In recent years, the law enforcement community has undergone a change in philosophy with regard to the use of force. For a time, it was acceptable to shoot first and ask questions later. For example, during some of the riots that occurred throughout the United States in the late 1960s, in lieu of tear gas, police officers employed shotguns loaded with birdshot to move and control crowds. The shotguns were discharged into the pavement between the police and the crowd, causing the BB-sized shot to skip off the ground and hit the rioters. Although no one was killed in these episodes, this practice today would still constitute the use of deadly force and would no longer be tolerated. That period was followed by a time when officers were afraid to use force, even when it may have been necessary, for fear of public anger if a mistake occurred. Since September 11, 2001, the public attitude toward law enforcement has grown appreciably better, and the acceptance of the use of deadly force by law enforcement has softened.
Due to the high probability of bodily injury or death from the use of a firearm, a strong emphasis is placed on safety in firearms training. Law enforcement officials must demonstrate proficiency in hitting the target, but more importantly, must exercise acceptable safety practices both on the range and on duty.
There are a host of factors that have contributed to this change in outlook. Among the most important was the level of training that law enforcement agents now undergo before being permitted to carry a firearm. At one time, a police officer simply raised her right hand, swore an oath, and strapped on a gun. Today, officers need to demonstrate their understanding of the circumstances in which use of deadly force is permissible, as well as their proficiency with a firearm, before they are allowed to engage in law enforcement duties. Even though the primary weapon used by agents is a handgun, most law enforcement officers are trained in the use of a rifle and shotgun as well.
Although a firearm is a tool that can be a lifesaver for the agent, it is a weapon, and indiscriminate use of a firearm is not tolerated. Range safety is rigid, as are rules of engagement in law enforcement. Some basic range rules include:
Listen to and follow all of the instructions of the range officer.
Weapons should always have the muzzles pointed down range.
Keep your finger off of the trigger until you're ready to fire.
Be certain of what is behind your target.
Wear eye and ear protection.
If anything occurs that seems unsafe, immediately notify the range officer so he/she can stop the problem.
If the appropriate caution is exercised, and the officer who uses a firearm in the line of duty has observed the basic rules of engagement, society will probably accept the agent's behavior as reasonable. If a line-of-duty shooting occurs and it is subsequently proven that the shooting was done capriciously, the officer can expect the same fate as any other felon.
Part of the reason for the change in public opinion regarding the use of deadly force is the array of nonlethal equipment available to the law enforcement community today. Taser
Law enforcement agents can expect to train with their firearms regularly throughout their careers. With some agencies, this means agents must qualify semiannually; others require qualification every ninety days. Most agencies will accept nothing less than a 70 percent shooting score on a standard PPC (police pistol course). With most academies, at least a week of training is focused exclusively on the use of firearms.
An archaic unwritten standard in law enforcement regarding the use of force has been to overcome any resistance with the next level of force. For example, if the suspect resists, officers use their fists. If the suspect uses his fists, the officer responds with a stick. If the suspect uses anything other than fists, the officer uses a firearm. With many nonlethal options available today, this standard is no longer acceptable.
The PPC can vary depending on the type of agency and the type of weapon authorized for use. There is a significant difference in the capacity of various pistol magazines and clips. Couple these differences with the limited number of rounds that the average revolver can carry (six being the customary maximum), and it is difficult to provide a single firearms course that will cover all types of firearms evenly.
Given a fifty-round course of fire, law enforcement officers should be able to put at least thirty-five of those rounds on the target. Officers and agents train with human silhouette targets—this helps them judge distance and size, and is a sobering reminder of what they are training for. Conventional silhouette targets have scoring areas that are used in determining acceptable hits; usually these include the thorax, chest, and head areas.
Police shooting isn't limited to standing on a firing line and pointing a pistol down-range. Officers are trained to shoot with both their strong and weak hand, to use cover on both their right and left sides, and to aim center-of-mass on the target. Law enforcement agents are not trained to wound, they are trained only to shoot to kill. Using a firearm at any time constitutes the use of deadly force, therefore officers must always be justified in using such force.
On-duty weapons are routinely dictated by the agency. Agents in many cases can carry other weapons off duty, but they must qualify with each weapon before it can be carried off duty or on duty.