It may help drop the numbers of shootings in dark
By LISE OLSEN
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
"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
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,"
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
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."