Cop Kills Elderly Woman–What Can We Learn?
It finally happened. Last week a police officer killed a civilian during a “shoot/don’t shoot” training demonstration in Punta Gorda, Florida. The officer apparently picked up a live weapon instead of a training weapon, and shot a civilian attending a citizens’ police academy. Depending on which article you read, the officer either shot her once or several times.
In an ironic twist, the victim, 73 year-old retired librarian Mary Knowlton, was attending the citizens’ police academy in an effort to show support for police. Knowlton’s son said, “Our society needs [police] and people are human and they make mistakes, but that’s why she went there.” I don’t know if the officer who killed her used the wrong weapon or somehow got one live round into a weapon loaded with blanks. If multiple shots were fired, I really don’t get it; live rounds don’t sound or feel like blanks, and that difference should have been felt on the first shot.
However it happened, a real gun with at least one real round wound up in a training area, pointed at a civilian. From my perspective as a police officer who once instructed tactical training classes with Simunition pistols (which fire sub-caliber marking rounds made of soap that sting but don’t really hurt), it’s mind-boggling that a disaster of such magnitude could happen.
Actually, I should say it’s mind-boggling that it happened again. Several years ago a Missouri police officer shot fellow officer Dan De Kraai with what he thought was a training gun. “[De Kraai] was curious about what it felt like to be hit with a Sim round, so he persuaded his friend to shoot him in the back.” The gun, of course, turned out to be live, and De Kraai died.
Then I found this article, which lists 14 incidents where officers were killed or wounded by live rounds during training. The article is from 2005. Who knows what the number of negligent shootings during training exercises is now.
As a soldier, I was often aggravated to the point of disgust with the Army’s safety overreach. I thought, and still think, it’s amazingly stupid for soldiers to yell “safety kill!” instead of firing a blank at another soldier ten feet away. I just about had a stroke when some colonel in charge of a training site refused to let my unit train with Simunition rounds because “they’re just too dangerous to shoot at people.” But I’m 100% for overly strict safety rules at police training exercises.
Why the difference? Because cops always carry live rounds and loaded weapons. In a garrison environment, soldiers rarely do. The military carefully controls ammo distribution and use, but cops have live rounds and weapons 24/7. It’s relatively difficult to get live ammo mixed with blanks in the military, but it’s easy to get live rounds into live weapons in a police training exercise.
Here are a few rules we followed while conducting Simunition training in my department. These aren’t my rules, and they’re nothing that shouldn’t occur to the average person. But some agencies obviously don’t follow them, even though they all should.
1) KEEP LIVE WEAPONS OUT OF THE DEDICATED ADMIN AND TRAINING AREAS
Officers are welcome to carry live weapons in a classroom environment. But once scenarios begin, weapons must be secured in a vehicle or designated room. Instructors set a dedicated administrative area where students are issued training weapons and ammo and given instructions. Instructors also set dedicated training areas where scenarios are actually run. Access to the administrative area should be restricted to one external point of entry and exit, and anyone coming into the admin area must be searched for live weapons. Instructors are searched as well. Training areas should only be accessed from the admin area.
Why do we search cops coming into the admin area? Because it’s common for cops to forget a knife in their boot, or even a backup gun in a vest. No, it’s not likely an officer would pull a knife or backup gun in a scenario. But I’ve seen officers get so wired during sim scenarios they shot role players who were already shot and on the ground because “he’s still breathing!”; we then had to explain that you don’t shoot a suspect just because he’s still breathing, and that the role player was still breathing because he wasn’t really dead. My point is that officers getting shot at in training sometimes forget it’s not real, and combining live weapons with adrenaline-charged students is an invitation to disaster.
Are you concerned that a bunch of unarmed cops are an attractive target, and don’t feel comfortable being defenseless during a training exercise? Yeah, me too. To alleviate this reasonable worry, leave one officer armed with a live weapon in the secured area, but keep him completely out of the actual training areas. He can help with admin tasks, but that’s it.
2) USE TRAINING WEAPONS THAT ARE VISIBLY DISTINCT FROM LIVE WEAPONS
The Simunition pistols we used had bright blue frames. Any weapon in the training area without a bright blue frame would have immediately stood out. We had one real weapon in training scenarios, a revolver we’d use to fire blanks. The blanks were only to orient students toward a threat (i.e., firing rounds in an out-of-sight classroom while a team was moving down a hallway and unaware of a suspect’s location) or force students to take action (i.e., firing blanks in room full of simulated hostages to push officers to make entry). The revolver was never pointed at anyone, it was just a noisemaker and only fired toward the floor; even so, it was still distinctly marked with blue tape.
3) USE TRAINING WEAPONS THAT CAN ONLY ACCEPT TRAINING ROUNDS
Our Simunition guns had a fantastic safety feature: they couldn’t be loaded with live ammo. The magazines wouldn’t accept them, the chambers wouldn’t fit them, and the barrels were too narrow for them. There was no danger of accidentally loading a training gun with a live round.
Of course, sim guns are expensive. Many departments can’t afford them, and instead can only afford blanks. Blanks won’t cycle a semiauto, so police departments like Punta Gorda, Florida, use blanks in revolvers. Those revolvers can be loaded with live ammo by a careless instructor or student, and tragedy ensues.
One recent news story about the Punta Gorda shooting quoted a police instructor who said the revolver used to kill Mary Knowlton should have been fitted with adapters that would fit in the cylinder and only accept blanks; I could only find one such adapter online, and that one converts a .45 Long Colt to fire .22 blanks (or .22 Acorn, which seems to be a rare but real round I’d never heard of that hopefully wouldn’t just happen to show up at a training exercise). Assuming the worst case and those are really the only adapters available, I’d think most police department could either dig up old confiscated .45 Long Colt revolvers or buy cheap beat-up .45 LCs, add cylinder converters, mark them with blue tape and make them dedicated training weapons.
Or departments could buy adapters for revolvers directly from Simunition. These adapters are better than blank adapters because they allow .38 and .357 revolvers to fire sims, but won’t let real ammo into the cylinder. Revolvers with sim adapters could be marked and set aside as dedicated training weapons, never to be used with live ammo.
But even then…
4) TRAINING WEAPONS AND AMMO MUST BE CONTROLLED BY INSTRUCTORS, NOT STUDENTS
Officer De Kraai was killed partly because a fellow officer maintained control of a training weapon outside the training area, then mistook his live weapon for the training weapon. In our training scenarios, we maintained control of all training weapons, loaded them ourselves, issued them to students right before they began a training scenario and took them back as soon as the scenario ended. Students weren’t allowed to wander freely with a training weapon. Allowing officers to control the training weapons and take them outside the admin or training areas leads to situations like this, listed in one of the above-linked articles:
“A Texas police corporal was shot by a fellow instructor in the head during active-shooter response training at a local junior high school. All of the officers involved were wearing helmets and vests and were not supposed to have live ammunition. After a lunch break, the corporal and another instructor were demonstrating a drill to other officers when the instructor’s weapon discharged, striking the corporal in the head with a live round. The instructor had pulled his own loaded 9mm semiautomatic handgun from his holster which he reloaded when he went to lunch. However, the weapon was not unloaded again when he returned to the training, causing this fatality.”
This is why you follow the rules I listed. If you add live weapons into training exercises, don’t control access to admin and training areas, follow “big boy rules” and trust officers to download real weapons and ammo instead of searching them, you’re asking for a negligent shooting. Those negligent shootings don’t just kill innocent people and good cops; they cause irreparable harm to the victim’s families, the officers who negligently fire the shots, the supervisors who failed to enforce basic safety rules, and the agencies that hosted flawed, dangerous training events.
We cops are under enough pressure already. We don’t need to make things worse by killing our own or our citizens through sheer negligence. Let’s keep up the realistic, high-stress training, but let’s do it the right way.
Breach-Bang & CLEAR!
Emergency: Activate firefly, deploy green (or brown) star cluster, get your wank sock out of your ruck and stand by ’til we come get you.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (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 White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels 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 here on Tactical 16.