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When Should an Officer Pull the Trigger?



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The latest police use-of-force controversy centers around the case of Ramarley Graham of the Bronx. The details are still coming together, but evidently the NYPD was investigating a drug deal and suspected Graham was involved. They also suspected he was armed — according to various accounts, officers either saw him adjusting his waistline in a suspicious manner, or thought they saw the butt of a gun protruding from his pants. When two officers pulled up alongside him in a car and yelled at him to stop, he ducked into his nearby apartment building, and they gave chase.

The two officers, joined by two others, followed him into his apartment — in the bathroom of which, apparently, he was trying to flush his marijuana down the toilet. When an officer yelled “Show me your hands!” he allegedly reached for his waistline instead. The officer yelled “Gun! Gun!” and shot him, fatally.

It turns out that Graham was unarmed. Judging by the information currently available, the situation eerily parallels that of Amadou Diallo — another unarmed man who went for his pocket when NYPD officers told him to show his hands.

Few people saw or even heard what happened, so we may never know the full truth. But for many of those expressing outrage, the fact that Graham was unarmed seems in itself to prove that the officers acted badly. Why didn’t they wait until they were sure he had a gun before firing?

Because by the time an officer can positively identify a firearm, there isn’t enough time left to react. In fact, even in training drills where officers know what to expect, they cannot pull the trigger fast enough when a suspect tries to shoot them.

Here is one such study. (More details in this report.) In it, the suspect (played by a young criminal-justice student) started with his gun pointed away from the officer, and the officer (played by an experienced SWAT officer) started with his gun pointed at the suspect. The suspect then either surrendered or tried to shoot the officer. When the suspect fired, he was typically able to do so before the officer — even though the latter’s gun was already readied and aimed.

The bottom line is that once a suspect has produced a gun, he can shoot an officer faster than the cop can respond. In fact, the most talented shooters can unholster a weapon and fire it in less than the average human’s reaction time. And if the suspect’s gun starts out concealed, you can add some precious milliseconds for the cop to positively ID the firearm. The only real option for an officer who wants to survive such a confrontation is for him to shoot when a suspect disobeys an order to show his hands and instead reaches for his waist — especially when the suspect is already thought to be carrying a gun.

The official police policies I’ve consulted, including the NYPD’s, respect this reality. They require that an officer have reason to believe the suspect is about to cause death or serious injury to the officer or another person; they do not require that officers divine information their senses do not reveal.

It is, of course, tragic when an unarmed man is shot by police. But police can act only on the information that’s available to them, and when that information is “I told this guy to show me his hands, and instead he’s reaching for his waistline,” one can hardly expect him not to shoot.

Again, I don’t mean for this to be a full-throated defense of the officers in this particular case; I have no idea what actually happened. I merely aim to point out that Graham’s being unarmed is not proof of police misconduct.



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