Law enforcement world slams Biden's advice to shoot suspects 'in the leg'

"We shoot to stop the threat," said Lawrence O'Toole, a lieutenant colonel with the St. Louis Police Department. "You could be endangering the public by shooting and missing." 

Published: October 16, 2020 12:33pm

Updated: October 16, 2020 11:51pm

Law enforcement officials are slamming Joe Biden's suggestion that police officers should shoot violent assailants in the leg to avoid a potentially fatal altercation, with experts arguing that police are trained to do exactly the opposite of what Biden advised in order to minimize harm during violent confrontations. 

In an extended exchange with a questioner during his Philadelphia town hall event with host George Stephanopolous Thursday, Biden laid out his vision for police reform, including his opinion of how police officers should utilize deadly force while on the job. 

"There's a lot of things we've learned, and it takes time," he said, "but we can do this. You can ban chokeholds ... but beyond that, you have to teach people how to de-escalate circumstances."

"So, instead of anybody coming at you and the first thing you do is shoot to kill, you shoot them in the leg," he offered as an example. 

'Why don't we train the military to do that?'

Multiple law enforcement officials argued to Just the News that Biden had strongly misjudged the logistics of police use-of-force. 

"It's a myth," Dana Schrad, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said of Biden's notion that leg shots are a practical alternative to current police training. 

"We have a continuum of use of force policies that we follow," she said of police officers. "Officers are trained to de-escalate situations, to use the minimal force necessary, to contain a situation, and to bring it to a peaceful conclusion."

"If an officer is forced to use lethal force," she continued, "that means there's imminent danger. If there's that level of danger that would force an officer to use a firearm, he's trained to shoot to body mass."

"It takes some really special equipment and a real good marksman to disable someone by shooting them in the leg," she added. 

Biden's remarks on Thursday were not the first time the politician has given controversial law enforcement advice. He made the same shoot-for-the-leg argument at a community meeting in June of this year.  Several years ago, the former vice president also suggested that utilizing a double-barreled shotgun and "fir[ing] two blasts outside the house" would be enough to scare away would-be criminals. 

Lawrence O'Toole, a Lt. Col with the St. Louis Police Department, said Biden's remarks on Thursday were "ridiculous." 

"Why don't we train the military to do that?" he asked sarcastically. 

"Obviously we shoot for the larger part of the body because we have the highest percentage of being able to hit the target," he argued. "We shoot to stop the threat. You could be endangering the public by shooting and missing." 

O'Toole also took issue with Biden's premise that police officers "shoot to kill" when drawing their weapons. 

"Nowhere have I ever heard in police training that we shoot to kill," he said, repeating: "We shoot to stop the threat. We do not shoot to kill."

'They have to be stopped immediately'

Police reform activists have often argued that officers can easily be trained to use firearms in a non-lethal manner when engaging with violent suspects. A bill put forth in the New York State Assembly several years ago would have directed police throughout the state to use "only the minimal amount of force necessary" when confronting and subduing violent suspects. 

Dave Grossman, a retired Lt. Col. in the United States Army, told Just the News that violent, potentially murderous suspects "have to be stopped immediately."

"Shooting someone in the leg does not stop someone immediately," he said. "You're trying to stop an immediate threat. And shooting someone in the leg doesn't stop them from killing or shooting someone else."

Grossman, who runs a nationwide law enforcement training program and who developed the discipline of "killology," used a conversation with a deer-hunting relative to illustrate his point. 

"He once asked me, 'Why don't cops just shoot suspects in the leg?'" Grossman said. "And I told him, 'The next time you shoot at a deer, aim for the leg.'"

"He got it immediately," Grossman added. 

Police reform advocates also argue Biden is misguided

Justin Mazzola, a criminal justice research expert at Amnesty International, also argued that Biden missed the mark with his suggestion that police should aim for the leg. 

"We definitely agree with the former vice president that officers should be taught de-escalation tactics," Mazzola said.

Yet regarding Biden's claim that officers should shoot suspects in the leg during violent altercations, "we don’t know that that's the right response in that specific circumstance," he said.

"What the real issue is," he said, "is whether or not lethal force was justified in the situation at all." Lethal force statutes in the U.S. are far too permissive, Mazzola argued. "We are calling on each state to restrict lethal force only in instances to protect life, under imminent threat of death or serious injury," he added. 

Randy Shrewsberry, the executive director of California's Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform and a former law enforcement officer, echoed Mazzola's remarks. 

"It's an unrealistic proposition," he said of Biden's idea. "I think my feelings probably echo the vast majority that are in law enforcement today."

"The major thing to understand is that police officers must be trained to shoot for center mass because it's the largest part of the target," he said. "When we're talking about stress-shooting situations, accuracy drops tremendously. Most of the time it's not just someone standing in one spot. People are moving around. Adrenaline is pumping."

"I would argue that we need to teach officers to use other tools than shooting," he said, "such as mental health training. I think that would be a far better investment."

Fatal police shootings have received major media coverage in recent years, though they remain rare: The Washington Post's police shooting database identified roughly 5,000 deadly police shootings since 2015. If every one of those shootings was perpetrated by a different officer, that would still constitute about 0.6% of the more than 800,000 police officers throughout the country over a period of half a decade. 

Overall, according to research, only about a quarter of police officers have ever fired their sidearms while on the job.

"Law enforcement officers rarely pull their weapons," Schrad said. "I know officers that have gone through a 25-year career and have never pulled their firearms."

Shrewsberry said the shoot-for-the-leg argument is "something that's been perpetuated in fictional TV shows." O'Toole said remarks like Biden's are "uninformed and uneducated" about the nature of marksmanship in dangerous and potentially deadly situations. 

"If it was that easy to do, we would have been doing it all along," he said.

The Facts Inside Our Reporter's Notebook


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