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Ep. 24 Should I Shoot? You Have Legal Justification to Shoot, But Do You Have To?

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Editor’s Note: The following is post is from Sammy Reese, a former Marine Corps Artillery Officer and retired police officer from California. He is a part-time range master for the police department he retired from as well as a life-long martial artist and combatives coach.

Check out the last five episodes in this series:

Recently, a police officer was fired for not shooting a man who had a gun in his hand and was telling the officer to shoot him. The officer was working on talking the man down and had been for several minutes before responding officers arrived on the scene. Before any communication took place between the arriving officer and the next arriving officer, the officer who just arrived saw the weapon pointed towards him and shot and killed the man.

The shoot was ruled in policy and in self-defense. Why was the first officer fired then for not shooting? I’m not privy to the internal investigation, so I can’t comment on the why, but the case did bring up the question of, “Just because I can legally use deadly force, do I have to?” The legal ground for when you can defend yourself has been a huge part of this column. What we haven’t touched on is whether you have to shoot.

Early on in my police career, I was faced with an incident where I had probable cause to use deadly force and didn’t. A crazy transient guy had a huge chunk of concrete in both hands over his head walking toward me like Frankenstein telling me he was going to smash me into the ground. I had my pistol pointed at the man while using my police car to create reactionary space. I’m sure someone watching from a distance thought I was going to get crushed. I knew I would have reactionary time since it was a 50-pound chunk of concrete, but I also had my line in the sand where I would shoot to defend myself.

It ended with one of my beat partners sneaking up on the man and knocking him out of his shoes. The end result was a trip to the hospital psych ward for the guy who was off his meds and no shooting review board for me.

Post incident, I started to second-guess myself. I wondered if I was getting too big for my boots and needed to remember Rule No. 1 of doing everything to get home safe at the end of the shift. I talked with some veteran officers who reminded me that just because you can shoot doesn’t mean you have to. They were glad I was confident in my ability to end it peacefully and that I had a plan to use deadly force if I needed to.

I’m not telling anyone what to do, nor will I ever. What I am doing is adding one more thing to the personal defense toolbox. Add it to your “what if?” questions and training. Be as prepared as possible for as many different situations as possible. You might end up not having to deal with the aftermath of pulling the trigger when you might not have had to.

For more critical information on the use of deadly force and other firearms and self-defense topics, visit www.uscca.com/GunsAmerica.

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Mercedes October 17, 2016, 9:46 am

    That sounds about right!

  • Dave Brown October 14, 2016, 11:49 am

    I was blessed with it, and it appears you were as well. Restraint, a Sixth Sense, call it what you will. Restraint of Pen and Sword (Hand) I believe is how it goes. We have a civilian police force, and Rule #1 has always been to Protect and Serve. Now the other Rule #1, to make it home today makes scene, but at what price. Easy to say, but at what price? I have been on my soap box about it being a result of Training, and thus The Trainers need to change, yep, we have made it to easy for a Cop to pull the trigger. Some will pull and some will use restraint. It just ain’t right when lets say a step forward at 30 feet might get you shot. Dave

  • Will Drider October 13, 2016, 12:59 pm

    Part of our Situational Awareness includes understanding what we perceive.
    A. We have subconscious comprehension of a line in the sand that is automatically responded too.
    B. We only make conscious decisions to move that line either direction. This is where the shoot/no shoot issue resides. You may be justified shooting by policy or Law but that “conscious” line in the sand is not crossed. In essence, you have not justified using lethal force to yourself. This decision to “delay” action brings additional responsibility. We know things go to crap in milliseconds.
    There is also a major difference between LE and a private armed citizen. A citizen can only use deadly force to protect his ricebowl as lawfully allowed by present threat. LE has a broader area of responsibility to based on BGs current actions AND potential foreseeable threat to public safety.

    The bottom line is that it is your call. You have to live (hopefully) with the end result. In the article’s example Case, the officer should not have been fired. The primary investigative focus of all officer involved shootings is what did the officer involved perceive. If it is used to justify a shooting (as in most cases) it should carry the dominate weight to justify the officers decision not to shoot also. Very bad call by his department and it degrades the preceived threat justification as a whole.

    • Sgt. Pop October 14, 2016, 12:51 pm

      Good post Will. My sons, member or two of my old units, and myself spend a lot of hours defensive training each year. However, of all the training, shooting, reading etc… on the defensive nature and responsibilities concerning the use of lethal force, the best money I ever spent on the issue was taking a MAG 20 class two years ago. Yes, I’ve read most of Mr. Ayoobs’ works, but two intense 10 hour days on the subject, with him, brought it all together so to speak. It doesn’t make any difference how “justified” your defensive shooting may have been, your world will never be the same again. That class gave me a better knowledge of what to expect from authorities after an incident, how to conduct yourself, procedure of making statement(s) etc. Ended up with 25 pages of notes on my part, and consider it money ($400) well spent. Would recommend it to anyone concerned about the use of lethal force.

  • DRAINO October 13, 2016, 9:52 am

    I would count you as one of the better examples of LE’s that I have seen. And I have seen many. Not everyone is able to make this discernment. Glad you are….and have used it to benefit your community. I know I’ve said it before….but I love this series of articles. Well written and thought provoking. And No…..just because you can doesn’t always mean you should. I came about 2 lbs of trigger pull away from killing a teenage boy and his young brother and 2 women in a flatbed truck in Iraq after they slipped un-noticed by a vehicle checkpoint and headed for a convoy refueling point. Had every right to open fire…..but something told me not to, so I didn’t. Glad it worked out that way. They were lost….de-briefing later revealed. Posed no threat….other than wrong place wrong time. Not tooting my own horn….just glad to hear I’m not the only one who has made this tough choice and lived to tell about it….and learn from it.

    • Garrett October 14, 2016, 11:39 am

      “LE and a private armed citizen. A citizen can only use deadly force to protect his ricebowl as lawfully allowed by present threat”. Wow that is complete nonsense. If a woman is being raped a “civilian” can use deadly force to stop the threat just like any other “civilian” aka police officer can. And as far as those IRAQI kids and the women. They were not lost. They were caught. Then after you let them. Go they proceeded to thier destination which was probably Osama Bin Ladins house in pakistan. But nice story. As far as the article there is insuficient information to determine if the firing of the officer was justified.

      • Will Drider October 15, 2016, 12:01 am

        I used the term “rice bowl” which may not be interped by all people the same way. As used, it implies posession, responsibility and accountability: your safety and that of your loved ones. Some jurisdictions include your home, business, vehicle and property. If you intervene in someone else’s situation (rape, armed robbery): YOU move it into your rice bowl. If that BG discontinues the threat activity and runs: your use of force justification ends (rim of the bowl). However, LE in the same scenario a duty to persue and apprehend. Every year, several people use a firearm to repel a threat but shoot the BG as they run away across the lawn or down the road AFTER THE THREAT NO LONGER EXISTS. Same reason you can’t lawfully chase speeding bank robbers car. Be it Rambo DNA or I’ll get that S.O.B mental state, it could put former good guy in jail.

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