Thursday, April 25, 2013

GateHouse: Surviving a gunbattle with police

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
April 24, 2013

Boston Marathon bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was wounded during two gunbattles with police — suffering gunshot wounds to his head, neck, legs and hand.

Watertown Police Chief Ed Deveau told The Boston Globe, "Quickly we had six Watertown police officers and two bad guys in a gunfight." Deveau estimated 200 to 300 shots fired.

The older suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was shot during a close-range exchange of gunfire. Wounded, he came toward police and was physically subdued. According to the police, Dzhokhar then ran over his brother during his escape.

How can suspects survive a close-range shoot-out with trained police officers?

According to Massachusetts State Police Sergeant Michael E. Conti in his book, "Police Pistolcraft: The Reality-Based New Paradigm of Police Firearms Training," “the vast majority, 85 percent, of police involved shootings occur at distances of 20 feet and less.” While most police departments believe that training can enhance police officers’ real-world shooting accuracy, field hit rates are about 20 percent. Police hit their targets one in five times.

Last summer, two New York City police officers opened fire on a man armed with a .45-caliber handgun who just gunned down a former co-worker near the Empire State Building. In the wake of the fusillade 10 people were shot, one of whom lay dead on a Manhattan street.

As the fog of the NYC gunbattle lifted, it became clear that the nine people wounded were shot by the police. “It appears that all nine of the victims were struck either by fragments or by bullets fired by police,” Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told the Washington Post.

According to Dick Fairburn, author of "Building a Better Gunfighter," data on the gunfight hit rate of officers from the New York City and Los Angeles Police Departments was comparable to Conti’s findings. Fairburn found that about 25 percent of shots fired by officers hit their intended target.

The shooting outside the Empire State Building was better than average. The police wounded nine bystanders and missed their target, the gunman, about 40 percent of the time from less than 10 feet.

According to the New York Times, NYC Police statistics show that simply hitting a target, let alone hitting it in a specific spot, is a difficult challenge.

In 2006, in cases where police officers intentionally fired at a suspect, they discharged 364 bullets and hit their target 103 times, for a hit rate of 28.3 percent, according to department records. In 2005, officers fired 472 times in the same circumstances, hitting their mark 82 times, for a 17.4 percent hit rate.

When annual record keeping began in 1971, officers shot and mortally wounded 93 people, and another 221 people were injured by police gunfire. In 2011, NYC Police shot and mortally wounded nine people and injured 19.

New York law allows an officer to use physical force only when he or she “reasonably believes such to be necessary” to affect arrest, prevent escape or defend a person or property from harm.

Although not mandated by the FBI, New York City Police closely tracks each police shooting through its Firearms Discharge Report. The information is used for training purposes and by all accounts has been effective. According to author and former FBI agent Jim Fisher, there is no national database dedicated to collecting data on police involved shootings.

Police officers rarely use their firearms. When they do it is under very stressful conditions and a matter of life or death for the officer and her target. Accuracy pales in comparison to the willingness to stand strong in harm’s way.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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