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Why Don't Police Shoot to Wound?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Police are often harshly criticized for their lethal use of firearms, giving many reason to wonder: Why don't police shoot to wound?

That was CNN's Wolf Blitzer's question to legal scholar Jeffrey Toobin when discussing the shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown. "Why can't they shoot a warning shot?... Why can't they shoot to injure?" Blitzer queried.

To answer Blitzer's (and your) questions, here's a general overview of why police don't shoot to wound:

Firing on a Suspect Is Lethal Force, No Matter Where You Aim

Although it certainly makes a difference to the suspect where an officer aims and fires his or her service firearm, the legal justification behind lethal force doesn't change. Police are allowed to open fire on a suspect when there is either:

  • Imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm; or
  • A fleeing felon who poses imminent danger if he or she escapes.

Regardless of whether an officer aims for the body, arms, head, or legs, there must be either of the above elements present before an officer can pull the trigger. Perhaps this is why Toobin explained that when cops fire a gun, "they have to accept the risk that they might kill someone."

Very Unlikely to Hit Arms and Legs

Part of the problem of asking cops to shoot to wound is the lower statistical likelihood of actually hitting a suspect in the arms or legs. The Omaha, Nebraska, Police Department notes that because armed encounters are rarely with a stationary suspect, expecting officers to shoot a suspect's arms or legs is "not feasible nor is it realistic."

Police officers are trained to fire at the center mass (the torso), which both increases the odds of subduing a deadly threat and decreases the likelihood of hitting innocent bystanders.

Why Not Fire a Warning Shot?

Many police departments have the same policy against warning shots, concerned that an errant bullet may harm innocent civilians. However, this doesn't mean that warning shots are never used by the police. The Missoulian reports that a Montana police officer fired a warning shot and successfully stopped a fleeing, mentally unstable armed suspect in 2012.

There is no nationwide standard for police with regard to shooting to wound, but it may be food for thought to legislators.

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