Note: The following Op-Ed appeared on Page O-1 of the January 1, 2011 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune.
Officers sometimes forced to shoot armed suspects
By Ken K. Gourdin
As the son of a career law enforcement officer who spent 43 years on the job, I have little patience for those who endlessly dissect and critique officers actions such as the fatal shooting at the LDS Church’s Oquirrh Mountain Temple of an armed subject who refused to obey officers’ commands.
Among the objections in on line comments to The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent news coverage of the shooting are the following:
1. The officer should have used less-than-lethal force. This option makes no sense. Officers in such a situation would risk not disabling the suspect (instead, simply angering him further), at which time the suspect would have begun shooting real (lethal) bullets in response to those less-than-lethal measures. An officer’s job isn’t simply to engage suspects in a fair fight. It’s to neutralize the threat they pose. Period.
2. The officer should have fired a warning shot into the air. Those who favor this option ignore basic physics: What goes up must come down, and what comes down may injure or kill a totally innocent bystander. Potentially endangering the innocent in order to protect the guilty also makes no sense.
3. The officer should have shot to wound rather than to kill. This option ignores basic police procedure. Officers are trained to shoot at “center mass” (the torso) rather than at arms or legs. Why? Because the adrenaline that kicks in, enabling officers to respond effectively to situations calling for the use of deadly force, also makes them less accurate. If officers shoot at center mass and miss, there’s still a good chance that they will strike the suspect somewhere, while if they shoot at an extremity and miss, there’s a good chance they’ll miss the suspect entirely, leaving him free to harm someone else.
4. The suspect was fleeing, and therefore posed no threat to anyone. Officers can ill afford to give suspects who flee with weapons the benefit of the doubt. Officers are justified in using deadly force if a suspect poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers or to the public.
5. Officers should not use deadly force unless they are absolutely sure of a suspect’s intentions. For example, the suspect’s gun may not have been loaded. [This contention ignores the fact that] a sizable cache of ammunition was found in the suspect’s vehicle after he was shot.
Failing to act without absolute surety of a suspect’s intentions is a good way for both officers and the public to end up hurt or killed. Such second-guessing is a luxury which those who must make split-second life-or-death decisions can ill afford.
The only thing gun-toting suspects have to do to avoid getting shot is to obey officers’ commands. Most all officers do not want to shoot people; they just want to go home safe to their families at the end of their shift. As regrettable as it might be, sometimes it takes using deadly force to make sure that happens.
We do officers a disservice when we demand that they protect us, while endlessly and unfairly critiquing how they do so.
Ken K. Gourdin received a degree in criminal justice with a law enforcement emphasis from Weber State University and was recently certified as a paralegal by the National Association of Legal Assistants. [At the time of this writing, he lived] in Tooele.