American police officers fatally shoot about 1,000 people each year. But the circumstances of some of these cases inevitably lead the public to wonder why a suspect had to die — especially those who are armed with something less dangerous than a gun.
The main reason is that officers around the country are trained that, if they feel threatened and decide they must fire their weapon, they should aim for a suspect’s “center mass,” meaning the chest. It’s the biggest target and therefore the easiest to hit.
But since the chest includes the heart, lungs and spine, many people shot in that area die. This center mass, “shoot to kill” standard practice is ripe for review, and it’s surprisingly under way in a Georgia town of 31,000 people.
Louis Dekmar, police chief for 26 years in LaGrange, is training his officers to aim lower if they must fire their gun to stop a deadly threat.
Dekmar researched officer-involved fatalities and believes that a number of them can be prevented. In certain cases, he wants his officers to aim for the abdomen, pelvis and legs, with the goal of preventing a suspect from moving rather than killing them.
“The chief’s ‘Shoot to Incapacitate’ program has drawn interest from academics who say it merits further study,” The Washington Post reported. “In the national law enforcement community, however, it has elicited harsh, widespread criticism.
“Other police leaders in Georgia found the idea so controversial that they made it a focus of their annual conference in August, flying in nine experts to discuss the pros and cons. One group’s executive director will soon release a position paper advising departments throughout the state not to follow Dekmar’s lead.”
The Post, however, noted that the chief has a history of being ahead of the game on public-safety training. In the late 1990s, he set up mandatory recordings of his officers’ interactions with citizens. In 2004, he had all officers undergo crisis intervention training “so that everyone would know how to de-escalate encounters with people affected by mental illness.”
In 2009, the city bought body cameras for its officers, and in 2017 he made national headlines by becoming the first Southern police chief to apologize for his department’s role in a lynching that occurred in 1940.
No police chief could not do all this without deep and widespread local support. Dekmar appears to have it in LaGrange.
Both the mayor and a former leader of the local NAACP branch spoke highly of the chief. The police department’s training sergeant initially thought Dekmar’s ‘Shoot to Incapacitate’ idea was ridiculous, but reviewed videos of police shootings that showed some people shot in the chest were able to keep moving, while most people shot in the leg or pelvis couldn’t.
The new training started last February, and LaGrange’s first officer-involved shooting occurred in September. An officer confronted a man waving a machete, first hitting him with a Taser and then firing his gun.
The suspect essentially avoided being shot to death by collapsing when shot in the pelvis. The officer said he was grateful for that outcome after finishing the shift, because he knew he’d done everything he could to keep from killing someone.
It’s unrealistic to believe that aiming lower will greatly reduce fatal shootings. There are a lot of heavily armed people out there determined to cause trouble, and in those situations police must respond accordingly.
Still, as one former officer, now a law professor, told the Post, the preservation of life should be the highest priority of police work. Public safely leaders who agree with that should examine LaGrange’s work with an open mind.
Jack Ryan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Enterprise-Journal.