A Note About Restraint
On the redoubtable Mr. Thompson’s last post, there is a counter-point to be made. I shall now make this point, standing in for the law enforcement community.
Firearm accuracy is notoriously bad in stress scenarios. The links are too numerous to aggregate at the moment, but for the purposes of this post I’ll just use this report by the NY Times:
The average number of bullets fired by each officer involved in a shooting remained about the same over those 11 years even with a switch to guns that hold more bullets — as did officers’ accuracy, roughly 34 percent. This figure is known in police parlance as the “hit ratio.”
For the non-statisticians among us, a 34% hit ratio translates to a 0.34 probability that any individual shot will hit a target. Given such a low hit ratio, an officer would have to fire 5 shots to have a close to 90% chance of hitting his or her target (0.87). It’s even worse in Los Angeles, where the hit ratios cited in this NYT article topped out at 31%. It’s much, much worse during an actual firefight as “someone shooting back at you” does tend to make your own aim more spotty. Lower the hit ratio in those circumstances to 13%.
Thus, if you want to be reasonably sure that you get a *hit*, you need to shoot 5 times. If someone is shooting back at you, it’s going to take you a whopping 15 shots to get an 87% chance of hitting your target. Coincidentally, this is right around the ballpark of the magazine capacity of a modern semiautomatic handgun (the Glock 17, a fairly common police sidearm, has a magazine capacity of 17 rounds, a Glock 35 has a capacity of 15 rounds). Ah, but what is the rate of getting a “good” hit (one that will actually disable/kill the target)? I’m unable to determine this in the brief time I’m spending composing this, but let’s grant for the sake of argument that some number of “hits” will not be incapacitating. If a hit incapacitates a target 80% of the time, the number of shots require to incapacitate a target goes up still more.
If you’re aware of these statistics – and I’d hazard a guess that every rookie cop fresh out of the academy has had it drilled into their head exactly how bad their shooting is likely to be under a threat scenario – you have a powerful self-preservation incentive to empty your magazine, if you find yourself in circumstances where shooting is justified in the first place and you think the target may shoot back.
It is difficult to have an authoritative position on how accurate police officers “ought” to be. I’ve followed gun violence for a while, and I don’t have an answer. Various studies of firearm accuracy of military personnel in the field have conflicting conclusions, but overall we probably ought not to expect high firearm accuracy from our civilian police, who are after all not combat troops.
So the question to my mind isn’t, “Why do police shoot so much in any particular shooting incident?” as it is, “Is the frequency of incidents of police shooting too high?”
To be clear, I don’t have an answer to this question. But this is the question the civilian population ought to be asking. Not how many rounds are fired, but how often the guns come out of the holster, in the first place.