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Cops Are Set Up to Be Dangerously Bad Shots

They’re taught to solve conflict with guns — but their firearm training begins and ends at the police academy

The V8 engine of a black-and-white Crown Vic roared as LAPD officers Sinlen Tse and Sarah Winans chased a Toyota Camry down a residential street. Inside the dark gray Camry was a man suspected of murdering his grandmother. The gap between the two cars narrowed to about 20 yards when, without warning, the lead driver turned and shot two bullets through his own rear window at the squad car, spraying shattered glass through the air.

“Oh shit! Shots fired! Broadcast!” Tse cried, swerving the car to the left and back.

Winans radioed for help, then wrapped her fingers around the pistol holstered on her right hip. “All right, partner. I got my gun out,” she said.

“Do not — do not shoot,” Tse replied after a beat. “Getting distance. We’re getting distance.”

The duo continued to tail the Camry, rumbling through a strip-mall parking lot onto a bustling street. From about 40 yards away, Tse and Winans watched the Camry careen into a telephone pole near the entrance of a Trader Joe’s. “Car TC! Car TC!” Winans yelled, indicating a collision.

The driver of the Camry bailed at the same time the squad car screeched to a halt. He took two shots toward the cops while aiming from his hip, before he ran into the market. Tse and Winans, now out of the car and crouched on the hot midday asphalt, replied with eight rapid shots. One of those shots hit the suspect, 28-year-old Gene Atkins, in the arm before he scampered behind cover inside. Another bullet sailed through the bicep and torso of 27-year-old store manager Melyda Corado. She slumped to the ground, lying face-down in a pool of blood as the Trader Joe’s devolved into a hostage standoff.

“There’s a woman who’s been shot, and she probably needs help,” MaryLinda Moss, a 55-year-old artist and now hostage, told Atkins in a quiet moment after the standoff had settled.

“That’s not my fault,” he replied. “That was the police.”

Cerado died during the highly publicized July 21st firefight, and her family’s attorneys filed a wrongful death lawsuit two weeks ago, though the LAPD has defended the tragedy as an unfortunate but necessary cost of trying to keep other people safe. The standoff ended three hours later, with Atkins agreeing to handcuff himself and walk out the front of the store to be detained. But the killing captured the attention of the nation, sparking a debate about whether a bystander’s death is another indication of a broader problem: how we train and empower police officers to act in heated encounters.

Critics of the response condemned the LAPD for what appeared to be reckless shooting, especially considering the other bystanders near the entrance of the store. John C. Taylor, a lawyer for the Cerado family, believes the shooting violated department policy as the officers had “no tactical plan” when they engaged in the gunfight. “They got out of the vehicle already having made up their minds to fire their weapons,” Taylor said at a September news conference.

This shooting came just months after the killing of another innocent bystander by LAPD officers responding to a man suspected of stabbing his girlfriend. The man took a homeless woman hostage and put a knife to her throat. After repeated warnings, three officers fired 18 combined shots at the man, killing both him and his hostage. In 2013, eight LAPD officers fired a total of 103 rounds at two women in a pickup truck on a residential street, mistakenly believing that the truck was driven by cop-killer Christopher Dorner, then the subject of a statewide manhunt. The women survived, but barely. Bullets hit seven nearby homes and several other cars.

Elsewhere in the nation in recent years, two New York City cops missed three shots from close range at an emotionally disturbed man who made a pistol shape with his hand, instead hitting two nearby women in the leg and rear. Police in Savannah, Georgia, got into a shootout on a residential street and killed an innocent woman in her home. Thirteen cops in Cleveland killed a young black homeless man and woman in a hailstorm of 137 bullets after a short car chase; the duo hadn’t committed a crime when police tried to pull them over, and there were no weapons found in their car (investigators, meanwhile, did find that the officers had shot so much because their own gunfire made them believe they were being fired at).

Protest and debate continues to break out over the deaths of unarmed people of color at the end of police gun barrels, and research has suggested that implicit racial bias plays a role in shaping where, when and how cops draw their sidearms. Black people are more than twice as likely as whites to be killed in encounters with police, and a recent study showed that implicit bias can even touch black officers, who kill black suspects at the same rate as their white peers. But new research also indicates that every encounter with a cop, regardless of your race, raises your risk of being killed or seriously injured. It tells us that police officers are uniquely capable of triggering violence because of the way they’re armed and trained.

In all, American police shoot and kill around a thousand people a year, and shootings of innocent bystanders (or those with explicitly mistaken identities) only compose a small portion of that total. Yet the recurring stories paint a portrait of how cops are, generally speaking, terrible shots — regardless of whether they’re successful in taking down a suspect or not. There’s no national database of shooting accuracy in police incidents, but a 2008 study of NYPD shootings found that cops landed just 18 percent of shots on target during a gunfight, and 30 percent when the suspect didn’t return fire. And being within seven yards of the suspect raised the stat to just 37 percent. More recent data shows improvements, but with a hit rate of about 35 percent and 44 percent in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, data from its West Coast counterpart, the LAPD, indicated a 33 percent hit rate average between 2012 and 2016. (The LAPD didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on use-of-force and firearms protocols.)

While law enforcement experts note that changes in training are improving shooting accuracy in many large police agencies, on average, the hit rate has hovered around 30 percent for decades. As Michael White, a criminology professor at Arizona State University concluded in a 2006 study, “Hit rates vary notably across police agencies but rarely exceed 50 percent. The research examining shooter accuracy overwhelmingly debunks the Hollywood myth of police officers as sharp shooters who can wing suspects in the shoulder or leg or shoot weapons out of suspects’ hands.”

The silver lining is that experts believe there is a fundamental way to improve how cops react after they draw their guns: by increasing training — for recruits and veteran officers alike.

Currently, police officers gain the vast majority of their experience in tactical firearms as recruits, when they spend five and a half months learning how to police. Firearms training typically involves handgun safety, marksmanship and basic maintenance, along with drills to exercise reflexes in shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios. The issue is that shooting more than 200 rounds (which a recreational shooter might do in an hour at a gun range) in training is unusual, and ongoing qualifications for handgun accuracy happen no more than twice a year, writes Mike McDaniel, a former two-decade cop and veteran, in a piece for Bearing Arms: “Passing scores are generous, as low as 70 percent — hitting the target with only 35 out of 50 rounds. Virtually all allow reshooting as many times as necessary to pass.”

No wonder then, that a 2015 study that analyzed the marksmanship of fresh police academy grads found they were no more accurate than subjects without any law enforcement handgun training, and “only moderately more accurate than individuals who had minimal firearms and little to no handgun experience.

Such a short schooling period isn’t the norm for many other police forces around the world, which often tout a much longer curriculum for new cops and maintain more rigorous qualifications during the course of an officer’s career, notes Maria Haberfeld, a veteran of the Israeli Defense Force and Israeli National Police and currently a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Other democratic countries have a much more centralized system of policing, and therefore, more resources to offer better and more professional training. For example, in Taiwan, there’s a four-year police university that all recruits must complete before they become officers on the street,” Haberfeld says. “Needless to say, the level of knowledge and the tools they’re getting during these four years will enable them to police in a much more professional manner. Our officers receive barely a fraction of what’s needed to police effectively.”

Even smaller issues with the firearm itself can impact shootouts. It’s not unusual, for instance, for a police handgun to require more strength to pull the trigger than with a civilian weapon — as with the NYPD’s standard 12-pound trigger pull, double that of most stock handguns. “You saw a lot of misfires when police officers were transitioning in the 1980s from a double-action revolver to semi-automatic pistols, which had a more sensitive trigger. So what’s the answer? Make the gun worse, rather than increase training,” says one firearms expert based in L.A., who asked to remain anonymous because they work with police clients. “You combine a 12-pound trigger with a weapon you hardly touch, with nerves you’ve never felt before. No wonder you can’t hit the side of a barn while squeezing in a panic.”

In other words, police officers are set up to fail in a firefight in a lot of ways. And it’s an issue for departments across the country, especially smaller ones in which extra dollars from the municipal budget are hard to come by. Implementing new firearms qualifications for a full agency would be expensive and time-consuming, taking officers off the street and ballooning overtime costs, according to McDaniel. And even those tweaks pale in comparison to the “transformational changes” Haberfeld says American police agencies need to make, whether it be increasing the standards of graduating as a cop or prioritizing communication over other forms of threat resolution.

“American police officers are trained based on the ‘Continuum of Force’ principle, where the use of deadly force is supposed to be the last resort. Yet the vast majority of training is dedicated to the actual use of firearms rather than communication skills,” Haberfeld says. “So yes, it’s very dangerous given the fact that even the use-of-force training lacks the emotional and psychological components required.”

Very few police officers ever see criminal charges or even pink slips for taking part in a sketchy shootout during which an innocent bystander is killed, because most investigations find that drawing and shooting is “reasonable force” when used to protect the officer’s life — no matter if there’s evidence the officer overreacted and directly escalated an incident. The challenge of shifting attitudes within police culture remains, too. In 2015, LAPD brass announced a new emphasis on preserving life in all encounters, even at increased personal risk, and created an award for officers who make “great efforts to avoid a fatal shooting.” Local police unions responded with criticism and mockery, insinuating that such reform would weaken the agency.

Of course, the ultimate fix would be to take guns out of the hands of most patrolling cops. It’s not a common experiment, but Britain, Ireland, Wales, Iceland and a handful of other countries have succeeded in policing with far fewer guns. Officers there are taught to manage dangerous situations through speech, body positioning and non-lethal weapons, with highly trained shooter teams as backup for more violent encounters. “The practice is rooted in the belief that arming the police engenders more gun violence than it prevents,” Gudmundur Oddsson, a professor of sociology at Northern Michigan University and an Iceland native, told Quartz in 2016. “Arming police officers with guns runs the risk of striking fear in the hearts of the public and undermining the great public support the Icelandic police has enjoyed thus far.”

That fear of guns obviously works the other way, too. Many police officers support stricter gun control because the prevalence of guns in homes and on streets, legally obtained or otherwise, makes their job more dangerous. One study found that every 10 percent increase in firearm ownership at a state level correlated with 10 more officers killed over a 15-year period. In that sense, there’s a cycle of cops who lean on their guns to demand respect and feel safe, creating resentment within a readily armed populace, which then leads to increasingly tense confrontations and potential violence.

Maybe that was a factor in why Atkins decided to shoot at cops during the ill-fated chase to Trader Joe’s. He now faces 51 felony counts, including murder, kidnapping, premeditated attempted murder and attempted murder of a peace officer. The murder charge is for Corado, despite the fact that Atkins didn’t shoot the bullet that killed her — prosecutors argued it was a “provocative act murder,” meaning Atkins incited the events that led to her death.

Meanwhile, LAPD Chief Michel Moore maintains that the two officers’ decision to shoot at Atkins appears justified. “I believe it’s what they needed to do in order to defend the people of Los Angeles, defend the people in that store and to defend themselves,” Moore said at a press conference. “I ask that you place yourself in these two officers’ positions and ask yourself, what would you have done?”

To ask that question is to assume that a member of the public is supposed to react to a violent crisis in the same way a police officer would. And so, there’s some irony in the reality of so many police officers responding to a threat in the same way a citizen would — with their fingers squeezed tight around the one weapon they believe can save them.