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Why police shoot to kill, not to wound

ONE of the ideas advanced by some people is that our policemen under President Duterte’s administration have become so ruthless that they shoot illegal drug suspects to kill, when they should just fire their guns to disable or wound them.

I am surprised that the idea seems to have gained some traction. In a recent conversation with former President Fidel Ramos, a soldier most of his life and the founder of the Army Special Forces, he said that he strongly suggested to Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa that he issue an order to all policemen to aim their guns at criminals’ legs, and shoot only to disable.

That seems to be a logical suggestion. The problem is that reality doesn’t work that way.

Police do shoot accurately only at criminals’ hands (and even their guns) or at their legs—but only in the movies.

If you’ve ever fired a gun, you’d realize that it’s so different from the movies, that you can even miss a man just across the room.

When I had to train for security purposes how to use a gun when I was in government, the instructor in combat shooting would always shout at us never ever to fire only once, but to shoot three times in rapid succession.

The reason is obvious: Just a few millimeters’ deviation of the gun muzzle from the target, which almost always happens when you improperly pull (instead of squeeze) the trigger, and you miss your opponent, who of course would be defending himself to kill you, either with his own gun, or even just a knife. Your chances obviously of stopping your opponent increases when it’s second nature to fire the gun thrice, rather than just once.

So, training in combat shooting, which all policemen go through, never ever involves shooting at the arms or even the legs, which are almost always moving targets, compared to the torso, the center of which policemen are trained to aim at. Target-practice figures never include the legs but only the torso to just after the crotch, which is also a target.

SHOOTING TARGET: Why do you think legs aren’t included, and the bullseye is in the torso’s center?
SHOOTING TARGET: Why do you think legs aren’t included, and the bullseye is in the torso’s center?

This shoot-just-to-wound issue isn’t new, and had been widely debated in a few US cities, after an uproar over police fatally shooting a suspected criminal, who turned out to be unarmed. A bill was filed in New York in 2005, requiring police to “shoot-to-wound,” calleda “minimum force” bill. This would require officers to “shoot a suspect in the arm or the leg” and to use firearms “with the intent to stop, rather than kill.” The bill was withdrawn, after it was scientifically shown to be impossible to implement.

Force Science Institute
A key study by the Force Science Institute—a respected institute that scientifically studies combat situations— revealed some of the practical problems with a shoot-to-wound policy. Some of these:

• “Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. For example, an average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second. He can move his hand from his hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second. The average officer pulling the trigger as fast as he can on a Glock, one of the fastest-cycling semi-autos, requires 1/4 second to discharge each round. There is no way an officer can react, track, shoot and reliably hit a threatening suspect’s forearm or a weapon in a suspect’s hand in the time spans involved.

• “Even if the suspect held his weapon arm steady for half a second or more, an accurate hit would be highly unlikely, and in police shootings the suspect and his weapon are seldom stationary. Plus, the officer himself may be moving as he shoots.

• “The upper arms move more slowly than the lower arms and hands. But shooting at the upper arms, there’s a greater chance you’re going to hit the suspect’s brachial artery or center mass, areas with a high probability of fatality. So where does shooting only to wound come in when even areas considered by some to be ‘safe’ from fatality risk could in fact carry the same level of risk as targeting center mass?

• “Legs tend initially to move slower than arms and to maintain more static positions. However, areas of the lower trunk and upper thigh are rich with vascularity. A suspect who’s hit there can bleed out in seconds if one of the major arteries is severed, so again shooting just to wound may not result in just wounding.

• “An officer’s survival instinct may exert an overpowering influence on target selection. If your life is threatened you’re going to go for the surer thing first and worry about your assailant’s life being saved second. If a guy is running at me with a blade, the last thing I’m going to be thinking is, ‘I’m going to shoot him in the arm’. Hence, shooting for center mass is the psychological default.

• “Poor shot placement is bound to increase. Even when officers are trying to shoot center mass, they often miss. Hitting an arm or a leg on a moving suspect with surgical precision will be virtually impossible.”

Of course, we’re barking at the wrong tree if the real problem is that our policemen actually have been executing unarmed suspected criminals, as in the case of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa. The police fantastically claimed that Espinosa had a gun in his cell, which he fired against the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group officers serving a search warrant— on his jail cell run by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

Instead of this fantasy of requiring police to shoot to wound only, we as a civilized nation have to come up with practical suggestions that could prevent police from undertaking summary executions of criminal suspects. Require every raiding party –-whose operations after all are planned days in advance — to have a non-policeman record through video such encounters? Require as much as they are available, media to cover such raids?

Perhaps I’m dreaming. But I don’t think Duterte will call back his dogs of war (vs drugs) during his term. We just have to come up, as a civilized nation, with the means to restrain them from slaughtering unarmed Filipinos, even if involved in illegal drugs.

While the New York Times photo essay by Daniel Berehulak has drawn raves as an excellent piece of photo-journalism, it’s an example of how journalists often forget that they’re human beings.

If Berehulak was so aghast that the police have been slaughtering Filipinos “like animals,” as his piece was entitled, why didn’t he document exactly what police units—and what were the names of the policemen–were involved in the 57 homicide scenes he photographed? This could have helped the Commission on Human Rights or even the justice department in their investigation of these cases. Or at least just shame them.

“What I experienced in the Philippines felt like a new level of ruthlessness: police officers summarily shooting anyone suspected of dealing or even using drugs, vigilantes taking seriously Mr. Duterte’s call to ‘slaughter them all’,” he even wrote to caption his photo essay. But he didn’t even bother to try getting the names of those police officers.

Berehulak would likely win journalism awards with his photo essay. He has been plainly unethical though. He seems to think that his sole responsibility was to photograph the killing, not to protest them as a human being, which he could have done by identifying the police he claimed did the summary shootings. Professional photographers would even conclude that he used camera filters—obviously a red one in that haunting photo of a coffin with a child crying beside it—to make the scenes appear so horrible.

If Berehulak had covered the Maguindanao massacre that took the lives of 57 human beings, he would have come up with a gory photo essay, but without mentioning at all who were the suspected perpetrators and masterminds.

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