TTAG previously reposted Mr. John S. Farnam’s article, posted on the Defense Training Institute’s web site, titled “Police Use of Force.” In that article, Mr. Farnam writes “The problem is not that we’re shooting too many people. The problem is that we’re not shooting nearly enough!” There were some great, well though out comments to that post here. I wanted to reply myself, but I thought I would read some other material written by Mr. Farnam, and think about it a bit before replying. After that research and reflection . . .
I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Farnam’s service, as well as his instruction and training. I especially appreciate that he returns again and again to the notion that an individual must decide prior to an incident as to what level of violence they are willing to engage in.
But somewhere, somehow, Mr. Farnam has gone off the rails. As much as I have tried to find some other meaning, it seems clear that he is advocating that if a police officer believes there is a legal justification to kill someone, they should do so. This advice should not only be ignored, but also be vocally rejected by members of law enforcement at every level.
The reason for such a rejection is simple. Mr. Farnam’s advice will get a lot of people killed. Both people who should die and people who shouldn’t. And the number one group that Mr. Farnam’s advice will get killed is cops.
Since Mr. Farnam quoted from a wartime memo, I’ll give you two experiences that happened to me while I was deployed with an Embedded Training Team and a Police Mentor Team in Afghanistan, examples of how shooting when you legally can can be bad, and the reverse as well. The first happened when I had every legal right to shoot.
We had set up a hasty Traffic Control Point, and my job was to kill or detain anyone who made as far as my position, and not let anyone pass me. To get to me, you had to have already gotten through another checkpoint. As it was just me and an Afghan interpreter at that location, it was explained pretty clearly that it would be unlikely that I would be able to effectively detain a determined adversary at my position. So just shoot them.
The next thing I know, I am telling a man in his 20s on a motorcycle to stop as he approaches. I try Dari first, then Pashto. He doesn’t stop. Now I am waving my hands, clenching my fist and screaming in Dari and Pashto. He is looking right at me, but he doesn’t stop. He is about 30 meters away from me.
On my radio I hear “Eight (that’s me), what the hell, shoot him shoot him shoot him!” I am still yelling at him, the terp is walking away, still yelling at the man. All I can think is “Please stop, please stop, please just stop….” I am still screaming when I kneel down, sit on my back foot and take aim.
The man is 20 yards away and I can see his brow furrow through my scope. The little red dot is on his upper lip. I put it there knowing that, at this range, that will put the bullet right through his brain stem on its way out. I am not a bad shot and at this range, there is no way I can miss. I am still begging for him to stop when I quit yelling, hold my breath, switch the rifle from safe to semi, and start to take up the slack on the trigger.
And he stops. He stops, stands up, pulls the headphones out of his ears and puts both of his hands out as if to say, “What?” He was just rocking out, oblivious to the world, riding on his motorcycle. And I was about 2 lbs. of trigger weight from killing him for that. When he realized I was there, and why, he stood there, right where he was. Eventually, he would be berated by the interpreter, the Afghan police chief, and a series of local old men. I was told he was “just a very stupid man.”
The use of force was within my rules of engagement (ROE), and my own non-commissioned officer in charge was screaming in my radio, telling me to fire. I didn’t fire. I didn’t fire because he didn’t look dangerous. He looked oblivious. I would not have let him pass me. I was prepared to kill him before he did. But if I had, I would have certainly killed a man for not paying attention.
On another occasion, a small Special Operations (SO) team was operating in our area of responsibility. They hadn’t told us where they were operating, and they didn’t share that with local military or law enforcement either. There are many good reasons for that level of operational security.
However, a local Afghan National Police outpost saw a group of men, obviously armed, not clearly in US military uniforms, moving at night, some distance away. As they were trained to do, they opened fire. They didn’t positively identify their target, but their ROE was very clear, and they followed it, engaging the target with the .51 caliber DsHK. The SO team chose not to return fire. Instead, they hunkered down and called in an AC130 which loitered over the police station. The plane pummeled them, killing every single police office within the outpost. They didn’t positively identify their target either, but were also well within their ROE.
Those were the policemen that my team helped recruit and train. The outpost was right off HWY1, and the policemen’s bodies were literally splattered across the walls. Every single Afghan who drove by saw their police, the people that were supposed to protect them, torn to bits by US forces. Although it was a different unit, a different branch of the military, and we didn’t know about it until after it happened, the local Afghans blamed us for it.
What were the effects of those two scenarios? For the first one, where I held fire because I was unsure of the threat, it garnered us some good will. Because of a series of events like that, and because we responded with a great deal of violence when we actually were threatened, a truce was called directly around our tiny FOB, for a while. As we were only nine men, 60 km away from the nearest US force, it bought us some breathing room.
But the second example, as well as some other serious strategic mistakes, ended all of that. We faced increasing levels of violence that took a long time to turn around. For us, those two events had a great impact on our safety and our ability to fulfill our mission.
I bring those two examples up because I have been on the receiving end of what Mr. Farnam would have called the wrong action, and saw it contribute to the safety of me and my team. I have also seen how what he would have called the right action put my team in harm’s way.
If police kill when they don’t have to, when they aren’t required to shoot in order to ensure the safety of themselves or others, they will, at best, lose public support. And that support is necessary to police survival. I discount stories of places in the US where “cops just won’t go.” But as an EMT I certainly saw places that cops wouldn’t go without a larger force than other locations. And much of that was because, in some places, the police were seen as an organization that couldn’t be trusted by the local populace.
In those locations, police shootings happened more frequently than in other places, and people were hesitant to call 911. They were also reluctant to testify in cases in which the police were killed. It creates a cycle of violence that requires a massive culture shift to turn around, if it can be done at all.
The logical conclusion is that police become seen as a threat to more and more people, including the law abiding population that previously supported them. And at that point cops get killed, and nobody cares.
What frightens me is that I see our nation trending in that direction. Now, when a police officer is killed, I see more and more people assuming it was the cop’s fault. That the cop was incompetent, dirty, or otherwise involved in illegal activity. I see less and less “demand his firing and sue the department” and more and more of “kill the pigs.” That’s not entirely without reason, but that attitude comes with dire consequences for both the police and the population they serve.