Stress Can Make Cops Miss When They Shoot

The Wichita Eagle

October 8, 2006

A Sept. 28 shooting in which two Wichita police officers fired multiple shots at a man but hit him only once makes perfect sense to Ed Nowicki.

"In fact, if they wouldn't have hit him at all, I would understand it," said Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, speaking from professional and personal experience.

Researchers and firearms trainers cite statistics showing that officers miss more often than people might think, even from short distances. Experts attribute that largely to the stress of the moment -- something that's hard to train for.

But bullets that don't hit their targets can hit something else. A 9mm handgun bullet can travel several hundred yards before falling to the ground if its path is unobstructed.

In the Wichita shooting -- in a residential neighborhood at Eighth and Pershing -- two officers fired multiple shots from several feet away at a 19-year-old who drew what officers thought was a handgun out of his waistband, Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said.

The man kept aiming the realistic replica gun at one officer after being repeatedly commanded to drop it, Stolz said.

The man "never did drop the gun," Stolz said. And because the officers felt in danger, he added, "they fired shots until the threat subsided." The man suffered a stomach wound but is expected to recover.

In general, Stolz said, "you miss more than you hit."

A resident of one nearby house told The Eagle that investigators found two bullets from the shooting on his roof, and a resident across the street said investigators dislodged one bullet from a shutter on her home. Neighbors said they heard that a third house was struck, but that resident couldn't be contacted by The Eagle. None wanted to be quoted for this story.

Neighbors reported hearing five to six shots but said they couldn't be certain. Stolz declined to say how many shots the officers fired because of the continuing investigation.

Stress hampers skill

"Generally speaking, officers are not very accurate" during the stress of a shooting, despite training, said Michael White, an assistant professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the City University of New York.

"Generally speaking, hit rates do not hit 50 percent," said White, a former Pennsylvania sheriff's deputy.

Shooting a handgun accurately requires fine motor skill, said Dan Lehr, one of the primary firearms instructors with the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in Hutchinson. But in the adrenaline-pumping moments of a shooting, he said, "fine motor skill disappears very quickly."

Instead of looking through gun sights and aiming as they are trained to do, officers fix their eyes on the gun in the suspect's hand, Lehr said. It's a natural reaction.

Although police in Kansas have to train with a firearm to become certified and have to refresh their skills periodically at a shooting range, Lehr said, "I think the average citizen thinks all officers do is practice shooting, and that's really not the way it is."

He blames the perception partly on popular culture.

"A lot of people get the idea that we're trick shooters," he said. "They've seen it in the movies."

In reality, most officers never shoot at suspects, and using a gun is a small part of police work, Lehr and others say.

"Most officers, they got into police work not to shoot someone," Lehr said.

The suspect in the Wichita shooting -- Eric Manns -- has been charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, which accuses him of putting an officer in fear for his life.

Based on how police described the incident, "that was a very restrained shooting there," said Tom Aveni, a New Hampshire-based police trainer who has studied police shootings.

"I would characterize that as being extremely reluctant to shoot," Aveni said.

As is standard procedure, the officers involved have been put on administrative leave and have not been identified by the police department. Stolz said each of the officers has several years of experience. He called them "exceptional officers."

Shooting fit the norm

The Wichita shooting -- with two officers firing multiple rounds and hitting the man only once, even at several feet away -- fits the norm, said Aveni, who serves on the advisory board of Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

Nationally, a little more than half of all shootings occur within 9 feet of the intended target, he said.

Accuracy drops as distance increases. If the officers in the Wichita shooting had been backing away when they fired -- a common response -- that also could have diminished their accuracy, Aveni said.

Stolz said the man was fairly stationary, but he did not disclose whether the officers were moving.

Research shows that "even at two arms' lengths, police are missing a lot," Aveni said. "It's that close -- that's the nature of policing."

It's important, Aveni said, that training be as realistic as possible, including, for example, having officers move while shooting.

Wichita police have invited reporters to a shooting simulation Monday at the Lake Afton firing range. Police say it will give reporters an idea of how they train and explain what police encounter in real shootings.

A scary experience

But no training can create the intense stress of a shooting, Nowicki said.

He felt the adrenaline surge three decades ago when he was a Chicago narcotics detective.

He was helping to serve a warrant. The instant he saw a suspect raise a sawed-off shotgun at him, he fired his 12-gauge.

Even with his police shotgun, even at only 5 feet, Nowicki's round struck the suspect only through his armpit. As with other officers across the country, he had been trained to shoot at the upper torso to "stop the threat."

If he had fired a handgun, he figures, he would have missed completely.

Immediately after the shooting, he recalled, "I could not stop shaking."

It's difficult, he said, to train for that -- to replicate what it feels like to face a real sawed-off shotgun, up close, and have to make a life-changing decision in an instant.

"The reality," he said, "is something different."