Fools Have Rules: The Two Shot Rule

There is no question, none, that there is a critical problem with police shooting when there is no imminent threat to life.  We’ve reached the point where the First Rule of Policing is used to justify firing at the mere anticipatory excuse of a potential threat. The difference is huge. It’s the difference between the guy reaching for his waistband because his butt itches and the guy reaching for a gun. One is not a good reason to kill.

But then, why not come up with a solution so mind-numbingly simplistic and wrong that it’s bound to help no one?

Responding to calls for reform after a fatal police shooting, the San Francisco Police Department on Wednesday unveiled new training methods that require officers to shoot only two rounds at a time.

The changes came more than two months after five officers shot 26-year-old Mario Woods 21 times on Dec. 2 last year. Woods’ death led to a federal review of the city’s police department.

New pistol training guidelines require police recruits to hear the command “threat” before they fire at targets, to shoot only two rounds at a time, and to stop and reassess threats after every two shots.

“They need to be accountable for every shot they fire,” Police Capt. Greg Yee, who heads the city’s police academy, told the city Police Commission during a meeting Wednesday.

Aw, come on.  It starts with the cries of the clueless, the 21 shots fired.  The number of shots always seems to make people crazy, as if it would have somehow been better, different, if the cops only fired, what, 12 shots? Maybe 14?

It’s possible that the target of a police shooting was alive, maybe capable of surviving, the first 20 bullets, but it was that 21st bullet that killed him. Or maybe the third bullet was the one that went between his eyes.  So the argument might go, if they hadn’t fired that killer bullet, the guy would be alive.  Alive!!!

Except it could also be the first bullet that kills. Or the second. Or the 22nd.

Maybe the officer firing the bullet is qualified, goes to the range regularly, and is an excellent marksman. Or maybe the last time he touched the trigger was right before he left the academy, and couldn’t hit a target if his life depended on it. And if his life depended on it, then he damn well better keep shooting until his target is incapacitated. Otherwise, he’s dead.

The point here is that it’s the first bullet, not the second or the third, that requires justification.  If the officer has justification for shooting that first bullet, then he has justification for taking the guy out, regardless of how many bullets it takes.

I know, it makes you sad. So many bullets. It just feels so very wrong. Couldn’t they just shoot less?  Couldn’t they just shoot him in the leg, or shoot the gun out of his hand. You know, like they do in the movies?

Why no. No they can’t. What they do in the movies is not real life. They can’t aim that well, and if they miss, they’re dead. Provided they have cause to shoot in the first place.

But what’s wrong with stopping after two shots and “reassessing”?  Reassessing seems like such a nice word, so warm, fuzzy and reasonable.  And indeed, it is, provided the guy you’re shooting at isn’t still capable of taking advantage of the two bullet hiatus to plug the cop between the eyes.  After all, the cop can’t reassess if he’s dead.

“But the perp was standing there, gun aimed at your head. Why did you stop shooting?”

“I fired my two bullets and stopped to reaccess,” said the dead cop.

Does this strike you as a good idea?  If so, raise your hand. And if your hand is raised in response to a question posed on a blawg, you should seriously consider whether it’s wise to have children.

Then there’s the “don’t shoot until someone yells ‘threat'” part of the new rule. You see a guy with a Glock aimed at your partner, and do . . . nothing.

“But nobody yelled, ‘threat.'” 

That San Francisco police want to train their officers to de-escalate situations so that force won’t be used is terrific, though the question of whether this is a teachable thing remains open.  A scaredy-cat cop is still going to jump the gun. Fear pushes a person to act, and as the maxim says, “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”  As for the venal cop, the one who isn’t afraid but just decides to shoot because he can, there isn’t any rule that’s going to prevent him from lying about it.

And these rules aren’t law, but employment policy.  The cop who violates them won’t be held accountable as a murderer, but rather be chastised, maybe with a note in his permanent file and a week-long paid vacation. That’ll teach ’em.

Regardless, addressing the very real, very deadly, problem of police killing people needlessly is critical. But doing so with ridiculous rules like this two shot rule is absurd. Not only will it put police needlessly at risk, but it misses the fundamental problem: it’s that first shot that must be stopped if it’s not justified, not the third.

27 comments on “Fools Have Rules: The Two Shot Rule

  1. John Barleycorn

    Hey Fubar?

    7 is never 4 but 2 is fine. So not prime.

    I promise not to ‘flirt’ with you anymore.

  2. REvers

    Self defense shooting classes (the reputable ones, anyway) teach exactly this. Two shots and stop to assess the need, or the lack thereof, for more. Since the objective is not to kill but to stop the threat, this makes perfect sense. Yes, the target might be dead, but pistol-caliber power being what it is there is a pretty good chance he’s still alive but incapacitated. If so, so much the better.

    If he’s still coming after you, shoot again. If not, and he’s still alive, killing him rises to the level of murder 1. Ask Jerome Ersland about this.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ll leave it to others who are more familiar with shooting classes (I miss J-dog at these moments) to address this. But to say “this makes perfect sense” makes no sense to me for the reasons I’ve stated at length in the post.

      1. REvers

        Try looking at it this way: You have a privilege to use deadly force to stop a threat, but only until the threat is actually stopped. And realistically, while someone who’s just absorbed two shots may ultimately still be a continuing threat, they’re extremely unlikely to be moving so quickly that you don’t have time to take a peek to see if you need to shoot again, especially if they’re on the ground, which is where damned near everybody who gets shot ends up. I won’t bore you with all the things that happen to the body as a result of a gunshot but the bottom line is that two shots are plenty in the vast majority of cases.

        The two shot idea does depend on both of those shots hitting the target, of course, rather than innocent bystanders like what NYPD seems to do. 🙂

    2. dm

      Sorry REvers, but the really reputable self-defense shooting classes teach to keep shooting until the adversary no longer represents a threat. That may mean one shot or it may mean 3 or 4 or 5 or etc. There are a number of reasons for this including those set forth by SHG in this article, as well as the fact that it’s possible that the first two shots entirely miss the target. You keep shooting until your adversary is down and that’s that. For that reason, you better make damn sure that your justified in pulling the trigger at all.

  3. delurking

    Baby steps, baby steps. It is true that the bigger problem is the decision to shoot in the first place, but demanding a reassessment after two shots as a matter of policy is not absurd, in the real world. If the guy you are shooting at is still standing and still has a gun pointed at you, the reassessment is going to be very quick. On the other hand, look at the two women who were shot at ~100 times while they were delivering papers, during the Dorner manhunt. It seems there are a lot of situations where police officers keep shooting only because other police officers are shooting. Requiring, as a matter of policy, some attempt to determine if the continued shooting is warranted will probably help in a fraction of cases, and will probably be a net benefit. Realistically, it is going to be hard to get police culture to dramatically change, overnight, how that first-shot-decision is made. Small changes in day-to-day practice over time are a path to that goal.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    Aww, that’s cute. San Francisco is trying to be England. I vaguely remember an excessive force inquest by Parliament about how many bullets was too many for a righteous shoot after the SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy in 1980.

  5. Kentucky Packrat

    Let’s turn this around the other way. San Francisco is training its cops to shoot someone twice when someone yells “threat”. Sounds like a good way to SWAT someone. Definitely makes Chris Rock’s admonition not to drive with a mad woman real: “Threat! Threat!”

  6. Fred Campbell

    “Double-tap” is a good guideline for police shootings. If the officer is not reasonably certain that his bullets will strike the felon, then he should not shoot.
    21 shots (or, in one New York shooting, 40 shots) is indicative of an out-of-control officer.

  7. anonymous coward

    Sadly the most sensible bit won’t happen,
    “They need to be accountable for every shot they fire,” Police Capt. Greg Yee
    If hitting innocent bystanders and destroying property had real consequences for police, that would make them shoot less. It might even make them shoot better. I’m not holding my breath.
    Part of the issue is American police culture which uses guns as a threat display, and training which encourages having a finger on the trigger while brandishing the gun. What makes it worse is the abysmal standards of police marksmanship. Good examples include the LAPD firing 100 shots at a pickup truck, and hitting 1 person once, and the Empire State building shooting where the NYPD shot multiple bystanders. The Peter Liang case also exemplifies poor gun handling. The recent LASD report on negligent discharges cites such stupidity as using a pistol with a mounted light to direct traffic.
    The 2 shot and reassess is foolish wishful thinking and reminds me of “stupid range behavior” posts where some guy in full “tactical” gear is doing the ritual he learned on YouTube while serious shooters snigger. The ritual usually involves thrusting the gun out firing, than jerking his arms back and swiveling his head, then repeat.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not only won’t “the sensible thing happen,” but when palliative measures are introduced (usually, to the applause of the unwitting public), they take the place that more sensible measures would take. As I wrote in the post, the problem is that they’re firing the first bullet without cause, but this measure obscures that detail.

    2. losingtrader

      wasn’t it nine bystanders hit? Years ago, but I recall it since NYC is the center of ..everything according to New Yorkers. Seems a reasonable trade-off.

  8. DaveL

    The problem is not with the idea of reassessing the situation, but rather with the idea that one must stop shooting in order to do so. One of the goals of any good training program would be to maintain situational awareness during combat, which means continuously evaluating the changing situation while staying in the fight. “Close your eyes and empty the magazine” has never been a particularly good defensive tactic, but trying to call a “time out” in order to reassess is just as bad, and possibly worse.

    I don’t even know what to say about waiting for somebody to yell “threat” before opening fire. That’s plumbing a level of stupidity usually reserved for viral “challenges” on YouTube.

    1. felix

      No, the problem is assuming that there was a good reason to shoot in the first place. If a terrorist was in the act of blowing up a bus full of children, the police could put two, twenty, or 200 bullets in the terrorist and if they stopped him, I doubt that many people are going to be upset. This re-assess rule is just a distraction. If that would solve the issue of police shooting people they shouldn’t, that would just be an engineering problem. Put an interlock that allows only 2 bullets to be shot without resetting or something. But it’s not.

      Police officers don’t just come by themselves either. In some cases, there may be quite a lot more. It doesn’t matter if they only shoot two bullets each, if you have a dozen, or more, police officers firing away, there’s going to be more than enough bullets in the area they’re pointing their guns at to make it unhealthy.

      Assess whether to even shoot or not, or whether a less lethal measure may be applicable. By the time you are re-assessing whether or not to keep shooting it may be too late for your target.

      1. losingtrader

        It’s a FUCKING HORSE!!!!! (literally I guess).
        It does show what Boeing engineers do in their spare time–besides being dumped at emergency rooms.

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