Thursday, September 20, 2007

To Shoot or Not to Shoot, That’s the Question

by Lee Lofland, author of Police Procedure and Investigation

The most frequently asked question, by far, in all the seminars and workshops I've done over the years is, "Have you ever shot anyone?" The reactions I get when I say yes are varied; I've learned that people expect my answer to be no. I was once involved in an extremely violent shootout with an armed bank robber, and that day my training proved to be very effective. I survived, and the robber did not.

On any given day, a police officer may be required to use deadly force to save their own life or the life of another. In the far corners of their minds every officer wonders if they have what it takes to pull the trigger and send a tiny piece of hot lead on the path to end someone's life.

Police officers are not trained to fire warning shots, nor are they trained to shoot to wound. Those things only happen on TV and in the movies. The split second it takes to fire a warning shot may be just the amount of time the bad guy needs to kill the cop, a hostage, or an innocent bystander. The idea of shooting to wound is also unrealistic. In a tense situation, like a gunfight, a person's ability to think clearly or to aim for a precise target is diminished greatly by stress-induced tunnel vision.

Officers are trained to shoot for center mass, meaning the center of whatever target they are shooting at, be it an entire body or—in the case of a partially hidden suspect—the center of a visible extremity.

During training sessions, officers are taught to react instinctively. Their survival skills are sharpened by many repetitive exercises, much like the exercises we humans use to train our pets to sit, speak, and roll over. They spend hour after hour on the range, both in daylight and in total darkness, going through the motions of draw, point, shoot, and holster; draw, point, shoot, and holster; so that the action becomes second nature to them. It has been proven that, in stressful situations, police officers revert instantly to their training and react accordingly without thought.

Deadly force is always used as a last resort and, all too often, results not only in the death of the suspect, but also in the destruction of the lives of those left behind.


Tory said...

How does it affect the police officer to have to shoot someone? How did it affect you?

Joyce said...

Thanks for blogging, Lee.

I always wonder why people are so fascinated by firearms. Is it because they are so deadly?

Have you noticed how much tasers have been in the news lately? Police just tasered someone at a high school in the Pittsburgh area yesterday. Kind of makes me wonder what that depts. "Use of Force" policy is, or if they even have one.

Christa M. Miller said...

Check out the Force Science Research Center's website for some great, detailed information on how use of force incidents affect police officers, both physically and emotionally (often linked). It's just great, fascinating stuff and I've already been able to use it in my fiction!

Lee Lofland said...

I really can't answer for other officers. I can say that I've seen many different reactions to officer-involved shootings.

For me, the experience didn't leave me all warm and fuzzy inside. Actually, the shooting was the reason I decided to get out of the business when I did - a year or so after the incident.

It's strange how different things affect different people. I was the tough-guy cop; the one who everyone called when they had trouble arresting a suspect or when they needed someone to kick in a door during a search warant. Yet, I was one who didn't handle a shooting very well. Not at all. I developed severe PTSD about six months later and let me tell you, that was no picnic.

By the way, I tell this entire story in the book.

Lee Lofland said...

This Taser situation is getting out of hand. Joyce, I think you've hit the nail on the head. There are still many, many departments out there that do not have a set of standard operating procedures (SOP).

I have been keeping up with a case where a body was discovered on a rural farm. The victim had been shot at close range with a shotgun. The gun was on the ground under the victim's right arm.

The sheriffs office responded and this is where the case immediately fell apart. The deputies assumed this was a suicide. They walked through the scene stepping in blood and tissue. They also destroyed any footprints that may have been in the area. They didn't bag the hands; they didn't call the coroner to the scene; they called the funeral director and assisted him in picking up body parts and placed them on top of the body inside a body bag (this alone contaminated all evidence); they didn't tape off the scene; several people wandered around the scene. Well, you get the picture.

Well, the victim's family buried their loved one, but as it turns out this was a murder. Now, they don't have any physical evidence to support the case. The state exhumed the body and are now attempting to try a suspect for the crime - the victim's brother.

I said all this to point out that the sheriff had always refused to establish any policies. Why? He didn't want a lawsuit. He figured that by not having anything in writing he couldn't be blamed if one of his deputies did something stupid - like botching a murder case.

jody said...

About two years ago, my best friend and her partner drew down a guy who had just shot and killed his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. The guy was armed, but instead of pointing the gun at the officers, he held it to his head. Pretty soon the SWAT team showed up and the Dog and Pony Show took over.
That was two years ago and Deb still has nightmares about it. There are days when she just can't stop thinking about the "What Ifs". Lee, how did you deal with the PTSD ? Usually, all I can do for Deb is pour her a glass of wine and let her talk it out. I don't think it's helping.

Joyce said...

Jeez. Talk about stupidity! Written policies have probably avoided more lawsuits than they brought on.

Our dept. got tasers a few months ago and every officer had to be certified at the academy and our "Use of Force" policy was rewritten to include the tasers. They are to be treated much the same as a firearm. There has to be a serious physical threat to the officer or those in the area.

In the case I heard about yesterday, it didn't sound like the use of a taser was warranted, especially with juveniles. Officers were attemting to arrest a disorderly high school student, and her boyfriend jumped on the back of one of the officers.

Of course, I wasn't there--maybe there was more to it than that.

Joyce said...

Jody, you sound like a good friend!

Lee, whenever we have death--even a natural one--we always notify the ME's office. They have the final say if the body can be released to the funeral home. With a suicide, we ALWAYS call in Allegheny County Homicide to assist. Wow, it sounds like we actually know what we're doing...

Lee Lofland said...

I haven't had any problems/symptoms, etc. of the PTSD in several years. Thank goodness! That was awful.

You're doing the right thing. Let her talk. Time and a good friend are both great healers.

Lee Lofland said...

Joyce, calling the M.E. for every death is the norm for law-enforcement. In fact, officers have no right to move a body until the okay has been given by either a M.E. or a coroner.

Back to the Taser thing. First of all, I wish everyone would get their terminology correct. There is a difference between a Taser (which is a brand name, by the way) and a stun gun. A Taser fires two little barb-like projectiles; a stun gun is a hand-held device that must be touched to the suspect's body. Huge difference.

Now, for the use of Tasers. I think they're used far too often, and they're employed in many, many cases when they shouldn't used at all. A good example of when the use of a stun gun or Taser shouldn't be used is the case of the obnoxious student at the John Kerry speach.

When six officers have a skinny, loud-mouthed, spoiled brat pinned to the ground there's no reason to zap him. Just apply handcuffs and take him out of the building. I'm not saying he didn't deserve the electric chair for being an ass, but the stun gun (NOT a Taser) use was uncalled for.

Joyce said...

If anyone wants to read about our tasers go to this link:

You can read all about them on page 3.

Tory said...

Jody: If your friend is still having PTSD symptoms two years later, obviously the "social support" intervention isn't working. In my humble opinion, she needs professional help. Yes, sometimes PTSD resolves itself without seeing a professional, but which is worse, seeing a shrink or suffering the way she is?

Tell her PTSD is very treatable, especially if it is from an incident that occurs in adulthood (PTSD from child abuse is more complex, takes more time to treat.)

In terms of how to bring it up, tell her, "I love talking to you, but it doesn't seem to be helping you move on from what happened. Maybe someone who specializes in this could help you more?" (Of course, you have to pick the right time to say something like this.)

If she's in Pittsburgh, I can give you names to call. email me via my website at

Gina said...

One of my favorite presentations at a past dream conference* was by a therapist [Bob "Sandman" Coalson] who treats PTSD in military veterans with sand. It's not as crazy as it sounds -- people suffering from PTSD tend to have nightmares. What Coalson did was have the patient act out the nightmare using little action figures in a sandbox, except they get to change the ending and make the dream come out in a positive way. What do you think of that, Tory?
*See my post from July 11, 2007 for info on the International Association for the Study of Dreams and it's annual conference.

Tory said...

Gina: I think there are several components of PTSD that all need to be addressed. I would say that the technique you mention addresses one of them.

That's as clearly as I can explain it without going into far more technical information than you really want to know.

jody said...

Thanks, Tory. I agree - she doesn't seem to be getting over this. I know that everyone deals with things in their own way, but there are times when she just shakes. She says at times like that, she can't get it out of her mind. I did ask her one time what she thought about professional help, but she didn't like the idea. Up until a few months ago, she was the only female officer in her department and she didn't want to be viewed as 'weak'. I've met a lot of the guys that she works with. Some of them are okay, but there are some World-Class Assholes, too. Do you (or Gina) know if there's a stigma attached to PTSD ?
We're near Harrisburg, but I might try to get those names from you anyway.

Jana McBurney-Lin, Author, "My Half of the Sky" said...

Wow! What a story. I can't wait to read the book.

Lee Lofland said...

It's tough for any cop to admit they're experiencing difficulties with a traumatic situation. Every day of their lives they're the ones who people turn to when they need help; therefore, the officers feel as if there is no one for them to turn to in their own time of need.

Peer pressure doesn't help either. After an officer-involved shooting there is a lot of back slapping and congratulations going on behind the scenes. Some cops (not all) act as if they've been on a big game hunt and to shoot a bad guy is like bagging the trophy lion. That's sad, but true.

After the shootout I was in my chief came by and stressed the point that real cops aren't bothered "capping a dirtbag." To say the least, that added to the pressure.

My own symptoms of PTSD didn't begin to show up until many months after the shootout. When the symptoms did arrive there was no mistaking that I had a problem and it was serious. Thankfully, that's all in the past, but it took a really long time to get over it.

By the way, I was not even given the rest of the day off after my shooting. I had to continue like it was any other day.

J. Carson Black said...

Lee, I just finished reading about your real-life shoot-out in the book. I felt as if I was there.

I am amazed that your supervisors didn't immediately put you on leave after an officer-involved shooting. I thought that was standard.

Tory said...

Jody: therapy needs to be confidential, for just that reason. One of the reasons I like being in mental health, is there's less of a stigma if you need your own therapy. But most other work situations that isn't true!

I'm afraid I don't have any contacts in Harrisburg. I'll ask around. email me at my website so I know how to contact you.

Lee: You said, "By the way, I was not even given the rest of the day off after my shooting. I had to continue like it was any other day." What a statement about how this sort of thing is viewed by police departments!

If I get someone the day of the trauma, and work with them an hour or two, I can sometimes avert the process of PTSD. (Note the "sometimes.") What a lot of needless pain and suffering.

Like they say, it's not just a river in Egypt!

Joyce said...

I'm amazed too, Lee, that they didn't make you take time off.

I should see what the policy is here.

Lee Lofland said...

A friend of mine, Scott Hoffman, who is one of the founding partners of Folio Literary Management just reminded me that they represent Dave Klinger who wrote INTO THE KILL ZONE.

Dave Klinger is currently a professor of criminology at University of Missouri, but he's also a former LAPD street cop, who, when he was 27 years old, shot and killed someone on the job. The book tells of his experience with today's blog topic. Here's the link to the book if anyone is interested:

Lee Lofland said...

Jake, these days most agencies do suspend officers when they've been involved in a shooting. They also provide counseling for those invloved.

My department did neither. In fact, when the PTSD did show up they actually refused treatment and counseling. I had to take care it on my own time at my own expense.

Keep in mind that this happened several years ago. Things were a little different back then.

Tory said...

Jody: Good news! I looked on the website for therapists trained in a technique, EMDR, which works particularly well with PTSD. They have several clinians listed in Harrisburgh.

Sorry to clog up the comments section with this, but I thought it might be the easiest way to get the info. to you.

Deborah Bauer MSW Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17112 717-877-3225
Sexual Abuse Family Therapy Depression

Marcy Brenner MS Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17110 717-234-3839 Anxiety disorders Depression Couples counseling

Dennis A Christ MS Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17109 717-652-3582 Dissociative disorders Trauma

Mary Jo Devlin LCSW Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17011 717-737-5066 PTSD Couples & Family Therapy Mood Disorders

Debra Doubrava MS Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17110 717-234-3839 Play therapy Women's issues General clinical practice

Jessica Hart MA Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17110 717-234-3839 ADHD in children & adolescents Anxiety disorders Depressive disorders

Lynn Groff Loomis MEd Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17110 717-234-3839

Tedi Grace Spencer MA Part 2 Harrisburg PA 17109 717-795-8588 Trauma Panic Anxiety & Depression

Anonymous said...

I'm late coming to the party today and I'm just catching up now, but I wanted to say how helpful and interesting these insights are into the real lives of law enforcement. Lee, you bring a personal element to all of the research we've done and the books we've read. Thank you so much for sharing so much with us.

Lee Lofland said...

It's my pleasure, Kristine. Thank all of you for taking the time to listen to my babble.

Candace Salima (LDS Nora Roberts) said...

Thank you for posting about this today. I shall refer my publisher to this post the next time she gives me grief over something like this.

Lee Lofland said...

Your publisher gives you grief over my babble? Gee, I'm sorry. :)

Rebecca Drake said...

Wow, Lee, that's a fascinating story and my respect for you has only deepened.

Per the PTSD--I'm shocked that your department was so clueless, but I guess when you've got a chief vilifying "bad guys" it's really not that surprising.

Lee Lofland said...

Gee Ms. Drake, you mean you had respect for me before today. I'm touched. :)

Seriously, thanks for the kind words.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


I was treated for PSTD with EMDR.

I can say that it's extremely helpful. It was developed and used initially on Vietnam veterans. The course of treatment is not so long and "iffy" as other psychological sessions because it works directly on areas of the brain.

It gave me relief.

We really look forward to having you here at Forensic U (OK, shameless plug, go to to sign up--we've extended the lower registration rate). After buying your book, I predict you'll be very much in demand.


Lee Lofland said...

Thanks Joanna. I'm really looking forward to the Forensic University. It's going to be a fantanstic event.