By David Klinger, Associate Professor, University of Missouri–St. Louis; and Senior Fellow, the Police Foundation
he U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance recently launched the Preventing Violence against Law Enforcement and Ensuring Officer Resilience and Survivability (VALOR) program, an initiative designed to enhance the safety of police officers around the United States. The VALOR program has many moving parts, including a research endeavor in which the author of this article conducts interviews of police officers who have been involved in incidents in which they or other officers discharged their firearms against suspects. As of February 2012, 198 officers in 11 states had been interviewed; data collection is scheduled to stop after 20 or so additional interviews have been completed.
The shootings covered in the interviews included a wide variety of incident types that played themselves out in a wide variety of ways: Some shootings occurred at the termination points of vehicle pursuits; some occurred during standoffs between armed suspects and special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams; some happened during domestic dispute calls; some took place while officers were off duty; some were running gun battles; some involved a single shot; some of the officers interviewed were shot or otherwise notably injured during the events they recounted; and in some of the incidents discussed, other officers were seriously injured or murdered.
During the interviews, participating officers filled out two questionnaires that sought detailed information about the circumstances of the shooting incidents (for example, the number of suspects involved, the number of officers present, and the number of rounds officers fired); what they experienced during the incident (for example, thoughts, perceptual distortions, physical reactions); and other factors (for example, the type of agency the officer worked for, the officer’s age, and the number of years of service). Participating officers also sat for audio-recorded question-and-answer (Q and A) sessions in which they provided detailed accounts of the incidents in which they were involved, including specifics about the sorts of things they reported experiencing on the questionnaires (for example, what they were focused on if they reported tunnel vision and what was muted or unheard if they reported auditory occlusion).
During the Q and A portion of the interview, officers also were asked to provide an assessment of the lessons that other officers might learn from the shootings in which they were involved. This portion of the interview typically included some back-and-forth among the officers and the interviewer about specific tactics that the officers and other police personnel present at the incident employed. This article provides a discussion of one specific aspect of the tactical lessons learned so far from the VALOR interviews; that is, what officers can do to enhance their safety and the safety of other officers in situations where suspects have been taken under gunfire and may be injured or incapacitated. For simplicity’s sake, such individuals will be referred to as “downed suspects” in this article.
All of the lessons presented in this article flow from the following dictum: Just because officers have stopped pulling the trigger does not mean that an officerinvolved shooting is over. This is so for the simple reasons that
- police gunfire is sometimes not accurate,
- human beings are remarkably resilient when it comes to surviving gunshot wounds, and
- the individual or individuals that officers take under gunfire are not always the only threat or threats present in incidents in which officers discharge their firearms.
Because suspects taken under police gunfire might continue to fight back, because they might not be wounded, or because any wounds they have suffered might not have incapacitated them—and because people aside from those whom officers shoot at might pose a threat—officers need to be prepared to properly manage the moments immediately following cessation of police gunfire.
The following lessons are offered to provide officers with some ideas about how to proceed in the immediate aftermath of a shooting, should they find themselves involved in one.
The initial lesson is really a general tip that provides an umbrella under which most of the others fall: Do not be in a hurry to approach a downed suspect after shots have been fired. It makes sense to secure downed suspects—and separate from them any weapons they might have—and these tasks cannot be done without getting into physical contact with a suspect, but it is typically not the wisest course of action to expose oneself to unnecessary danger in order to do so. In a related matter, police officers have an affirmative obligation to see that citizens they shoot receive timely medical attention. Because medical attention cannot be delivered remotely, officers need to reach suspects before they can be attended to medically. This imperative, however, does not take precedence over fundamental officer safety. As the old saying goes, safety first; so, when a suspect goes down after being taken under gunfire by the police, officers do not need to move up to secure and render aid to a suspect until it is safe to do so.
Many officers that were interviewed, however, stated that as soon as the suspect they or fellow officers shot at went down, they—and, when present, other officers—rushed to the suspect’s location and sought to physically control the suspect. While none of the officers interviewed suffered any injuries at the hands of suspects, the fact that a large portion of the officers interviewed rushed to downed suspects highlights the need to remind officers that doing so is dangerous. It is likely a far better tactical practice to slow down and take however much time is necessary to create a means to safely approach and take into custody the suspect or suspects. This is what officers in several other shootings did. Consideration of some of the incidents related during the interviews quickly identifies several specific things that officers can—and should—do to reduce the risks inherent in dealing with downed suspects.
Lesson 1: Make sure you have sufficient officers to make a safe approach. It is never safe to approach a downed suspect by oneself, and it is often unsafe to approach downed suspects with just a pair of officers. In some cases, moreover, it is not safe to approach a downed suspect even with several officers on scene, and there are times when special equipment is needed to make a safe approach—and even then, “safe” is a relative term.
The principle that officers should wait until they have sufficient personnel before moving toward a downed suspect is illustrated by a case in which two officers who were interviewed took on an active shooter who just murdered a woman and fled into a building occupied by many innocent citizens. The officers went inside to locate the suspect and prevent him from harming any additional innocents. Upon reaching the bottom of a set of stairs, they spotted the offender at the top, standing on a landing. When the offender pointed his shotgun at the officers, he was taken under fire and fell on the landing in a fashion where the officers could see very little of his body from their location at the bottom of the stairs. Because most of the offender’s body was not visible from their position, the two officers involved in the shooting opted to hold their ground until other officers arrived on scene. After several other officers arrived, some of them formed a contact team, approached the offender, and took him safely into custody.
Lesson 2: Develop a plan to take the suspect into custody before moving to do so. No matter how many officers are on the scene, it is imperative that no one approaches to take the downed offender into custody until there is a plan in place for how this will be done. In the aforementioned case, the plan developed positioned the officers who first confronted the suspect at the bottom of the stairs while other officers moved up to deal with the suspect. One of the officers the author interviewed stated that in retrospect, the plan was suboptimal because it required the contact team to move directly up the stairway where the offender was located. In contrast, an approach in which the officers were on the same level as the offender—that is, positioning the officers on the landing via another route and then moving to the suspect—would have been safer. And while this officer is almost certainly correct, the plan developed and instituted did address some important considerations that officers should incorporate into any plan for dealing with a downed suspect. These matters are addressed in the additional lessons that follow.
Lesson 3: Make sure every officer on the scene is aware of at least the basics of whatever plan is developed. This is critical because all officers who are not tasked with approaching the suspect need to know that other officers will be doing so. If they do not, they might be caught off guard and find themselves working at cross-purposes with the other officers, covering the other officers with the muzzles of their weapons, or both. This leads to the next lesson.
Lesson 4: Avoid cross fire situations. Unfortunately, several of the officers interviewed reported that they found themselves or other officers in tactically untenable situations after a suspect was down where, if deadly force was again necessary, they and other officers would have had to hold their fire or risk shooting one or more of their peers. Therefore, all plans for dealing with downed suspects must include the sound placement of officers so that cross fires are avoided. In the active shooter incident mentioned in Lesson 1, cross fire was avoided by placing an officer with a rifle at a 90-degree angle to the approaching contact team. The notion of avoiding cross fire situations leads to another lesson.
Lesson 5: Identify designated lethal cover officers and have all other officers take other roles in the post-shooting environment. In situations where just two officers are present and it is otherwise safe to approach the suspect, for example, one officer will have to holster a weapon to go hands on with the suspect while the other officer maintains lethal cover. As the number of officers present increases, the mechanics change somewhat but the principle remains the same. Perhaps two officers will be designated as an arrest team, and a pair of other officers will be designated to maintain lethal cover. But, in most circumstances, one gun or two guns are enough. Consequently, once the number of officers present exceeds four or five, there is typically no need for all officers who are not assigned to the arrest team to be ready to shoot.
The problem here is illustrated by a case in which a downed suspect was confronted by about a dozen officers following a running gun battle. The suspect made a move that several officers interpreted as threatening, and each of these officers fired. Fortunately, no officers were struck by stray rounds, but not all of the rounds the officers fired found their mark and not all of the rounds that did hit the mark stayed in the suspect’s body. Because the potential for police officer injury or innocent citizens being struck goes up as the number of officers who fire increases—and also because at some point the number of shots fired becomes overkill—it is advisable to limit the number of shooters by assigning lethal cover responsibility to a small number of officers (typically one or two). And this, in turn, leads to the next lesson.
Lesson 6: Someone usually needs to take command. When the number of officers present is small—say, two or three—and it is safe to approach the downed suspect—say, because the suspect has fallen in plain view in the middle of the street—the officers can agree on a plan among themselves about who is going to do what. Once the number of officers present grows above three or four, however, it becomes difficult to coordinate officers’ actions, so having someone take command becomes necessary. Command in such situations does not need to be determined by rank. One officer on scene might have more tactical experience than a superior officer, or one might have particular knowledge of the offender, the circumstances of the shooting, the location where it took place, and so forth. Whatever the case, once command has been established, it is imperative that the commander runs the show (for example, supervises the development of the plan, assigns whatever roles are needed for the situation, and ensures that the plan has been communicated to all officers present) until the suspect or suspects have been taken into custody.
Lesson 7: Move weapons the suspect possessed from the suspect’s reach. If the suspect falls and the weapon or weapons the suspect possessed at the time the officers fired are within the suspect’s reach, then the weapons should generally be moved, but only as far away as is necessary to prevent the suspect from reacquiring the weapon. Moving weapons out of suspects’ reach enhances the safety of officers present with minimal disruption of the crime scene, which the detectives who will be investigating the incident will appreciate. It is important to remember that the sole purpose of moving a suspect’s weapon in the immediate aftermath of a shooting is officer safety. It should be left to the personnel who will be investigating the shooting to recover suspects’ weapons. Moving weapons from the reach of suspects, but not recovering them, precludes suspects from quickly rearming themselves in the moments between when the contacting officer or officers reach the suspect and the suspect is taken into custody. This point leads to the next lesson.
Lesson 8: Handcuff all downed suspects. Some officers might feel that it is not nice to handcuff suspects that have been shot, and others might believe that it is unnecessary to cuff all suspects because some are “obviously” dead. Counted among the suspects shot during incidents that officers reported during the VALOR interviews were some who appeared to be dead—for example, from multiple rifle rounds to the head—but who were still alive. As noted in the introduction, some human beings have a remarkable capacity to survive gunshot wounds. Fortunately, none of the thoughtdead offenders managed to injure any officers interviewed, but the fact that they were still alive meant that they maintained the capacity to do so. The capacity of downed suspects is hindered substantially when they are cuffed. No matter how severely injured they might be, therefore, all downed suspects should be handcuffed. This concept leads to the next lesson.
Lesson 9: Thoroughly search all downed suspects after they have been cuffed. Handcuffing greatly restricts the capacity of a downed suspect to harm officers. But it does not eliminate it, for handcuffed suspects can still retrieve and use deadly weapons they may have concealed. It is vitally important, therefore, that officers remember to thoroughly search all downed suspects after cuffing them. Just because the deadly weapon that the officer saw in the suspect’s hand when the officer shot the suspect has been secured does not mean that the suspect does not have a second, or a third, or a fourth weapon. Indeed, several of the officers interviewed faced suspects who were armed with multiple weapons. Consequently, searches of all downed suspects must be continued until officers have cleared the entire body of the suspect and are confident that they have found all of the weapons that the suspect brought to the fight. This notion of continuing to search also applies to searching for people.
Lesson 10: Search the area for additional suspects. Just as many suspects carry weapons aside from those that are visible, many incidents involve suspects aside from those of which officers are aware. The fact that officers involved in a shooting are aware of one, two, or three suspects does not mean that these are the only suspects present. The officers interviewed related several cases in which they were not aware of additional suspects that were present during a shooting. In some cases, officers located these suspects during post-shooting searches of the sort recommended in this article. In others, the officers became aware of the suspects only after the officers had let their guard down. One officer, for example, stated that it was only after she had approached and secured a suspect she had shot inside a location that she realized there was a second suspect present—one she actually walked past who was seated in plain view as she moved toward the person she shot. Fortunately, the second suspect remained passive, but the officer would have been an easy target had this individual wanted to harm her. That the officer in this case walked past a clearly visible suspect leads to the next lesson.
Lesson 11: Be aware that perceptual distortions can be clouding understanding of the event. The introduction of this article mentioned that the officers who were interviewed were asked questions about any perceptual distortions they may have experienced. These questions covered three distinct time periods during shooting events: prior to the initiation of police gunfire, as officers were shooting, and after police gunfire had ceased. The officer who walked past a suspect in plain view reported that she had experienced an extreme case of tunnel vision in which her peripheral vision was essentially nonexistent both while she was shooting and once she ceased firing. She thus walked past a clearly visible suspect because she simply did not see the person. The vast majority of the 198 officers thus far interviewed reported experiencing tunnel vision, diminished hearing, or both at some time during the incidents they related to the interviewer. Because officers typically do not process visual and auditory information during shootings as they normally would, it is important to realize in the immediate wake of gunfire that officers might not have all the relevant information that will permit them to invoke the appropriate postshooting safety procedures. What this suggests is that officers should consider taking a moment or two to assess the state of their vision and hearing before they move on to dealing with downed suspects. If they do not, officers might miss some information that is critical to the task of safely dealing with the immediate aftermath of a shooting.
Lesson 12: Do not hesitate to request specialized assets if the situation calls for doing so. When suspects have fallen out of sight, retreated into a building, ducked down in a vehicle, or are otherwise not visible and do not comply with orders to surrender, it might well be time to consider calling for the assistance of a SWAT team to deal with the situation. SWAT teams have specialized training, equipment, and other capabilities for dealing with barricaded suspects that are well suited for dealing with suspects who have been taken under fire and are not visible or are only partially visible. When downed suspects who are partially or completely hidden from view fail to respond to verbal commands to surrender or claim they cannot comply with orders due to injuries, it may be wise to consider requesting SWAT assets. If SWAT is mobilized, team members can determine—or help to determine, depending on how an agency’s command and control system vis-à-vis SWAT operates—how to proceed to safely get the downed suspect into custody.
One example from the VALOR interviews of the utility of calling for SWAT came from a situation in which a suspect inside a vehicle shot an officer at the termination point of a pursuit and multiple officers returned fire. The suspect hunkered down in the front-seat area of the vehicle and would not comply with officers’ commands to surrender. Rather than approach the suspect vehicle, the officers present decided to call for SWAT. Once SWAT arrived, they utilized an armored vehicle and other equipment to take the suspect into custody with no further injuries to any officers.
Whether to call for SWAT assistance in dealing with a downed suspect is often a judgment call—one that is dependent on a variety of situational contingencies, a full discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article. There is one sort of situation, however, where it is clearly mandatory that special assets be requested to deal with a downed suspect. This is when the suspect has displayed an explosive device, the suspect has claimed to possess explosives, or the situation is such that any reasonable police officer would believe the suspect might have explosives (for example, intelligence indicates that the suspect possesses explosives). In such cases, officers on the scene of shootings must hold fast, keep their distance from the downed suspect, and call for the assistance of a bomb squad.
The VALOR interviews included two cases in which officers had to deal with situations of these sorts. In one, two officers shot a suspect who was brandishing a hand grenade in public and wearing what appeared to be an improvised explosive device across his chest. In the other, a single officer shot a suspect who claimed to have wired his house with explosives. In both cases, the officers on the scene held their positions and called for their agencies’ bomb squads. The bomb squad officers who responded were able to handle the incidents with no injuries to any police officers. The idea of calling for additional assistance in order to deal with a downed suspect leads to one, final lesson.
Lesson 13: When requesting assistance to deal with a downed suspect, tell the officers who will be responding where you want them to deploy and provide information about a safe route in. Whether it is the bomb squad, a SWAT team, or simply additional nonspecialized personnel, when officers dealing with a downed suspect call for the assistance of other officers, it is imperative that the responding officers know precisely where they are to go and how to approach this location without placing themselves in danger from a downed suspect. One interviewed officer who shot a suspect that fell in the street in front of his squad car, for example, radioed for responding officers to come up behind him so as to avoid other routes that would expose them to gunfire. In sum, by providing deployment location and information about a safe route in, requesting officers will both protect their fellow officers and ensure that the assistance they requested gets to them.
The presentation of the thirteen lessons detailed above is brief. Individual agencies may have specific protocols, procedures, or other rules that would require some tweaking of what was presented here. For example, some agencies might not let a patrol officer dictate where a SWAT officer will deploy, some might require that a supervisor make the request for a bomb squad, and so on. Whatever the case, keeping the aforementioned lessons in mind should help officers who find themselves in shootings to properly manage the critical moments that pass between the time the last police shot is fired and the time all suspects are secured. ■
This project was supported by grant number 2010-BD-BX-K163 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the SMART Office, and the Office of Victims of Crime. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. For more information on the VALOR program, visit www.valorforblue.org.
Please cite as:
David Klinger, "Dealing with Downed Suspects: Some Lessons from the VALOR Project about How to Properly Manage the Immediate Aftermath of Officer-Involved Shootings," The Police Chief 79 (May 2012): 24–29.