Officers Get Little Nighttime Training

It may help drop the numbers of shootings in dark

Houston Chronicle
August 25, 2004

It was well after sunset when motorcyclist Chris Holmes led a sheriff's deputy on a highway chase at speeds of up to 100 mph.

When Holmes finally gave up, he reached for a beeper, and the officer fired in the darkness, believing the motorcyclist held a gun.

That shot in the dark at an unarmed man has remained a substantial subset of police shootings in both Harris County and across the country, despite research that illustrates how training and alternative weapons can reduce such events.

And surprisingly, the estimated percentages of unarmed people injured and killed in shootings by law enforcement officers don't appear to have changed much in the past two decades.

Most police shootings occurred at night. Yet nationwide most states, including Texas, do not require police officers to annually train to shoot or not to shoot in the dark.

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court restricted officers' authority to fire at fleeing subjects in a landmark Tennessee case involving a teenager fatally shot at night after stealing $10. The decision was expected to lower the numbers of unarmed people shot, then estimated at a quarter of all police shootings.

But recent studies in Harris County and elsewhere echo or exceed that percentage.

"Much to my disappointment, the problem hasn't gone away," said Thomas Aveni, a sworn officer, trainer and forensic psychologist with The Police Policy Studies Council in New Hampshire who has analyzed shootings nationwide. "This is a national issue."

For years, many studies have established that departments could reduce shootings by providing alternative weapons and good training, especially in low light, said John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Police Chiefs.

But few states require that, though individual departments, from Huntsville to Baltimore, often exceed state standards.

The Baltimore County Police Department, for example, requires its officers twice a year to visit an indoor firing range that incorporates various light levels, including flashing blue lights and starlight, and realistic shoot/don't shoot scenarios.

"It makes sense," said Sgt. Todd Rassa, who leads range training. "Police do two-thirds of all of our shift work in the dark, and we should do our training that way."

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Education requires more hours of continuing education for officers than many other states on subjects such as family violence, child abuse and cultural diversity.

But Texas' requirements for firearms training are among the most lenient nationwide, based on a compilation of standards by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training in 2000.

Sam Houston State University's Raymond Teske, a criminal justice professor and police officer who helped get the state's annual firing-range requirements passed in the 1970s, says it's way past time for the state to boost them.

"You need to teach people to shoot at night it's a different world," Teske said.

Neither the Houston Police Department nor the Harris County Sheriff's Department requires nighttime firearms practice or annual use-of-force training for officers.

Data collected by the Houston Chronicle show that 59 percent of all Harris County shootings from 1999 to 2004 occurred between sunset and sunrise. And Aveni's research on Los Angeles County, Baltimore and New York also showed that most shootings took place at night or under poor lighting conditions.

Aveni said many shootings took place under such low light that officers were temporarily blinded. That made them likely to fire at aluminum cans, cell phones, wallets or other objects held by suspects in what he calls "mistake of fact shootings."

In Harris County, officers appear to have mistaken an object for a gun in low light in at least five cases involving the unarmed, according to data collected by the Chronicle on more than 189 shooting incidents from 1999 to 2004.

Seven other unarmed people were shot after making some kind of furtive movement, four others after refusing to show their hands, the Chronicle found. In six other cases, officers said they accidentally fired. The rest of the unarmed people shot between 1999 and 2004 were either riding inside vehicles or struggled with police.

Though those kinds of shootings cannot be eliminated, experts say they can be reduced with appropriate training.

The Harris County Sheriff's Department formerly required officers to complete nighttime shooting sessions but discontinued that years ago, according to a department spokesman.

HPD's facility is open at night, but officers are required to shoot only once a year, and at the time of their choosing.

The executive directors of both the Sheriff's Association of Texas and the Texas Police Chiefs Association said they did not believe that their groups would support stronger firearms-training requirements.

Many agencies, said James McLaughlin, general counsel and executive director of the Texas Police Chiefs Association, already exceed the state standards for officer safety.

"I'm a strong believer in training," said McLaughlin, a former police chief. "I believe it builds confidence, and if you have confidence things usually go better."