The Rhetoric of Bad Aim

On the surface, it reads like a bad joke: three shots fired and two bystanders hit, while the guy two relatively new New York City cops were shooting at is unscathed. Again.  But it’s not funny, certainly not to the two women struck by poorly aimed bullets.

But concerns over the fact that New York City police are historically poor shooters can be fixed with practice, more time at the range.  Concerns that the officers had their guns drawn and chose to use them are more difficult to tackle.  From the New York Times:

The police arrived and the crowd grew. The hulking man continued on, ignoring the officers’ commands while eluding capture. Then the man reached into his pants pocket, withdrawing his hand as if it were a gun, the police said, and pretended to shoot at some of the officers.

Note the language of the article. “Hulking” man. “Withdrawing his hand as if it were a gun.”  These aren’t the words of a news account, but the language of justification and excuses. The Daily News is better and worse.

As officers tried to corral the hulking wacko, he suddenly “reached into his  pocket, took out his hand, and simulated as if he was shooting at them,” Kelly  said.

Witness Mike Favilla told The News cops opened fire after the man put his hand  into his pocket, pulled out a MetroCard and pointed it at the officers like it  was gun.

“He aimed it at the cop,” said Favilla, 33, of Elmhurst, Queens. “He was  pretending like he had a gun.”

While the descriptions are more vivid, and language more hyperbolic, at least it was sourced rather than written as if indisputable fact.  The Times does include a witness account, which contradicts its own use of adjectives:

“From what I saw, he had nothing in his arms that was a weapon,” said Kerri-Ann Nesbeth, who was standing on the northeast corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue by a subway entrance when the episode unfolded. “My reaction was like, ‘Wait, why are they shooting at him?’”

There appears to be no view that suggests Glenn Broadnax, 35, of Brooklyn, wasn’t in some sort of psychotic episode, whether drug induced or otherwise. Clearly, police intervention was warranted, whether for his own safety or the safety of others, as he was running into the street, physically engaging with cars, and perhaps even struck by a car. According to the police, Broadnax later explained, “I had a mission to kill myself,” suggesting this might have been suicide-by-cop, though this doesn’t quite fit the circumstances well and emits an unpleasant odor.

The officers, one with a year and a half experience and the other with three years on the job, didn’t have tasers on them.  Neither had ever fired their gun in the line of duty before.

Broadnax had no weapon.  According to Ray Kelly, he had a wallet on him. That was it. But he was a big guy, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, and likely pretty scary to the officers. He wasn’t the sort they wanted to wrestle with, so they pulled out guns instead. They came out when Broadnax refused to follow their commands to halt, which flies in the face of basic rules of firearms safety, that you don’t point a gun at a person unless you are prepared to fire it.  This violated the rules of the NYPD, that deadly force can only be lawfully used to protect oneself or others from the imminent use of similar force.

“Just because you’re in Times Square doesn’t mean you can’t use deadly physical force if you believe that it’s necessary,” said John C. Cerar, a retired deputy inspector who was the commander of the Police Department’s firearms training. “But you have to believe that it’s really necessary.”

Did they believe it was necessary to shoot and kill because someone didn’t halt when they commanded? Of course not, but they had no other way to “enforce” their command since they weren’t going to try to physically take down this big crazy guy.  It’s the “or else” problem, and guns are their “or else.” Out came their handguns, pointed at the big crazy guy, and they were ready to back up their command to halt with a bullet.

But this was Times Square, a place where throngs of people congregate, stand, watch, exist. There is no place in Times Square where you can shoot a gun and not hit someone. The problem is that it may not be the person you want to shoot.  These cops missed.

The same rules governing officers’ use of weapons apply to all settings, including densely crowded streets or inside buildings, policing experts said.

As well they should. The rules allow a police officer to shoot to stop the imminent threat of harm. The point is that someone is going to face harm, at least seriously and more likely deadly, so the risk of discharging a firearm in such a densely crowded place is justified.  The need exists one way or another, and the hope is that the police officer firing his weapon will strike his target because he is highly trained, both in the use of weapons and in the exercise of discretion.

Two officers opened fire, discharging a total of three bullets. They missed the man, but struck two women nearby, including one who had been leaning against her walker; the bullet wound to her leg sent her tumbling to the ground.

The narrative being spread by the police to the media makes it seem as if the officers had no choice, bad aim, and an unfortunate outcome with the best of intentions. No one was killed, this time.

The shooting on Saturday was the first time bystanders had been hit in 2013, the police said. During the same period in 2012, 13 bystanders were wounded, including 9 in the shooting near the Empire State Building.

There are no doubt times when shots must be fired, and there are no doubt times when a bullet will strike a bystander despite the best, and most competent, efforts of police.  But the video of this, taken by a bystander who was not shot, shows a great many cops in the area before the two cops shot at Broadnax, and makes it difficult to understand why the newspapers don’t question why all those cops couldn’t manage to take down one big crazy guy without shooting up the bystanders.

At least the police worked hard yelling and screaming at the bystanders who hadn’t been shot after they finally subdued Broadnax, as if it was the watchers doing something wrong.


17 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Bad Aim

  1. Max Kennerly

    I like Cerar’s sly claim that “you have to believe that it’s really necessary,” which transforms the actual legal standard of objective reasonableness to the gunslinger-preferred standard of subjective reasonableness. Once that transformation is complete, all uses of force are “reasonable” because the cop that used force says so.

    1. SHG Post author

      The standard is both objectively and subjectively reasonableness, so it’s not that Cerar is wrong, but incomplete, as you point out. Though the fact is that most judges give police officers incredibly broad latitude on the objective prong, which is why uses of force that some of us find outrageous and unjustifiable still pass muster in court.

  2. Dan

    You don’t know what it’s like on the street, cops put their life on the line to protect us all, etcetera, etcetera.

  3. Bruce Coulson

    It sounds like the NYPD could take a few lessons from the Columbus, OH PD. Being a huge college football town, the general response to an unresponsive to orders but unarmed suspect is to tackle him. 3-5 burly officers laying on you, and wrestling you around into handcuffs is no fun, but it avoids problems like shooting at a suspect when your background is a large number of civilians.

    1. SHG Post author

      Was there something about this post that compelled you to relate it to an incident in Columbus, as if that would somehow enlighten anyone ever? Have you considered that there are probably 10,000 examples of alternative handling of such matters, but you thought one instance in Columbus was so monumentally informative that it was worth noting so that other readers wouldn’t go through the rest of their lives without know that one time in Columbus, police officers did not shoot a person? Because it’s a college football town, like all the other college football towns? Like Charlotte, maybe?

  4. Paul B.

    Another part of the problem is their equipment. NYPD carries Glock 9mms which normally come out of the box with a trigger that is relatively light and easy to shoot well with moderate training. However the NYPD officers had a lot of unintentional discharges due to negligent gun handling. Rather than try to improve the officers’ gun handling, the dept. requested that Glock change the trigger pull of the gun, essentially doubling the amount of pressure required to fire it. While this reduced the risk of a negligent discharge it makes the gun a lot harder to shoot accurately.

      1. Paul B.

        The problem isn’t really aiming per se (e.g. putting the sights where the bullet should go). The problem is that with a rough, heavy trigger pull, it is easy for the gun to get jerked off the target as the trigger breaks and the round is fired. A loaded Glock 9mm weighs about 2 lbs. Since you have to exert 11 lbs with your index finger to fire the gun (as modified per NYPD specs), the physics work against you.

        1. SHG Post author

          Well, sounds like they have a problem either way. Unintended discharges are awful, but the inability to hit something (and unintentionally hitting things you don’t mean to hit) isn’t a whole lot better.

          1. Paul B.

            You state the dilemma well. Fwiw i think they should issue guns that are easy to hit with when used properly, and train officers so that they avoid negligent discharges. I dont know about the logistics that that would require.

  5. A Voice of Sanity

    I’ve never forgotten Amadou Diallo who was shot and killed by four New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers who fired a combined total of 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo.

    At point blank range. 19 out of 41.

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