How Cops Get Away With Murder.


GQ has an in-depth interview with Raeford Davis, a former South Carolina cop (until 2006). It’s good reading, I recommend it. Just a bit here:

When you first became a police officer, what sort of training did you get for de-escalating a potentially violent encounter?

Very little. My academy manual was approximately 1,500 pages long. Of that, maybe 10-20 pages cover effective communication and verbal de-escalation techniques. It wasn’t really until you got out with your field training officer that they would say, “Look you’ve got to talk to people and settle things without getting worked up.” In a lot of ways, when you got on the street you were unlearning a lot of the worst case scenario training that you learned at the academy.

I don’t think the disgrace of so-called police training here in uStates is much of a mystery to most people anymore, but I really wonder if any cops are actually unlearning that garbage anymore.

Were there any mechanisms in place to weed out people who weren’t suited for the job?

Most people wash out based on academic issues and obvious physical issues, like a bad knee, that would prevent them from performing their duties than anything else. As far as spotting over-aggressive or mentally unstable red flags, no, I didn’t see where that would come up and it certainly didn’t with my group. How people washed out from the academy beyond that would be off-campus problems, like getting a DUI or, as happened to one guy, getting into a road rage incident and flashing his badge and gun at people. But it’s the barrel that’s bad, regardless of the apples.

So, what are some of the things you learned about how to behave in those worst case scenarios?

We have this “use of force” continuum. It changes depending on the agency, but there’s a basic format. You can increase your level of response based on the reaction of the individual. You start off with your mere presence, then you have verbal commands, and if that doesn’t work you can put your hands on someone. If they pull back, then you can maybe use a pressure point technique. If they take a swing at you, then you can escalate to a baton. The main takeaway I got from my training concerning individuals armed with a knife or similar weapon was the “21 foot rule.” Basically if you confront anyone with a knife and they get within 21 feet, you can shoot them.

The full interview is at GQ.  Via Black Lives Matter.


  1. davex says

    I see white dots on the target at the temple, elbow, shoulder and hip joints, and wondering if those are preferred places to shoot people?

    If you are training to shoot someone in the arm, be sure to destroy their elbow, etc….

  2. lorn says

    It helps to remember that before the late 60s the police were far less militarized. Veterans had a leg up in getting hired onto most police departments but the atmosphere and context were different. Check out photos of police in the late 50s and early 60s. They don’t wear body armor, they don’t have a huge bat-belt of stuff, most didn’t have a radio if they weren’t near their car.

    The comparatively minor riots and unrest in the late 60s, and veterans hired in great numbers straight from Vietnam were, IMHO, the beginning of the militarization. Then the cities blew up. By the late 70s many of our largest cities had virtual war zones in their poor neighborhoods.

    I’m old enough to remember kids I went to school with talking about how they were terrified. One related how his uncles car was stripped in front of their house and the owner, the residents, and the police could do nothing about it. Police were either too busy with more serious crime elsewhere or they simply didn’t want to go into that neighborhood at that time of night. How he feared for his life waiting for the bus to school. How this wasn’t an unrealistic fear because a girl had been beaten and a close friend shot while going to school or coming home. I remember fire trucks being escorted by police.

    If you want to get a feel for some of it check out the old TV show Hill Street Blues. Yes, it is a dramatization from the early 80s. and it puts a months events into a single show, but I remember when it first aired and how, perhaps for the first time, we saw on TV something that mirrored how the city felt. Of course by the time we saw it on TV the worse of the problems had passed.

    By the 80s the police, who had suffered considerable losses (significant numbers dead but many more wounded crippled by overwork or mentally broken by the stress) had become much more defensive and militarized to deal with the higher pace and dangerous environment.

    One of the biggest shifts was caused by budget concerns. As the job got rougher the allocation of manpower was changed. In the 30s police would sometimes travel three to a car. By the late 60s two per car was the norm. In the late 70, to save money and because they had so many more calls, many police departments started going to one officer per car. The police were out on their own before backup arrived. The job got more stressful and dangerous.

    Getting home became the primary concern with clearing cases quickly a close second. No more Mister nice guy. Go, get the people most likely to be guilty into custody using any means necessary and haul them into court where the judge can sort it all out. If there is even a hint of resistance quickly escalate until the suspects submit. Controlling the scene is emphasized. Controlled means all potential suspects and persons capable of resisting, pacified, disarmed, on the ground, prone, and in cuffs. Police were commonly expected to handle calls quickly and to go to the next without delay. Eight, ten, twelve calls in a twelve hour shift. Emotional detachment was both necessary and promoted.

    Police were taught to avoid risky situations and to anticipate danger. Gun drawn and ready to fire was how you went into a darkened building. People stepping out suddenly were assumed to be dangerous. The threat of being knocked out was seen as every bit as dangerous as being shot because once stunned or unconscious the officer would be defenseless. Remember that police spent a whole lot of time alone and they couldn’t count on anyone being there to cover their back. The whole “but he was unarmed defense” lost a lot of traction. Anyone big and tough enough to knock an officer out is understood to be armed, even when the doctrine suggests a finer degree of gradation.

    When police shoot they are almost always shoot at the center of mass. They are typically trained and conditioned to do it that way. Pistols are notoriously difficult to fire accurately. Add in bad lighting, a whack to the skull (hostile action during the last call or simply getting out of the car too fast), stress, and both the shooter and target moving and most trained pistol shooters can’t hit jack. Center of mass offers the biggest target and the least chance of a stray bullet hitting a bystander. A recent variation is that if you shoot several time at the center and are having no effect you might assume they are wearing body armor and shift at close range to the head.

    A word on deadly force -- The use of potentially deadly force is an attempt at restraining a suspect as quickly and effectively as possible. Within the community which has studied the effects of bullets on the human body the consensus is that restraint, defined as the removal of their ability to do harm, is a matter of loss of blood pressure or neurological damage. Nervous system damage is quicker but the targets are much smaller. Vascular system damage is an easier goal but it can take several minutes to take effect. There is a secondary goal of limiting mobility.

    Look at the targets. Notice the large defined area on the torso. Any shot in that area is expected to cause heavy blood loss. The dot in the middle of this is belly button. Some say this is the preferred aim-point. Other suggest a few inches higher.

    The neuralgic targets are the brain, neck and spinal cord. It is a target set about as big as a soft ball on a broomstick and it is a difficult target.

    There are also point targets that get mentioned and sometime practiced on the range but are seldom used in the field. Those dots near the shoulder are that nerve bundles controlling the arms. A square shot to one of those eliminates the ability to hold of use a weapon with that hand. Likewise the elbow and hand. The dots on the targets lower down are where you would shoot to destroy the hip and eliminate the ability to ambulate.

    Every one of those has a fanciful story justifying its use. ir: There I was, the man with an ax was advancing on a prone woman with the clear intent of inflicting grievous bodily harm. I shot him in the hip and he fell to the ground unable to get to her.

    These are the Just So stories of shooting. Most experienced police just shoot center-of-mass. Simple. Simple is good when you are overloaded with information. Police marksmen using rifles with scopes may shoot for those smaller targets in favorable circumstances but it is typically a high-risk choice.

    There is no metal for using fewer rounds. Using too few can get you injured or killed. In part because of the rate of fire for SA handguns (typically 3/second), and the pace of any shooting situation, here isn’t time enough to figure out what the right number of shots is. Many police shoot until the magazine is empty. On the other hand, many police retire without ever having to fire their gun at anyone.

    A summary of points:
    Militarization was a consequence of history, particularly the urbanization and hollowing out of the inner cities. It was a political choice to allocate funds away from the cities and into the suburbs. Militarization was the natural response for the situation faced. (Whether this adaptation it is still useful, or what the alternative is, remains to be seen.)

    Budget concerns and trying to do more with fewer police means officers are more stressed and suspicious, willing to escalate. De-escalation takes time and requires empathy. Time police are not given. Clearing cases quickly, throughput, is a vital metric for police departments. Empathy is not encouraged simply because it required too much cool-down time and puts too much stress on the officer. The job is stressful enough without becoming emotionally involved.

    Shooting a suspect is an attempt to restrain them. Police shoot center-of-mass 99% of the time. They shoot multiple times. In most situations there is no practical option for shoot-to-wound.

    Training emphasizes self-protection and planning for worse case situations. Police train and are drilled to see weapons and to shoot at a gun coming to bear. Anything that resembles a gun is treated as a gun. Anyone physically capable of holding a gun is assumed to be capable of killing you.

    Police look at hands. If a hand is moved out of sight it raises concern. At that time an officer will draw a weapon if it is not already drawn. If that hand comes back into sight with an object the object is assumed to be a weapon. Remember, the police are trained to think worse-case.

    More police per car, given a set beat so they know the people and place, and given more time per call reduces stress and makes the police far more likely to engage emotionally and to take the time necessary to de-escalate.

    The present police militarized mindset was forged in the inner-city war zones of the 70s as a way to keep police functional in a terrible situation where they were under-manned and overworked. It is a mental, physical and emotional survival strategy.

    Conclusion: Police act according to training and context. They adapted to a war-zone and have kept that stance because it saves money on the city budget. If you send them out alone they will be defensive. If you tell them to work faster they work faster by quickly, often brutally, gaining control and shipping people off quickly. If you want empathy you need to de-stress the job, provide the manpower and allocate the time and money necessary to work that way. Calls need to be answered. If they work more slowly you are going to need more police. If you send them out two at a time, dedicated partners lower stress and increase confidence when attempting to use less force, you will need to more than double your police force to do the same job.

    There are no simple answers.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    There are no simple answers.

    Perhaps in the minutiae. However, I have a “radical” proposal that would surely lead to the correct answers: Restore the American motto “everyone is equal before the law”, and make it apply to police like it used to 100 years ago. Greatly curtail or outright remove all special police powers and immunities. It is time to recognize that the police are nothing more than hired goons.
    The hired goons do not need the radical special immunities that they possess now. The hired goons do not need the radical exceptions to generally applicable firearms law that they have now. The hired goons do not need the radical exceptions to standard civilian arrest procedure that they have now. The hired goons can do their damned jobs with little to no special police powers and immunities of any kind. The hired goons are bounty hunters in all but name and pay schedule, and it’s time that we treated them as such -- e.g. keeping them on a very short leash, giving them only the powers and immunities that they absolutely need to do their job, which is close to zero if not entirely zero. The old list of exceptions: “paper warrant signed by a judge, or probable cause of a felony / outstanding felon, or the usual emergency exceptions when there is belief based on probable cause of immediate danger” are more than enough in almost any case.

  4. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Sorry, forgot:
    The above post, and we need something to fix the collusion and corruption between police and government criminal prosecutors. There are several possible solutions here.

    I personally favor the tried and true method that was practiced in this country for a hundred years: the ability of any citizen or resident to seek criminal indictment for any crime whatsoever, and as part of that criminal indictment to choose the criminal prosecutor who may be any person. Of course, the indictment is granted by a grand jury (an actual grand jury that is run and operated by the government), and it is one of the basic duties of a grand jury to prevent frivolous criminal charges, and to ensure that there are no particular conflicts of interest. Further, codify the old practice of priority in seeking criminal indictment: the victim has the first chance to seek indictment and name the criminal prosecutor (who can be any person), then the family of the victim, then the friends of the victim, then the government, then any citizen or resident whatsoever.

    If a cop murders someone, then the family will be able to seek murder charges, and I can be damned sure that in enough cases, the family will be pissed off enough that they will do their best to get a criminal conviction. Exactly how it should be.

    I know that there are problems with this approach, but like the (civil) court system in general, having a court system that favors the rich because the rich can afford better lawyers -- having a court system like that is better than not having a court system at all. Right now in the US, we basically don’t have a court system for criminal charges -- at least not one that is usable by the citizen.

  5. says

    I wanted to say Thanks! for this post, as well as Extra Thanks! to lorn for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. (I know what it’s like to put a lot of thought into a comment..and then wonder whether anyone even bothered to read the thing. FWIW: I read it! More than once.)

    I also wanted to highlight some other changes that took place in the US criminal justice system around the same time. In 1961, the US Supreme Court ruled that illegally obtained evidence was inadmissible in state criminal prosecutions (Mapp v. Ohio). In 1963, the Court ruled that prosecutors had an affirmative duty to turn exculpatory evidence over to defense counsel (Brady v. Maryland). In the same year, the Court also ruled that states were obliged to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants who were unable to afford one (Gideon v. Wainwright). And in 1966, the Court ruled that evidence obtained from interrogation of a suspect in custody was inadmissible unless the suspect had been advised of their rights to counsel and against self-incrimination (Miranda v. Arizona).

    Now, put yourself in the shoes of a fifteen-year law enforcement veteran in 1970. You started your career as a beat cop in 1955, and during the five years in which you learned the job, the following was true: illegally obtained evidence was admissible in court (warrant? what warrant?); evidence of a defendant’s innocence could be concealed without penalty; poor people — always the vast majority of criminal suspects — simply didn’t have lawyers at all; and even even after public defenders became a thing, you certainly didn’t have to tell anyone about them. And then, over just five years, between 1961 and 1966, *all* of that changed. Law enforcement experienced the Warren Court as a radical loss of power and control because it *was* one.

    And another thing: 1963 saw the passage of the Community Mental Health Act, which was intended to establish a community-based alternative to the nightmarish mental hospitals of the day. That…um…never quite happened. (And in 1973, a federal court ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act — including, notably, the federal minimum wage — applied to residents of mental hospitals; strangely, the institutions were largely deemed “unviable” thereafter.) Consequently, throughout the 1970’s, law enforcement, by default, became a crucial provider of acute/crisis mental health services.

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