Ready, Fire, Aim: The Science Behind Police Shooting Bystanders

A Saturday incident in Times Square showed yet again that even highly trained police are not always accurate marksmen

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Tamar Auber / Demotix / Corbis

The corner of 42nd and 8th after a shooting near Times Square, New York, Sept. 14, 2013.

On Saturday night in New York City’s Times Square, police opened fire on a man who was walking erratically into oncoming traffic and, when approached by law enforcement, reached into his pocket as if he were grabbing a weapon. The officers fired three shots. One hit a 54-year-old woman in the knee and another grazed a 35-year-old woman’s buttocks. None hit the suspect, whom police subsequently subdued with a taser.

While incidents of police shooting bystanders are uncommon, they shouldn’t surprise New Yorkers (or anyone else) when they happen. Just last year, New York police injured nine onlookers in the course of responding to a murder suspect near the Empire State Building. As police chased the man through rush hour crowds, he fired at the cops; they returned 16 shots, hitting the man 10 times. That actually counted as accurate shooting for the NYPD.

According to a 2008 RAND Corporation study evaluating the New York Police Department’s firearm training, between 1998 and 2006, the average hit rate during gunfights was just 18 percent. When suspects did not return fire, police officers hit their targets 30 percent of the time.

The data show what any police officer who has ever been involved in a shooting can tell you–firing accurately in a stressful situation is extremely hard. In an article for TIME last year, Amanda Ripley looked what happens in the brain and body when shots are fired. The brain stem sends out signals that cause blood vessels to constrict and hormones to surge. Studies have shown that eyesight becomes narrower (literally tunnel vision) under such conditions. People who have been in gunfights describe hearing very little and perceieve time slowing down. Amid this chaos, as police officers have to make difficult, split-second decisions, humans can lose motor skills as the body reverts to basic fight or flight instincts.

Overcoming those natural reactions is the goal of rigorous training. Many police departments focus on decision-making as much as marksmanship, helping officers to decide in an instant whether to fire their weapon. Instructors will show targets–both good and bad guys–for only a split second, then score officers on their choices as well as their accuracy. The goal is to inoculate officers against the stress, allowing them to experience what a chaotic situation will feel like before they face the real thing.

The NYPD has some of the most comprehensive and sophisticated firearms training of any police force in the country, using a combination of live fire, non-lethal force and simulated scenarios. But on Saturday, that apparently wasn’t enough for the officers involved to land even a single bullet where they intended.

2 comments
GeorgeB
GeorgeB

These are mostly valid points, however; the real cause of our police officers accidentally shooting innocent bystanders is the most powerful, yet fatally flawed tool on our officers' belts. 

The powers that be have decided that despite comprehensive officer training, the Glock pistols that are issued to officers must have a special feature which causes the trigger, at best,  to be difficult to manipulate. Technically speaking, NYPD substitutes a heavier spring in the pistol which doubles the effort required to pull the trigger than that of the rest of the US and world's military and police. Professional shooters and marksmen often alter the trigger to make it easier to pull and thus more accurate. 

Obviously making it harder to pull the trigger in a deadly encounter is a huge handicap to our officer's. The reason is somewhere along the line somebody decided they'd have less "accidental" shootings if the trigger was harder. But when the officer's we depend on to save our lives more often than not shoot innocent bystanders instead of the threat, put the blame squarely where it deserves to be. There's even a name for it; Glock N.Y.1 and Glock N.Y.2 triggers.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@GeorgeB that is true about the glock  issues with NYPD. at LAPD there is no such problem for two reasons, one LAPd does not mess with the trigger. 2nd LAPD is much better trained the NYPD reference to how many times a year and what it takes to qualify on the range. LAPD shoots  someone almost on a daily basis very few innocent bystanders have been hit over the past 25 years. The officers in New York had to many people around to be firing the way they did. tasers would have been effective and less of a chance of innocents being wounded or killed.


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