ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

“Shoot ’em in the Leg!” Doesn’t Work

Why Police Officers Don’t Aim for Legs

In light of the national furor that has ignited over the past several months, and that has been smoldering in the consciousness of the American psyche for innumerable years, it seems prudent to have a short examination of the often parroted suggestion that has been doled out after seemingly every police shooting: namely that the officer should have “shot them in the leg.”

It seems that many people have watched too many action movies.

They believe, erroneously, that when a police officer has to resort to firing their weapon at a perpetrator they should aim for the person’s legs — and that in hitting them they will somehow disable them and end the confrontation without loss of life. This advice tends to come from those who have more experience with watching action films or Westerns than those with a background in law enforcement, the military, or firearms marksmanship.

Unfortunately, unlike in the movies and detective shows, shooting at someone’s legs has little to no effectiveness in real high-stress life-or-death scenarios. The following paragraphs will detail how police fire their weapons, why they do not aim for the legs, and provides suggestions for other non-fatal interventions that should be used.

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Joshua J. Wahl — This Image was released by the United States Navy with the ID 080204-N-0807W-084. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8244167

People Are Trained to Shoot for Center Mass

Go to any gun range in America and you will see people shooting at silhouetted targets that typically are made up of the torso and head of a figure. What’s missing? The arms and legs. Why?

We know that a shot to the head will likely kill, or at the very least incapacitate, a person, yet, unlike in zombie films, people are not taught or trained to shoot for the head. Why? It’s a smaller target. In a violent confrontation, with adrenaline pumping, and the shooter’s body riddled with fear and anxiety at the potential loss of their own life, fine motor control and pin point firing accuracy go out the window.

This is why in the military, as well as in the police force, people are taught to aim for and shoot at center mass: the largest part of the body, and hence, the biggest target. The legs are a moving target, literally. Whether a suspected criminal is walking, running, or sprinting, their legs are moving much faster, and are a smaller target, than their torso.

A Leg Shot May Not Disable or Incapacitate Someone

For those not well versed in human anatomy, there are no vital organs in someone’s legs. The heart, lungs, kidneys, and most of the spinal cord which helps to direct movement, are all located in the abdomen and torso — the area of center mass. When the vital organs are damaged or displaced from the force and path of a bullet it often leads to a sudden and catastrophic loss of blood pressure and shock, causing the person to collapse, and greatly impairing their ability to attack an officer or innocent bystander. While the femoral artery does run through the leg, and injury to it could lead to a person’s death through massive blood loss, targeting a small artery in a moving object covered with clothing is simply not realistic for a shooter under stress.

Even if a police officer were to shoot someone in the leg, this in itself is no guarantee that the person will inadvertently drop their gun or knife — or that they will comply with the officer’s demands to drop their weapon. As Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute would say in a 2006 article:

“…if an officer manages to take a suspect’s legs out non-fatally, that still leaves the offender’s hands free to shoot. His ability to threaten lives hasn’t necessarily been stopped.”

What if the bullet happens to only graze someone’s shin? Or misses their knee joint and instead passes through their leg, hitting something — or someone — behind it? With the flood of adrenaline and endorphins (not to mention any narcotic substances or alcohol) that a person may be experiencing during their confrontation with the police officer, it is very likely that any damage done or pain caused to their leg will not compel them to drop their weapon. Even worse, just because they are shot in the leg that is no guarantee that their movement will be stopped. They could continue to advance towards the officer, possibly harming them, or worse, they could turn and take someone hostage or injure bystanders.

What If They Miss the Leg Shot?

As stated previously, the legs tend to be a smaller, faster moving target than someone’s torso. When you add in the fact that someone may be wearing baggy or loose fitting pants, or standing under dim lighting, the target becomes even more vague. No matter how much, or how little, clothing a person may be wearing, aiming and shooting at center mass is the most certain and reliable way to hit the largest, most vital part of the person’s body.

A bullet fired from a low aim may miss the person’s moving legs, ricochet off the ground, and instead strike a bystander. Or worse, the missed bullet may strike something much more precious that tends to be short and at the same level of someone’s leg — an innocent child.

Firearms Are Not Always the Best Solution

Unfortunately, in the United States there is often an over-reliance on the use of firearms when confrontations occur between police officers and the public. We are familiar with the old adage not to “bring a knife to a gun fight”, but the end result of this one-upmanship inevitably results in the suspect or criminal getting shot, often more than once — resulting in a possible lifetime of disability, or worse, the loss of life.

People make mistakes. They do stupid things. Desperate for resources or angry about something — and not thinking about the consequences of their actions — they break the law. They may be drunk or under the effects of a narcotic and unable to fully comprehend or follow the officer’s commands. The mentally ill, during an acute episode of mental distress, may not respond to an officer’s requests to comply with their demands.

All life is precious, and a police officer should not gun down any and all criminals who initially refuse to obey or ignore their commands. The least amount of force, and its judicious use, should be a priority to all officers; who only want to go home at the end of their duty day to their own loved ones, alive and uninjured. Police have other options at their disposal beyond the binary of verbal de-escalation or drawing their sidearm.

In the United Kingdom where there are substantially fewer firearms, knife crime is a serious problem. Police are trained, and employ, more non-fatal interventions to protect themselves and subdue criminals — pepper spray, police batons, and the trained and skillful use of physical force through various striking and grappling techniques.

Interestingly, in Japan, all police officers are required to hold a black belt in one of three martial arts: kendo, aikido, or judo — and they are expected to continue their training in these martial arts through their police careers. In contrast to this, while many police officers in the United States do supplement their police training with the study of judo or jiu-jitsu, they do so in their off duty time — and pay out of their own pocket to do so.

Conclusion

Police officers have a horribly difficult, stressful, and dangerous job that they do. People forget that when an officer is called to a scene they are there because something bad happened — or may likely happen — without their intervention. Like all people, their number one priority is self-preservation: to safeguard their own lives so that they can go home at the end of the day. Asking them to gamble with their life, and the lives of anyone else, by shooting someone in the leg is simply not realistic. It may not only fail to disable the person, but it may very well get the officer killed. More training on verbal de-escalation techniques, interventions geared towards calming an erratic, mentally ill person, and more judicious and practiced use of non-fatal physical force compliance techniques should be the priority — that way both the officer, and the criminal, have a greater chance of living.

Works Cited

Team, Black Belt. “Kenji Osugi — Senior Advisor.” Black Belt Magazine, Black Belt Magazine, 5 Oct. 2020, blackbeltmag.com/nanka-judo-yudanshakai-developing-police-judo-program.

“Why Shooting to Wound Doesn’t Make Sense Scientifically, Legally, or Tactically.” Police1, 26 May 2010, www.police1.com/patrol-issues/articles/why-shooting-to-wound-doesnt-make-sense-scientifically-legally-or-tactically-6bOdYvNUEECtIWRI/.

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Lyndon Moore

Lyndon Moore

is a military veteran, nurse, martial artist, writer, and world traveler. He has been published in the O-Dark-Thirty Review, a literary journal for veterans.