“Contrary to media-based misimpressions, police officers rarely use their firearms and show great restraint when they do so.”
This line from the NYPD’s 2010 Firearms Discharge Report could have been written in response to criticism that flooded Internet comment boards after two police officers shot and killed Darrius H. Kennedy, 51, a mentally-disturbed man waving a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade near Times Square Aug. 11.
‘Shoot Him in the Knee’
While some writers praised the police, many complained that officers should have used fewer than 12 bullets. Others said they should have shot him in the knee, rushed him or disabled him by other nonlethal means, even though six blasts of pepper spray did not faze him.
“Seems like deployment of fatal force totally disproportionate to what a kitchen knife demanded,” one person wrote on the New York Times board. “A Taser, bean-bag gun or rubber bullet would have been the correct call with this guy,” another wrote.
Similar criticism arises frequently when there is a shooting involving multiple police officers. But Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly agreed that the officers did the right thing, as did policing experts contacted by THE CHIEF-LEADER.
“What these officers did was clearly within department regulations,” said John Eterno, a retired NYPD Captain who is associate dean and director of graduate studies in criminal justice at Molloy College. “The officers acted the way they were trained.”
‘A Well-Restrained Department’
“You’re only shooting at somebody if you believe your life or another life is in danger,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, describing the department’s rules on firing a weapon. “If you don’t believe that, you shouldn’t be shooting...This is an unbelievably well-restrained police department day in and day out.”
The 2010 firearms report shows a sharp decline in the number of people shot by police since 1971. In that year, 93 people were shot and killed by officers, compared with eight in 2010. The number of people wounded by police bullets dropped from 221 in 1971 to 16 in 2010.
“The untold story of the NYPD is the number of times the cops could fire and they don’t,” Mr. O’Donnell said. He noted that officers had backed Mr. Kennedy down seven blocks before shooting. “It’s a vintage NYPD thing—they tried to save this guy’s life,” he said.
“As each second passes, the chance of somebody getting seriously injured or killed increases,” said Mike Bosak, a retired NYPD Sergeant and unofficial department historian. “The more time the psycho has to commit violence the greater the chances that he will hurt somebody.”
In defending the officers, Eli Silverman, a Professor Emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said, “Second-guessing is an easy game.”
“You have to give the cop the latitude to make the judgment,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “They’re the ones who face up to the horror.”
Limits on Deadly Force
The 2010 firearms-discharge report outlined aspects of police training: “An officer may use deadly physical force when he or she has probable cause to believe that such force is necessary to protect the officer or other persons from imminent death or serious physical injury.
“...Once an officer has determined that deadly physical force is warranted and necessary, the goal of using such force is not to kill, but to stop," the report continued. “Police officers are trained to use deadly physical force to ‘stop the threat’...Police officers do not shoot to kill.”
All the experts scoffed at the idea of shooting a suspect anywhere other than center mass. The 2010 firearms report says: “Ersatz experts in police tactics who have never been police officers occasionally claim that shooting to wound is a valid choice even in life-or-death combat situations: they are mistaken. Both the impairment of fine motor skills during combat stress and the relative imprecision of pistols contribute to the fact that all police officers are taught to shoot for center mass. Police officers never aim for a subject’s extremities.”
As hard as it is to hit center mass, generally referred to as the torso, hitting a hand, knee or foot is even harder, the experts said. When off-duty Police Officer Feris Jones confronted a robber at a Brooklyn beauty parlor in 2010, she was lauded for shooting the gun out of his hand and then shooting the knob off the door to hamper his flight. But Ms. Jones, who was later promoted to Detective, said she had been aiming for center mass, as trained.
A Danger to Bystanders
Also, a hit in center mass is more likely to knock down a suspect—but can’t always be depended on to do so. “You can shoot people multiple times and they’re still walking, still dangerous,” Mr. O’Donnell said.
“Police are not trained to shoot someone’s hand,” Mr. Silverman said. “If you shoot for an extremity, you’re more likely to hit a bystander.” The shooting took place in a congested area, he said.
“You will be lucky to hit the person at all under such circumstances,” Mr. Eterno said.
“Those cops were both moving and breathing under intense pressure,” Mr. Bosak said. “The barrel of the pistol moves up, down and right to left as you are changing position. You have a greater chance of missing the farther away you are from the bad guy and the more you move. And the perp was constantly moving, so the cops had to move.
“Now to get to another factor: Where was he moving?” Mr. Bosak continued. “Was he going to move to a pedestrian and attempt to kill that person? Nobody knows. And if you guess wrong, what happens? Somebody’s life is at stake. So when he starts moving toward a pedestrian, he may decide to stick his blade into him or her. You can’t take that chance.”
How Many Bullets?
Whether the number of shots fired was excessive is a question that comes up whenever multiple cops are involved in a shooting. A similar outcry arose in 2010 when four officers in Harlem fired a total of 46 bullets while apprehending a man accused of killing another man, then shooting at them. The suspect was hit 22 times but survived.
“There’s no magic number of bullets,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “Cops don’t choreograph the shooting.” A police-union official said officers act independently, rather than waiting for colleagues to fire.
So-called non-lethal weapons also have their problems. A Taser fires an electric charge to incapacitate a suspect. For maximum effectiveness, many Tasers require officers to move closer to the suspect than the 21-foot standard distance they are often told to keep from a man with a knife. A Taser fires darts that must penetrate clothing and a suspect’s skin to be effective.
“You can’t say a Taser would have stopped this,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “They could try to Taze the guy and the guy could cut their throats.”
In any case, Tasers are issued only to Sergeants and members of the Emergency Services Unit, not to patrol officers. “ESU didn’t get there in time,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “These things are generally over by the time the specialized units get there.”
Bean Bags No Toys
Some departments use bean-bags filled with 40 ounces of lead shot that are fired from a shotgun, with the aim of stunning a suspect briefly until he can be subdued. They are not accurate beyond 20 feet and are not used by the NYPD. Rubber, wood, plastic and wax bullets, which work the same way, also are not used. These substitute bullets are designed to be non-lethal, but can kill depending on how they are used or how they hit a subject.
Officers are issued pepper spray, but it was ineffective on Mr. Kennedy. Pepper spray also did not stop Gidone Busch, a mentally-disturbed Brooklyn man who attacked police officers with a hammer in 1999. He was shot to death.
Mr. O’Donnell raised the possibility that Mr. Kennedy was seeking suicide by cop, in which an individual acts in a threatening way to provoke a lethal response from law-enforcement officers. “The guy had to know it was a likely outcome when he started it,” he said. “What kind of rational guy pulls a weapon on a cop?”
“It’s a tragedy,” Mr. O’Donnell summed up. “It’s terrible for the guy and his family, and terrible for the cops.”