Why Do the Police Shoot so Many Times and Miss?

Police officers are required to qualify at least once a year with their service weapon. Generally speaking, an officer is considered qualified with a minimum score of 70%. In most states, officers who fail to qualify are suspended from duty until they pass. When the police are involved in a shooting, have you ever wondered why these qualified officers fire so many rounds yet they miss so often? Let’s examine this phenomenon. 

In the late 1980’s, police departments began a transition from revolvers to semi-automatic pistols. This transition increased police firepower from 6 rounds with a revolver to about 16 rounds depending on the make and model of the semi-automatic pistol. Over time, this has brought into focus the fact that the police miss a lot. The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) published in 2017 reported that the initial police officer involved in a shooting fired 9.7 rounds and hit the suspect 3.9 times   for a 40% accuracy rate.  A 2018 Dallas Police Department report examined 149 officer involved shootings over a 15-year period. The results suggested that officers who fired at a single suspect missed 65% of the time. In other words, more than six out of ten rounds fired by the DPD missed the suspect. According to a study conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department from 2012-2016, officers involved in a shooting hit the suspect 33.4% of the time. The report concluded that more than six out of ten rounds fired by the LAPD missed the suspect. 

There are many factors involved in why the police shoot so many times and miss. Let us examine this using two interconnected factors: physiological responses and training. Research suggests the response time of the average adult is one-half to three-quarters of a second. What this means is that from the time the average adult perceives a threat (their brain recognizes a threat and begins to send stimulus to respond) until they begin to move in response to this stimulus (begin to turn to run, begin to reach for a weapon, etc.) one-half to three-quarters of a second passed. This same response time works in reverse. From the time the average adult recognizes a threat is over until their body begins to cease an action is also one-half to three-quarters of a second. Research further suggests that the average adult, not under the stress of a life and death situation, can fire four rounds a second from a semi-automatic pistol. This means that the time the average adult fires the first round until the fourth round is fired is approximately one second. When the requisite level of stress is added, the number of rounds per second increases. 

Let’s examine how police department training addresses these physiological responses. While these are just a very small sample, I did not find any states that had radically different qualification requirements. The State of Kansas requires officers to shoot three rounds in three seconds from three yards; three rounds in five seconds from five yards; and four rounds is ten seconds from seven yards. At twenty-five yards officers shoot five rounds in fifteen seconds. The State of Arizona requires officers to shoot three rounds from three yards in four seconds; three rounds (with a simulated malfunction clearing) in seven seconds; three rounds, magazine exchange and three rounds if fourteen seconds from fifteen yards; and three rounds in ten seconds from twenty-five yards.  The State of Alabama requires twelve rounds (six strong hand unsupported and six weak hand unsupported) in twenty-five seconds from five yards; two rounds in eight seconds and twelve rounds in twenty-five seconds from seven yards; four strings of three rounds in five seconds from fifteen yards; and twelve rounds (six standing barricade and six knelling barricade) in thirty-five seconds from twenty-five yards. The State of Ohio requires three rounds in five seconds from four feet; two rounds in the torso and one round in the head in six seconds from nine feet; four rounds (dominate hand only) in eight seconds from twelve feet; three rounds reload and three rounds from twenty feet in twelve seconds; three rounds from thirty feet in eight seconds; and two rounds from fifty feet in eight seconds. The State of Ohio also requires the qualification to be conducted during daylight hours. The State of Vermont requires three sets of two rounds fired from three yards, each two round set fired in three seconds; three sets of two rounds fired from five yards, each two round set fired in four seconds; six rounds (two strong hand and four support hand) in fifteen seconds from seven yards; six rounds in seven seconds, also from seven yards; four rounds magazine change and four more rounds in twenty-five seconds from twelve yards; four rounds in unlimited time from twenty-five yards. For full disclosure, some of these states require a flanking step, firing while retreating, the use of barricades, and other similar physical movements.  However, there seems to be a limit to the physical demands placed on the qualifying officer. 

How does all of this relate to the number of rounds fired in an officer-involved shooting and the number of misses? As the UCR published in 2017 indicated, the initial officer involved in a shooting fired 9.7 rounds. This may suggest that the initial officer involved actually fired for less than two seconds. One interpretation of this is that the officers involved used a “grip it and rip it” response to the threat.  Research supports this “grip it and rip it” theory, finding that officers rarely use the sights, looking across the top of the barrel at the suspect, and instead they pull the trigger as fast as they can. Decades of research suggest the physiological changes that occur to an officer involved in a shooting include tunnel vision, audio breakdown, reduced manual dexterity, hypervigilant (failing to recognize the threat has ceased) decision-making–and these are just the high points. This suggests that the theory behind police firearms training does not meet the reality of a shooting situation, since firearms instructors spend vast amounts of time instructing in the use of sights, grip, and trigger control. These are all needed and are required fundamentals of good pistol marksmanship. They are clearly most beneficial in a situation where the officer is behind cover and can take the time to line up a shot and take it. 

One skill generally not taught, and the one skill that is paramount in a “grip it and rip it” response, is recoil management. All of the qualification times described above give the shooter ample time to recover the recoil and fire the next round. It is very easy to do even when firing one round a second. Recoil management is not so easy, however, when firing four or five or even six rounds a second. The reality is that in close quarters officer involved shooting, this is exactly what happens.

Most of the police qualification courses and times I reviewed were nothing more than “plinking” at the target. These are skills that every Saturday afternoon shooter can successful accomplish plinking at the range. When they are finished, they can go home and feel really good about their pistol proficiency. Most of the indoor ranges I am familiar with will not allow rapid fire for safety reasons. One round a second is not considered “rapid fire.” 

Police officers don’t miss because they aren’t qualified. Police officers miss because they don’t train as if they were in a shooting situation. A flanking step or a retreating step does not provide the physiological response training to adequately perform in a shooting situation. Police officers don’t train in recoil management. There is enough time in the qualification courses to allow the officer to successfully recover from the recoil. Current police training is set up so the officer is successful. It is set up so there is minimal risk the officer won’t qualify. It is set up so the officer can continue to carry a firearm.  

So, the next time you wonder why police officers miss, go to the range, set up your target at 10 yards (30 feet) and “grip it and rip it.” See how many times you hit the X-ring. And remember, the only stress you are under is trying to hit a piece of paper that is not moving or shooting back. 

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