The eminent Force Science Research Center (FSRC) of Minnesota State University recently transmitted to the law enforcement community that after a 5-year study, the FBI has published the results of extensive interviews with violent criminals that employed firearms against law enforcement officers. Entitled, Violent Encounters: A Study of Felonious Assaults on Our nation’s Law Enforcement Officers, it is one of a trio of in-depth Bureau investigations into fatal and non-fatal attacks on police officers. According to the FSRC, researchers selected 40 incidents involving 43 felons and 50 police officers from over 800 confrontations for extensive scrutiny and investigation. Crime scenes were visited and surviving adversaries were interviewed with most of the perpetrators residing in prison.
As far as weapons were concerned, the handgun was the weapon of choice and in the cases reviewed, all but one were acquired illegally, primarily through thefts and street transactions. Whatever they could get their hands on at the moment was what determined firearms choice and in only one situation, a criminal selected a particular firearm because he felt it would be the most destructive.
It was also pointed out by FBI researchers to the International Association of Chiefs of Police during a conference and discussion that, “none of the felons interviewed were hindered by any law (federal, state or local) that has ever been established to prevent gun ownership. They just laughed at gun laws.”
Time & Training
The FSRC reported that the study advised that several of the subjects started to carry weapons on a regular basis as young as 9 years of age. This phenomenon of pre-teens packing “heat” was of an agonizing concern for the FBI during the Ruby Ridge episode. Both of the Weavers’ young daughters were trained in the use of firearms and one of the contingencies that was defiant of a reasonable solution was what do the agents do if the girls approach their perimeter carrying firearms? Any preventive action contemplated was envisioned as a potentially lose-lose situation.
For the study, subjects of the average age was 17 when they almost habitually had a firearm in their possession.
Gang members in particular started early. Teenage soldiers were the most feared in Cambodia during the “Killing Field” era after the fall of South Vietnam. They were extremely unpredictable, seemed to despise adults and many did not understand or care about the consequences of their actions.
Many pre-teen gunmen know that they have a host of juvenile legal protections in their corner and with a sense of immortality coupled with a bleak-looking future they will lash out and kill with little provocation. Gang members also hunger for group approval and status; they also want to be feared as murderers, especially of police officers.
Almost half of the subjects had some type of formal firearms training, primarily from the military. Dedicated gang members have been known to join the military not out of patriotism, but to acquire fighting skills for criminal careers. Those with military backgrounds are particularly dangerous. The vast majority of the study’s subjects practiced with the tool of their nefarious trade regularly, averaging 23 sessions a year, usually in informal settings such as trash dumps, forests, back yards and in “known drug trafficking areas.”
In stark contrast to reality, a subject related that he was motivated to improve his shooting skills by his belief that officers “went to the range 2 to 3 times a week and practiced arms so they can hit anything.” The felon voicing this initiative fired 12 rounds at an LEO striking him three times. The officer expended seven rounds, all of which missed. In fact, victim officers in the study averaged only 14 hours of service sidearm training and 2.5 qualifications per year. Reinforcing the impression that cops are not gun people, only six out of the 50 advised that independent of their department’s requirements, they practiced with handguns and that was mostly through competitive shooting. Disturbingly, the felons reported that they practiced more frequently than the LEOs they assaulted.
Almost half of the subjects had been involved in illegal gunplay before engaging a police officer. Ten of these “street combat veterans,” one as young as 14 when shot on the street, and one at 18, subsequently shot by an officer, all from “inner city, drug trafficking environments” had participated in five or more “criminal firefights.” The twice-wounded teenager indicated that being shot was his epiphany and he resolved at that point that “no one was gonna shoot me again.” Conversely, only eight of the 50 LEOs assaulted had been involved in a previous shooting, with seven of the eight killing their adversaries. One had been involved in two prior shootings and another in three.
Like most of us engaged in concealed carry, felons preferred the waistband for secreting a firearm with the groin area and small of the back closely tied for second place. Some employed a “gun bearer” and gave his weapon to someone else, like a female gang member/companion to carry. None regularly used holsters and very soberingly, 40% sometimes carried a backup weapon.
When in motor vehicles, on-body carry prevailed and less often the firearm was placed under the seat. When in residence, pillows, mattresses and nightstands kept the weapon in a proximate location for immediate accessibility, especially when in bed.
While mobile “almost all carried” and a “strong majority did so when socializing, committing crimes or being at home.” Guns accompanied about a third of them while at work and having firearms as constant companions appears to have increased when compared to previous surveys conducted by these researchers during the 1980s and 1990s.
About 60% of the offenders, including all of the street combat veterans, claimed to be point shooters in that they focused on the target, “pointed and fired their weapon without consciously aligning its sights.” Once the decision is made to shoot, the weapon is quickly deployed and they “shoot for effect” or, as one felon explained it: “We’re not working with no marksmanship – we just putting it in your direction, you know – it don’t matter – as long as it’s gonna hit you – if it’s up at your head or your chest, down at your legs, whatever – once I squeeze and you fall, then – if I want to execute you – I could go from there.”
Although it is softening, a good deal of resistance remains against including some forms of close-range point shooting in agency firearms training curricula even though scientific studies have established how human beings react to sudden and violent threats, such as surprise attacks by criminals. This reluctance may be due to constraints on training time or simply stubborn egos. Police firearms training should consist of a blend of sighted and sightless shooting with use of sights mastered first.
If the following revelations don’t motivate LEOs to seek training beyond their required qualifications, nothing will. Assailants were successful nearly 70% of the time in getting hits on target with handguns, whereas only 40% of the attacked LEOs scored. Target engagement was considered successful if any of the rounds expended struck the target regardless of the number fired.
A researcher speculated that the criminals who fired might have enjoyed a decided advantage, because in all but three cases they initiated the attack and possessed the critical element of surprise. Furthermore, the report pointed out that, “Ten of the victim LEOs had been wounded and possibly impaired before they returned fire.”
More than half of the LEOs involved in the study were in positions where deadly force would have been justified, but decided not to employ it. On average they experienced four such incidents before the encounters occurred that researchers investigated. If other options were available, most of these officers preferred to resort to alternatives rather than the use of deadly force.
Again, in contrast, the felons studied possessed a dramatically opposite mindset. The study team reported that this younger generation of criminals expressed a much colder-blooded attitude than they had imagined. Having been exposed to multiple killings, “they fully expect to be killed and will not hesitate to shoot anyone, including an LEO.” Similar to a person with a bipolar personality disorder, they can shift from “riding down the street talking about what a beautiful day it is to killing in the next instant.” In their world there are no moral or ethical restraints to killing and the vets of street violence have “survived by developing a shoot first mentality.”
Armed individuals, especially those carrying firearms, unconsciously telegraph signs indicating that they are packing. They do this through mannerisms reflected by the way they dress, movements and unconscious gestures related to the presence of a firearm, its weight and size, and efforts to keep it secure and concealed. Officers should tune into asymmetrical lines in the cut of an outer garment, “unnatural bulges and protrusions in the waist, back or crotch areas.” The body may list slightly to one side and the edge of the jacket on the side where the gun is secreted may be held by one hand while the other swings freely when walking. The study cautions officers to look for “shirts that appear to be rippled or wavy on one side of the body while the fabric on the other side looks smooth.” Of course, clothing inappropriate to the season or weather conditions should be looked upon with suspicion. “On cold or rainy days, a person’s hood may not just be covering his head and is also concealing a gun or a knife.”
Waistband carry is not the most secure, especially without a holster. Holsters are avoided so that the handgun can be quickly jettisoned to avoid arrest without any evidence remaining linking them to the gun if it should be recovered. However, LEOs should always look for evidence of residual gun oil or grease on shirts or the skin of suspects. When carrying in this manner, subjects frequently touch or pat the gun to ensure that it is still “hidden, secure and accessible” and hasn’t shifted. These mannerisms are readily noticeable when they change their body’s orientation from sitting to standing or exiting a vehicle and while running, they may have to grip the gun to control it.
Blading the body to protect the firearm from a potential opponent is practiced by felons as well as by LEOs. This augments concealment while maintaining quick access.
Ironically, researchers noted that officers while “moonlighting” at social clubs and specifically employed to look for concealed weapons are often more adept at spotting them than they are on the street. Without this focus, they seem to “turn off that skill” and are caught flat-footed when a subject suddenly brings a weapon to bear and attacks.
An FSRC study indirectly related to this research involved untrained or “naïve” individuals in the use of firearms and revealed that they could execute amazingly fast and accurate shots at small target areas such as the head with little practice, putting unprepared officers “way behind the power curve.”
Close quarters gun fighting requires extremely fast reactionary response speeds while maintaining an acceptable degree of accuracy that LEOs do not usually train for. Most police qualification courses do not prepare LEOs for the realities of the street and duty holsters with high levels of retention must be habitually practiced with to attain acceptable presentation speeds.
Competent studies of this nature must receive the widest dissemination and become a part of service as well as new recruit training. Information like this is critical to create the proper atmosphere in which all LEO training must be couched.
The FBI deserves the law enforcement community’s thanks for this and other studies and an expression of appreciation to the FSRC for bringing this research to the attention of police officers at large.