In my 25-year police career, I pointed guns at lots of people.  Admittedly, in hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have pointed guns at all of those folks.



In my defense, training doctrines, levels of violent crime, and public scrutiny were very different back in the mid-1990s as compared to our modern age.  We were taught to point guns directly at any felony suspect regardless of the level of danger they posed to us.  It was just the way things were done.  Back in the day, very few cops would have ever considered using a position like “low ready” to confront a potentially armed suspect.  We took people down “at gunpoint.”  That meant pointing a gun at the suspects’ chests and faces while demanding compliance.



Things have changed.



Most likely due to the fact that most cops now record every criminal arrest on body cameras, police administrators have demanded changes to use of force policies.  Cops were pointing guns at too many people without a reasonable cause to do so.  Sticking a gun in the face of an unarmed teenage kid in a stolen car looks bad when the bosses review the body cam footage. 



The police bosses started cracking down on excessive gun play.  Pointing a gun at someone was once considered a “threat” of force generally equivalent to harsh verbal language.  At some point during the last decade or so, pointing a gun directly at another human being changed from a low consequence “threat of force” to a  serious”use of force” that was documented and investigated.



While some changes were certainly needed, I fear we might have gone too far.



There is currently a push by police administrators to limit the pointing of guns at criminal suspects.  Lots of administrators now demand that cops keep their weapons holstered or pointed safely at the ground until they are legally justified in using lethal force.  That’s a ridiculous standard that will lead to future police deaths.



I was reading Adam Winch’s recent article about taking down an armed suspect last night and started thinking deeply about the topic.  Take a few minutes to read the article linked below before moving on to my commentary.


Dry Fire With A Live Gun: A Needed Skill



To summarize, a man armed with a handgun and what appeared to be an AR-15 rifle was threatening people at a hotel.  He had held his pistol to the head of a hotel employee and was walking around the hotel grounds menacing guests with the AR-15 rifle he held in his hands.


Adam discusses how he and his co-workers approached the man with guns drawn and fingers taking up trigger slack.  All the officers had guns pointed directly at the bad guy and were milliseconds away from completing trigger presses before the suspect complied.



Despite the fact that the suspect was armed with two guns, had committed a violent felony, and had what appeared to be a semi automatic rifle IN HIS HANDS when the cops found him, lots of police administrators would demand that the cops confront the man with guns pointed at the ground.  That’s ridiculous.



The officers in this case did not have to shoot the suspect.  That doesn’t mean that pointing a gun at the dude wasn’t an objectively reasonable use of force.



Gunfighting is often a game of action versus reaction.  If both the suspect and the officers had guns in hand and pointed in a safe direction, whoever moved first would get the first shot off.  If the cops had to wait until they were legally justified to shoot the man before pointing a gun at him, they would be in second place in the gunfight if the suspect decided to shoot first. 



If, on the other hand, the cops had guns pointed at the suspect’s chest, when he started to raise the gun in the cops’ direction the cops might have a chance to get a good shot off before he fired.  That is simply using good tactics.  The law doesn’t require that cops wait until getting shot before they can fire back.  In this case, the only chance the cops would have to win a suspect-initiated gunfight is to have their weapons already pointed at the bad guy when he decided to initiate the shootout.



After the gunfight at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp stated “I did not intend that any of the band should get the drop on me if I could help it.”  That’s useful advice even today.  I’m all for police officers safely keeping guns in the holster or pointed at the ground unless such actions allow the bad guys to “get the drop” on the officers.   Despite the assertion of some police administrators, officers do not have to willfully handicap themselves in a gunfight.



Police bosses will argue “pointing a gun at someone meets the elements of the crime of aggravated assault.”  That’s correct, in some cases.  Putting someone in a painful wrist lock or throwing a person to the ground meets the statutory definitions for assault as well, yet cops do that all the time without issue.  Handcuffing someone without their consent meets the statutory definition of “kidnapping” or “unlawful restraint.”  Does that mean that cops shouldn’t handcuff people?  That’s silly.  Society recognizes that cops can legally use force to affect a lawful arrest so long as it is objectively reasonable to do so.  I would argue that there are lots of scenarios cops face where it is reasonable to point a gun at someone even if it isn’t (yet) reasonable to shoot that person.



I vividly remember the first time I ever pointed a gun at another human.  I was a new cop recently released from field training and patrolling on my own.  I was working the midnight shift and was dispatched to a call about a “Peeping Tom.”  A woman called to report that a male suspect was peering in her house windows from the outside.  She described the suspect and stated that he was currently hiding behind a tree in the the caller’s side yard.



I rolled up in my police car and hit the yard with my spotlight.  Sure enough, there was an older male suspect hiding behind a tree while peering into the caller’s window.  When he saw my light, he circled the tree to keep it between him and me.  I got out of the car and yelled at the man to step out from behind the tree where he was hiding.



The man moved his hands into a position as if holding a rifle and screamed “I have a shotgun and will shoot you if you come any closer.”  I drew my gun and sought cover behind my cruiser’s engine block.


After a few minutes of “negotiation” the man stepped out from behind the tree.  I had my Smith and Wesson .45 pointed at his chest with my finger on the trigger, taking up the slack.  As the man stepped away from the concealing tree, I saw he did not have a firearm in his hands.  I holstered my weapon and moved in to handcuff the suspect.



In short order, I realized that the man was a local resident suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  He had sneaked away from his house after his caretaker fell asleep.  I took off the cuffs and drove the man back home. 



I was certainly not justified in shooting this old guy, but he threatened to shoot me and made hand motions consistent with holding a shotgun.  I think pointing a gun at that dude until I could figure out what’s going on was certainly reasonable in that situation.



The thing that many police bosses fail to realize is that sometimes pointing a gun at someone compels compliance when all other tactics don’t work.  Cops generally aren’t pointing guns at suspects just for fun.  They often point guns as a last resort when all other tactics have failed.  When an officer appears competent and points a gun at a suspect, that threat of lethal force often convinces the bad guy to go along with the program.  The officer doesn’t have to physically hurt the suspect. 



One more story…



I had been a cop for about 15 years.  I was the agency’s full time firearms instructor with thousands of hours of use of force instructor training under my belt.  I was working an unusual patrol shift to cover for an officer who was out on injury leave.



A homicide detective from the neighboring big city called us requesting that we arrest a murder suspect in our city.  The suspect was wanted for fatally shooting another man after an argument over a woman.  The detective had good intel on the suspect’s whereabouts.  Apparently, the suspect worked for a furniture delivery company.  He had a delivery scheduled for a resident in our city.  The detective wanted us to wait until the furniture truck arrived in our city and arrest the delivery man on the homicide warrant.  The detective cautioned us that the suspect had an extensive arrest record for violent felonies (including numerous assaults on police officers) and was known to always carry a pistol.



No problem.  My partner and I set up in the parking lot of the apartment complex where the delivery was set to take place.  When the delivery truck arrived and the suspect stepped out of the passenger seat, I drew my Glock to a hard “low ready” position and ordered the suspect to get on the ground.  He ignored my commands, looked around, and suddenly thrust his hand into his front pants pocket.



I was about 10 feet away from him.  Without a thought, my gun rose from the low ready position up to one where my sights were centered on the suspect’s nose.  “Get down on the ground or I’m going to shoot you in the fucking face!”  Suddenly the murderer thought compliance was a real good idea.  We arrested him without incident.  It turned out that he was reaching into his pocket for his cell phone in order to call his lawyer.  He was not armed.



In that case, I didn’t yet have a reasonable justification for shooting the man, but like old Wyatt Earp said in the quote above, I was unwilling to let the murderer “get the drop on me.”



In that particular case, my gun displayed in a safe “low ready” position wasn’t threatening enough to garner compliance from the suspect.  When the gun was pointed at his face, he had a sudden change of plans and decided that he really didn’t want to fight the police.  Sometimes the cop administrators who advocate never pointing weapons at bad guys have forgotten that police officers point guns at people for a good reason.  It often compels compliance without any further resistance.  Isn’t that a laudable goal for a police officer arresting a violent felon?



Police work is complex and nuanced.  Having hard rules about never pointing guns directly at other people unless officers have justification to shoot are unnecessarily restrictive.  There are lots of situations where an officer may make the reasonable decision to watch how the scenario plays out through the weapon sights centered on the suspect’s chest.


I thought a photo of me pointing a (unloaded, triple cleared, and neutered to a condition where it cannot fire) shotgun at a teenage girl in one of my training classes might get me some internet hate clicks.
Photo courtesy of the girl’s father.



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