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.