Dynamics of Police Shootings

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Articles

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Written by: Greg Ellifritz

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I was going through some references the other day and a found some very in depth notes I had taken during a class I took a couple of years ago.  The class was Force Science Research Center’s “Dynamics of Police Shootings” Course.  When I realized that I hadn’t published these notes on my site, I rounded them all up and put them together here.  This course was primarily aimed at helping cops investigate shootings, but contains a massive amount of information of use to armed citizens as well.  Enjoy.



Today I attended the first day of a 2-day training class put on by the Force Science Research Center (FSRC). The FSRC is run by Dr. Bill Lewinski, a psychologist who has researched police shootings for nearly 35 years. The class sought to explain the biomechanics, training issues and survival challenges inherent in the dynamics of a police shooting. The class was excellent  and I highly recommend for anyone, police or civilian, who wants to learn more about the dynamics of a gunfight.


The following is a summary of the information I found most interesting and wanted to share. While the class was geared toward police shootings many of the implications are equally applicable to military or civilian armed encounters.


  • 40% of police shootings involve shooting a suspect who is running (and usually running laterally or away from the officer). This leads to lots of suspects being shot in the back.


  • Hick’s Law is really not applicable to use of force incidents. People simply don’t consider all the options they have available. They choose their favorite option or the one that is most available, effectively limiting response options to a very small number. They never consider ALL of their options, so the idea that having too many options will slow reaction times never comes into play.


  • In a shooting, the time it takes for a person to scan looking for cover will result in giving the assailant time to fire three additional shots.


  • If an officer pauses in the middle of a gunfight to assess his rounds’ effectiveness, the criminal will be able to fire two shots back at the officer while he is assessing. The idea of “Fire two shots and assess” gets people killed.


  • The key to not getting your weapon taken from you is proper threat assessment COMBINED with weapon retention training. Neither will work by themselves.


  • Cop killers (and interestingly enough, spousal abusers) have one of two different dominant personality characteristics. They are either psychopaths or people with dependent personalities. The dependent personalities kill cops when they perceive that what they are dependent on (spouse, drugs, money, pets, etc) will be taken away from them by the police.


  • The two most reliable (non-clinical) methods for determining if a person is a psychopath: “Do you like the person too much too soon?” and “Does the person instantly create a feeling of intense dislike?” Both are reliable indicators of psychopathy.


  • From numerous research studies on untrained shooters:
    • They tend to shoot for the head. In dealing with people throughout the day we pay attention to “reading” and focusing on people’s faces. Untrained shooters are looking at the face and simply bring the gun up to their line of sight and pull the trigger
    • They are accurate with head shots out to about 15 feet
    • Beyond 20 feet, most untrained shooters miss more than they hit
    • They fire fast, on average 3 shots per second
    • Under time pressure, the performance of untrained shooters and the average academy trained police officer isn’t very different. Trained police officers shoot about 10% better than untrained shooters.


  • After a shooting, a shooter cannot be expected to remember what they weren’t paying attention to. If they are asked to explain an action that they don’t remember, the brain will MAKE UP a logical response. That response may or may not be correct.


  • Police Officers involved in a shooting have three “Survival Challenges” that make winning difficult. These Survival Challenges are:
    • Trained by Hollywood- most officers get more training (even if it isn’t conscious) from TV and movies than they do at their department
    • They have no experience dealing with true cop killers- Cops simply don’t consider that the people they may be dealing with have no moral qualms about killing.
    • Action vs. Reaction- Criminals are the initiators of the actions and cops must respond. An UNTRAINED shooter can fire a shot in as little as .09 seconds (if he starts with gun in hand). That simply isn’t enough time for someone to react before being shot


  • We lay down a motor program at the speed we practice it.” It’s important to fire at “gunfight speed” in training occasionally, even if accuracy suffers. If the body has never performed the action (in this case, shooting very quickly) you can’t expect that you will suddenly develop the skill under the stress of a gunfight.


  • When approaching a prone suspect who has his hands hidden underneath him, approach from the suspect’s left side, coming from an angle between his feet and hips. The suspect will be slower trying to shoot you from this angle than any other. A better option is not to approach, but to use beanbags or Tasers.


  • A suspect who is running away from the officer can turn his shoulders, fire a shot and then have his back turned to the officer and continue running in an average of .14 seconds. That’s faster than an officer can perceive the change in direction and stop firing a shot in return.


  • Research on cop killers shows that they generally fired before the victim officer, were at an average distance of 14-15 feet away from the officer, did not use sights when firing, and hit with 68% of shots fired. Cop killers who shot at closer distances (within 3 feet) hit with 97% of their shots.


  • The average police officer can fire one shot:

With finger on trigger in .25-.35 seconds (depending on length of trigger pull not weight)

With finger on frame in .45 seconds

From the low ready in .83 seconds

From position “Sul” in 1 second

From “High Sabrina” ready in 1.1 second

From gun drawn and hidden behind leg in 1.3 seconds

From the holster in 1.5 seconds (level 3 holsters = 1.75 seconds)


  • Officers can draw and fire from an UNSNAPPED holster on average .2 seconds faster than a SNAPPED holster. But, an officer loses significant weapon retention ability. Interestingly, an officer who practices regularly will shoot SLOWER from an unsnapped holster because the weapon isn’t in exactly the same place in the holster as it was when he was practicing.


  • Light moves faster than sound. But in the brain, sound is processed faster than sight by an average of .06 seconds. That means officers will be faster if responding to audio threat cues than visual threat cues.


  • On average it takes .25 seconds to react to a threat cue and begin to act. If that reaction to a threat cue involves a decision (i.e. “Is the thing in his hand a gun or a cell phone?”) the time is increased to .56 seconds. It takes officers an average of .35 seconds to process that a threat no longer exists and to stop shooting. With officers firing an average of 1 round every .25 seconds in a gunfight, that means that officers will generally fire 1-2 rounds AFTER making the decision to stop shooting!


  • Officers generally fire 2-3 rounds in a gunfight. It may be that the majority of threats are stopped by 2-3 rounds but Dr. Lewinski speculates that there is another factor involved. In training, most officers fire strings of 2-3 rounds. Is his gunfight performance merely repeating what he has done most often in training? If this is true, it’s important to vary the numbers of rounds fired in training exercises.


  • The “Tueller Drill” which quantified that the “average” person could run 21 feet in the time it took a person to draw and fire 2 rounds, is inaccurate. The “average” was obtained by timing aging police firearms instructors. Younger, faster people can travel 31 feet in the time it takes to draw and fire. Modern holsters are also slower to draw from than the 1980s era holsters that were used in the original study. Thus, a person armed with an edged weapon could be a legitimate threat to an officer with a holstered firearm from a distance of up to 35 feet!


  • The idea that we experience tunnel vision and diminished hearing under stress is somewhat inaccurate. Better terminology would be “selective attention”. The issue isn’t a PHYSICAL issue with the vision or hearing. The diminished hearing and vision occurs in the brain. The brain is simply paying more attention to the things that have the greatest survival value and “turning off” stimuli that it deems less important.


  • Memory disparities or deficiencies after police shootings can be caused by the above factors…the shooter simply isn’t paying attention to everything and thus doesn’t remember. They may also be the result of psychological dissociation. Similar to a sexual assault victim recoiling in shock away from an attack and dissociating mentally (to spare mental trauma), officers under life threatening assault may dissociate. The officer may mentally be “someplace else” trying to avoid psychological pain. If an officer is in a dissociated state, he won’t accurately remember what happened during the incident.


  • Dr. Lewinski recommends two books for Firearms Trainers or anyone else who is interested in the dynamics of a shooting situation:


Understanding Human Behavior for Effective Police Work– Russell and Beigle (out of print)

Motor Learning and Performance– Schmidt and Wrissberg


  • Peripheral vision and focal vision operate differently when dealing with path of travel of an object. When you are staring directly at something, it appears to be traveling in a straighter direction than when viewed peripherally. This creates difficulty in shooting situations. When officers perceive a threat in their peripheral vision and then change focus to look directly at the threat, the threat appears to be moving faster and more directly toward them than it actually is.


  • When officers are losing control of an incident or in serious fear, their verbal commands become “Beta Commands”. Unintelligible, nonsensical words come from the subconscious under these conditions. We need to train officers to give sensible commands under the stress of training so that they get used to verbalizing under stress. Otherwise, suspects may not understand what the officers are saying. This has implications for citizens as well…think about dialing 911 and trying to give a sensible account of what is happening to the dispatcher.


  • Lifesaving responses (like shooting in a gunfight) and complex analytical thinking cannot happen simultaneously.


Day Two


Before getting to the research, I want to publicly acknowledge the course host. The FSRC staff was brought in by the Columbus, Ohio Police Department and the class was held at their excellent police training facility. One other important note…CPD’s police chief as well as many of the deputy chiefs and commanders of the Columbus Police Department attended the entire training class. I very seldom see command staff at these kind of training sessions. It was refreshing to see that CPD’s command staff cares enough about understanding the dynamic situations their officers face that they took the time to attend a class like this.


Now, on to the research….


  • One difficulty in investigating shootings is trying to determine exactly what the shooter saw. We can’t assume that a shooter has seen important developing events just because it appears (from videotape evidence) that the shooter is looking a certain direction. Studies done on officers who were wearing head-mounted cameras show that officers who are scanning for cover or for additional threats can lose sight of the suspect momentarily. In that moment, they can miss very important changes (like the suspect dropping the gun, or aiming it at another person) that affect the decision making process a shooter makes.


  • There is a tremendous difference in eye movement and focusing patterns between elite athletes and amateur athletes. The elite athlete will have a “quieter” focus. The eyes will look at exactly what the person needs to see. An amateur athlete’s eyes will dart around constantly trying to garner more information. The elite athlete has enough experience to know WHAT he needs to look at in order to obtain the necessary information. The amateur athlete doesn’t know what he has to look at, so he looks at EVERYTHING.


This fact has implications for police use of force training. Amateur officers, like amateur athletes simply don’t have the training or experience to know what is important to look at. The amateur officer will have darting eyes and will be trying to look at EVERYTHING in the scene to get the most amount of information. When his eyes are darting about, he misses important pieces of information he needs to make a good shooting decision. Future directions in police training will be teaching officers exactly what they should be looking for and at (threat cues, body postures, movement patterns, etc) in order to better perform in stressful situation.


Research on this topic can be found in the book The Quiet Eye in Action by Joan Vickers.


  • An internal focus of attention (focusing on processes such as drawing the gun, finger positioning, sight alignment, etc) is detrimental to performance in a gunfight. There is only so much brainpower that an individual can use. If much of that brainpower is being used to figure out how to draw the gun, grip it, etc, there is less brainpower available for use in seeing threats and making good tactical decisions. Mechanical processes should be trained to the point of being automatic, so as to maximize the brainpower availability for making tactical decisions.


  • In analyzing performance and gaze patterns of NOVICE officers (academy training only) in force on force scenarios, researchers found that the NOVICE OFFICERS:
    • had excellent basic skills, but lacked the ability to apply them tactically
    • were slower to react to threats than veteran officers
    • often fired shots very late in encounters, many times AFTER the attacker had already fired at them
    • Closed eyes during serious threats
    • Paid attention to their own weapons (drawing, sight alignment) rather than what is happening in the scenario
    • By focusing on their own weapon, they wasted valuable brainpower that could be used to make better tactical decisions. This leads to poor judgment in shooting situations.
    • Less accurate in shooting than veteran officers under stress of the scenario even though skill levels were equal or better


  • In contrast to the above, VETERAN officers focused more on the outcome and less on the process of shooting. They were faster, more accurate, and showed better judgment under stress than the novice officers. The veterans knew what to look for, and when they saw it, they reacted without having to think about the process. Their eyes remained open and their gaze remained “quiet” and not darting.


  • Smart training processes would focus on teaching novice officers what basic body movements are necessary to draw a firearm. That way, officers could learn to better identify threat cues and learn WHAT they need to watch in a scenario to determine if a person is actually drawing a weapon. Novice officers wait to see a gun and by then it’s too late. Veteran officers react when they see the body mechanics of a person DRAWING the weapon, rather than waiting to see the weapon itself.


  • If an officer has attentional problems (pays attention to the wrong thing) in a shooting incident, those attentional problems will contribute to both performance and memory problems.


  • Shell cases ejected from a semi-automatic firearm merely indicate that a weapon was fired in the area. They do not always go back and to the right as is commonly thought. Depending on how the gun is being held when it was fired, shell cases can end up in front of the shooter, behind the shooter, to his left or to his right. When investigating a shooting, one should determine how the gun was being held before determining where a shooter was standing based on where the shell cases are found.


  • Whether the gun is shot with one hand or two, whether it s straight up and down or canted, where hand is placed on the grip, muzzle orientation, and the height of the gun from the ground all play a role in where the ejected brass lands.


  • A study of all firearms discharges in federal agencies (FBI, DEA, ATF) from 2000-2003 found that out of 267 total discharges, 102 of them were accidental discharges. Weapon handling skills and discipline are universally lacking.


  • A study was done on officers in the German National Police who participated in several force on force training scenarios. The German Police are trained not to put their fingers on their triggers unless they are in the action of shooting. This rule was specifically covered immediately prior to the training scenario.


The scenario was designed to be a NO SHOOT scenario. Despite the officers’ training and policies, 20% of the officers put their fingers on their triggers. NONE of those officers realized they did it. 1/5 of those officers touching the trigger used more than 5 lbs. of pressure. 6% of those officers used more than 12lbs. of pressure.


The German study identified the following situations when officers were most likely to touch their triggers unintentionally:

    • Jumping
    • Loss of balance
    • Single Leg Kicks
    • Pushing or Pulling with the non-gun hand


  • In addition to the above, American research has identified other causes of unintentional discharges if officers’ fingers are on or near the trigger:
    • The suspect or another party striking or touching the gun arm or hand
    • Hand confusion- when the hands are crossed (think Harries Flashlight position) it is difficult to differentiate between the two under stress. An officer might be trying to turn on the flashlight, but accidentally mixes up his hands and pulls the trigger instead
    • Contra-lateral muscular contraction (the non gun side hand or leg moves violently)
    • A “YIP”- defined by a sudden spasmodic jerk of the hand or forearm muscles. It’s been intensively studied in the context of figuring out why pro golfers miss putts, but it is now being applied to research about accidental shootings. Yips occur more frequently under high stress and heart rates


  • There are three additional reasons why officers may unconsciously touch their triggers. If they are touching the trigger for any of the below reasons, and one of the physical actions from above occur, the officer will likely pull the trigger:
    • Officers become distracted by the scenario and lose situational awareness of exactly where their fingers are
    • The body seeks a more natural position for the hand. Holding the hand with index finger straightened isn’t natural.
    • “Trigger Affirmation” under stress officers seek the psychological reassurance of knowing that they can pull the trigger. They perform a trigger “caress” to reaffirm the fact that the trigger is there and they can pull it if needed.


  • When the brain processes indicators of potential threats it ALWAYS attempts to identify WHAT the threat is before it identifies WHERE the threat is.


  • Memories formed under stress are different than memories formed under less stressful conditions. Most memory research (Ebbinghaus, etc.) used in textbooks is over 100 years old and has scientifically challenged since then. Memories encoded with emotional context are recalled through a different process in the brain than those encoded in the brain by pure repetition or through classroom-style learning.


  • A person who has been awake for 24 hours has the brain function similar to a person who has been drinking enough alcohol to be the equivalent of a .08 BAC (legally drunk in most states).


  • Memory is also affected by how physically exhausted the participant is. In a FSRC study of how physical exhaustion affects police officers’ memory, the officers were instructed to strike a punching bag until exhaustion. Officers lasted an average of 56 seconds while striking the bag. After the strikes, the officers were asked to perform several tasks and participate in a training scenario. Researchers found:


    • The average officer started to feel exhausted after 20 seconds of all- out effort
    • All officers’ strikes were deemed ineffective after 45 seconds
    • Participants heart rates ranged from 160-200bpm
    • Interestingly, other officers observing the training had heart rate monitors as well. The OBSERVERS’ heart rates ranged from 106-195bpm!
    • After exhaustion only 27% of officers could identify (from a line up) the suspect involved in their training scenario
    • Upon interviewing the participants, the most common statement made was “I was tired”

This study has several implications. Just like in earlier experiments, when officers were internally focused (focused on their draw or grip on the weapon) and had poor performance, officers focused on “being tired” are focusing on internal concerns. If they are internally focused on their own exhaustion, they have less brainpower available to make good tactical decisions or remember important facets of a scenario.


Another implication is the reliability of witnesses. The witnesses in the training scenario had heart rates similar to the officers participating. They may have perceptual distortions from the stress in the same way that an officer does.


  • Research indicates that allowing an officer to walk through a shooting scene after the shooting (without evidence present) will allow the officer to better remember the incident. You will get a better statement and more accurate memories after having done this.


  • Conversely, allowing officers to watch video of the incident may create false memories. The video captures images that the officer may not have seen. The video may not show things that the officers saw. If officers don’t have good recollection of the incident, they will supplant their own personal memories with information from the video. That may not create the most accurate statements.


If you are interested in more information from the FSRC, check out their website at www.forcescience.org They have an email newsletter that I have found very valuable.




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5 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Don says:

    “Holding the hand with index finger straightened isn’t natural.” Did the study mention a better technique? Some instructors suggest curling the finger while touching the frame.

  2. Will says:

    The study said untrained shooters are accurate with head shots out to fifteen feet. Would that probably make the head a better target than the chest at that range? It seems like it would provide a better chance to stop the bad guy but also more danger to innocent bystanders and yourself if you were to miss. What are your feelings about all that?

  3. TominCA says:

    Excellent article. Should be mandatory reading for all jurors in police involved shootings!

  4. Doug D says:

    Very interesting read. You take better notes than I! Thanks for relating your learning.

  5. George says:

    Great information as usual. Now I just have to convince my command staff to spend $1,500 to send me to the class… 😉