Who Remembers “Shoot at What You Know”?

After the Isaiah Brown shooting in Virginia this past week, I reflected on some of the recent shootings by police of unarmed, even nonthreatening citizens. I know we have been distracted by the “just comply” or the “split second decision in a rapidly changing environment” or my favorite “people need to raise their kids better”, but one phrase has gone missing from law enforcement decision making.

While we seem so ready to dismiss, discount, and deflect the responsibility for taking a life from the life taker to the life taken, we seem to have forgotten the phrase in my title. Throughout my firearms training career, I was always told, “Shoot at what you know, not what you think.” Today, I have changed it to, “Shoot at what you know, not what you can possibly fantasize.”

To use the Brown shooting as an example, the deputy shot Mr. Brown 10 times as he was responding to a domestic situation with a possibly armed subject/suspect. The information of the weapon was given to the deputy by the dispatcher for the call. The deputy got on scene with the belief that someone had a gun. This should always be in an officer’s mind, not merely because a dispatcher tells them so. Here’s where we have developed amnesia.

A police officer must directly observe a scene and everyone in it to develop the information necessary to coordinate their necessary response and appropriate actions. The critical thinking involved in this process is what enables the officer to get to the point of “knowing”. But an officer must think and continue to think. They must observe, orient, decide and act. (Where have I seen that before?) If they don’t do these things, they will not gain real, and real time, information upon which to base their decisions. IF not this, what are they doing?

In these types of events, officers seem to be operating on autopilot. But not just autopilot. It is like the course to France has been programmed in, but they are flying to Alaska. They will crash and burn before they ever get to their desired destination. They seem to take the information given originally and use it to make their decisions throughout the event. Or they do like the officer did who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson as she simply stood in her home, holding a gun.

If you remember, the officer was handing an open-door call. Nothing more sinister of criminal. In this event, he let his imagination take over. He believed that if the door was open in the middle of the night, and he was called to investigate, some crime must be in process. As he moved around the house, he likely became a potential criminal to Ms. Jefferson, inside with her nephew. Jefferson armed herself for defense, the officer, not accounting for his sneaking around the house with a flashlight and possibly alarming the resident, perceived Jefferson as the criminal he was searching for. His self-fulfilling prophesy or fantasy, came true, and he shot and killed an innocent person.

We need to get back to “Shoot at what you know, not what you think or can possibly fantasize”. We have given officers too much latitude in the use of lethal force. We have given them too much ability to fantasize a negative action to assuage their fears and allow them to use deadly force. Aside from the officer in the Jefferson case, who has been charged with murder, too many times we chalk such tragedies up to “a tragic accident”. Accidents are catastrophic events that could not have been avoided and have no accountability or responsibility to assign. What these are, are mistakes.

Mistakes in how we prepare our officers. Mistakes in how we train our officers. Mistakes in how we support our officers.

Police officers have shot and killed unarmed, nonthreatening suspects, innocent bystanders, even other police officers because they shot at what they fantasized to be a threat to them. Of course, police shoot people appropriately, I should not and do need to elaborate on that here. My issue is with the innocent people begin shot because we have forgotten the enormous responsibility of being certain when using lethal force against another human being.

We must get back to teaching, and knowing, why we do what we do.