walk away after being mortally wounded.
Incidents like the ones in these videos should completely explain why officers are averse to the whole, “In order to save this criminal’s life, I’ll take a chance and give him the opportunity to stab me” thing. Considering how bad stab wounds and knife attacks can really be, it’s not reasonable to demand that we risk getting stabbed in order to keep the stabber safe.
Now let’s talk marksmanship.
There are plenty of cops who can easily make a shot on a limb-sized target from a safe distance – ON A STERILE RANGE. Shooting an actual limb in real-world conditions is a different matter. When you inject movement, reduced light, fatigue/labored breathing after a foot pursuit or fight, bystanders in close proximity, and/or multiple other factors, that simple shot on a limb becomes much more difficult. Anyone who thinks a limb shot would always be easy is living on another planet. A limb shot is possible in some situations, not easy.
Let’s also acknowledge a little-appreciated fact: a leg shot might still kill you.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leg shot kill someone in a movie, but in real life they regularly do. Bullets into a leg can deflect upward off bone, enter the abdomen, and cause lethal damage to vital organs. More likely, a bullet can sever the femoral artery or bounce into the super-vascular pelvic region and cause massive, lethal bleeding.
Watch this video from Iran. A police officer shoots a robber in the leg at :33, and at 1:13. Only forty seconds later, the robber is already unconscious from blood loss and probably shock.
Here’s another, where a man “just shot in the arm and leg” by soldiers in another country (no, not American soldiers) bleeds out and dies in a very short time.
So we’ve established a few things:
- Knife attacks are freaking dangerous;
- In real life it’s hard as hell to make a limb shot; and
- Even if a cop successfully makes a limb shot, it might still kill the suspect.
So with all that in mind, does it ever make sense to try for a limb shot?
I think it does, but only in very specific situations similar to what officers faced at Georgia Tech.
For the record, I am NOT criticizing those officers for this clear case of suicide by cop. The student they killed had made previous suicide attempts, left suicide notes, called the police and reported that someone who matched his description was armed with a knife *and a gun*, ignored multiple lawful and reasonable orders, and repeatedly approached officers with a knife in his hand while the officers were backing away and trying to communicate with him. In the Georgia Tech case one officer fired one shot, an incredibly well-controlled application of lethal force; even so, that one shot hit a troubled, suicidal student’s heart and killed him. I’m pretty sure the officers involved followed their training and did everything by the book, but let’s consider adding a new chapter to that book. Let’s maybe end up with a live student with a leg wound, instead of a dead student now known to have been severely troubled and suicidal.
Based on the video and what I’ve read, the Georgia Tech incident checks most of the blocks I consider necessary for executing a limb shot:
- A numerical advantage over the suspect. An officer would only attempt a limb shot if he had at least one officer covering the suspect with a weapon, ready to apply lethal force if the limb shot fails and the suspect charges. (Note: this is similar to an extant protocol in which a lethal-armed officer provides overwatch to an officer preparing to deploy less lethal measures, ed.)
- A relatively stable scene without a rapidly-moving suspect. A limb shot on a rapidly-moving suspect is pretty much a fantasy. But a suspect who is, for example, backed against a wall holding a knife over his head but not moving, wouldn’t be too difficult to shoot in a limb from a safe distance.
- A lack of bystanders in close proximity. Awareness of backstop and beyond is one of the basic firearm safety rules, and is a concern in any police shooting. But since the likelihood of a miss increases as the target size decreases, a clear backstop is more of a concern when an officer is attempting a limb shot than when aiming center mass.
- The presence of at least one officer who’s not winded or otherwise fatigued. Most cops aren’t marathon runners, and the exertion of a fight or foot pursuit will cause a heart and respiration rate spike in most officers. A heavy-breathing, heart-pounding cop who just chased and fought a suspect but then backed off when the suspect pulled a knife isn’t the right guy to try a limb shot.
- A suspect who’s not a possible terrorist with a bomb. If it’s a London Bridge-type attack with terrorist car rammers who run down the sidewalk stabbing people while wearing what look like suicide bomb belts, shoot them in the head repeatedly until they’re incapable of setting the bomb off. If they turn out to be fake bombs like in London, that’s not LE’s fault or problem. A limb shot is for use against a suspect who is probably a threat to himself more than anyone else, not for a terror suspect who might blow himself up.
To recap: in a situation where multiple officers, including one who’s calm, are facing a stationary or slowly-moving non-terrorist suspect armed with an edged or impact weapon, and there are no bystanders in the immediate area, I think it’s both reasonable and possible to make a limb shot (especially if an officer on the scene has a carbine). A successful limb shot could still kill the suspect, but it’s an attempt to neutralize the threat and protect the suspect’s life.
I know what some readers will say, because I’ve already seen similar responses to articles about the Georgia Tech shooting: “So the cops killed that dumb kid with a knife, but that’s what he wanted anyway. Who cares?”
We cops should care.
More than almost anyone else in society, we should understand that some people have problems that lead them to do irrational things. We should know that some problems can be handled without deadly force, even if deadly force is legal or authorized. We should care about even the troubled members of the public we’re sworn to protect, including those like my autistic son, who might seem like a threat but maybe aren’t. We should care when we legally shoot and kill someone, then find out the threat they presented wasn’t what it seemed and they could have been brought under control a different way.
Despite how it may seem, the public doesn’t expect cops to be perfect. But it expects us to care, and to do everything we reasonably can to avoid killing people who aren’t actively trying to kill us. Shooting a kid in the leg while he’s very slowly walking toward us with a knife is reasonable, and I think it’s way past time we started training to do it.
Or at least talking about it.
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About the Author: Chris Hernandez, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of Tacos Are Racist, Females in the Infantry – Yes Actually, The Military Within the Military, and several other delightfully opinionated bloviations. He has also penned several modern military fiction novels, including Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page right here on Amazon.