Police Don’t Get Nearly Enough Gun Training

This week’s arrest of a Texas police officer for killing an unarmed Black man raises yet again the question of how to reduce wrongful shootings by law enforcement. Here’s an idea: Maybe the police need a bigger budget.

We’ve been debating the issue all through this difficult summer, and protesters are understandably frustrated at the lack of progress. Useful suggestions have been floated: easing the process of removing bad apples, for instance, or assigning some police duties to other agencies. But the notion of “defunding” the police has things inside-out. If we’re going to solve the problem, chances are part of the answer will involve better training.

Which will cost money.

Let’s start with a troubling fact: In interviews conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, violent suspects estimated that police officers train with firearms two to three times a week. This is incorrect: “In reality, most police departments only train about two times a year, averaging less than 15 hours annually.” The suspects, on the other hand, reported practicing with their guns about twice a month. The crooks practice more than the cops.

Among gun-rights activists, it’s an article of faith that the median civilian with a permit is a better shooter than the median law enforcement officer. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case that the less often you practice, the less well you’ll shoot; and the less well you shoot, the more rounds you’ll need to fire to bring down your target. Put otherwise, the extraordinary expenditures of ammunition that we often see in the most controversial cases — like the 32 bullets fired by police during the Breonna Taylor incident — might reflect, in part, infrequent training.

The lack of practice and training has a measurable effect. A 2019 study by criminologists Christopher M. Donner and Nicole Popovich of Loyola University reviewed 15 years of data from the Dallas police department and found that in half the situations where officers tried to shoot a suspect ... they missed. When multiple shots were fired, just 35% hit the suspect. (None of the bullets fired at Breonna Taylor’s apartment hit her boyfriend, the only armed civilian present.)

Earlier research reached similar conclusions. A 2015 study found that about half the time, officers miss the target entirely — even on the shooting range. And that wasn’t even the study’s most troubling result. The researchers compared police recruits who had completed their firearms training with recruits who had little or no experience with guns. They found that when the recruit was between 3 and 15 feet of the target, the difference in accuracy between those who were fully trained and those who were novices was — get ready for it — 10%.

Now let’s return to the issue of the day: Black suspects wrongfully shot. Donner and Popovich’s study of the Dallas police found that the race of the target affects accuracy, albeit in a way that might seem counter-intuitive: Police are more likely to hit White suspects than Black. But this indicator could point toward anti-Black bias.

Here’s why: In shooting, as in other arenas of life, stress interferes with accuracy. Donner and Popovich note that officers are more accurate shooting at unarmed than armed suspects. Other work establishes that the better armed the suspects, the less well the police shoot. All because of stress.

Now let’s suppose that due to implicit bias or other factors, Black suspects make officers more nervous than white suspects do. If this is true, then facing Black suspects would be a stressor for law enforcement, and accuracy would fall.

All this suggests that more frequent firearms training would be beneficial. That’s what Donner and Popovich recommend. But training and practicing are expensive. Unfortunately, training is often one of the first things that local officials looking to save money cut from the law enforcement budget. Some municipalities don’t allow officers to practice with the weapons they carry on the street. Others either limit the number of rounds they’re allowed to shoot on the range or — incredibly — require them to use different ammunition. These restrictions are justified due to budgetary limitations. Yet different guns or different ammunition in the same gun yield different shooting experiences.

Many departments use computer-aided training, in which officers use a sensor-wired gun to work through shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios displayed on a monitor. Donner and Popovich are skeptical: “The system does not sufficiently replicate a realistic environment.” Their conclusion is rigorous and unequivocal. Officers should train in “mock buildings and mock towns,” just as federal agents do.

They should also practice a lot more often, not just at shooting but at how to deal with a variety of complex, stressful situations that might arise on the street. Experts say that in the heat of the moment, what matters isn’t whether an officer has been trained in a particular technique, but how long ago the training took place. It’s like studying at school: the shorter the time between the learning and the final examination, the better students perform. That’s why training must be “relevant, realistic, and regular.”

These suggestions have nothing to do with your views about the justice or injustice of any particular shooting. They are unrelated to whether you support the Black Lives Matter movement. Surely all of us share an interest in reducing the number of wrongful, reckless, or incompetent shootings of the innocent by the armed officers who enforce our laws. Whatever else we do, part of the answer will be to spend more on training. I’m not suggesting that this is the only kind of additional training we should consider. But it’s going to be indispensable in solving the problem.

Perhaps you’d prefer a cheaper solution. Here’s an obvious one: fewer laws. Fewer laws mean fewer interactions between armed officers and civilians — including Black civilians. That’s where racism has bite: in the interactions. The fewer the interactions, the fewer the opportunities for an interaction to turn violent. Whether or not they realize it, protesters who declare “police-free zones” are trying to accomplish this essentially libertarian goal.

But a nation of fewer laws is a utopian dream. So let’s try to fix what we can actually fix. More and better training will be expensive. But if we want to get serious about reducing wrongful shootings, it’ll have to be part of the solution.

Some research suggests that exposure to skills for coping with anxiety might improve the officers’ accuracy, but the testing there involved simulated gunfights.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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