Why police officers don’t try to aim for an appendage or shoot the proverbial gun out of suspect’s hand.

In the wake of all the reporting about police officer involved deadly encounters and shootings, a colleague of mine asked me why police officers don’t try to aim for an appendage or shoot the proverbial gun out of suspect’s hand. After a slight giggle, I told him that was a great question and proceeded to tell him what I knew about the effects on the human body during a stressful life-threatening encounter.
Members of our military, security forces and law enforcement communities know through training and by tragic personal experience that the physical ability to react to or during a deadly situation – external stress event – and precisely aim and shoot at a small target during the encounter is difficult at best and generally physiologically impossible, no matter how good a marksman one may be. That is why they are trained to aim at “center mass” of a target.
There have been years of scientific, military and law enforcement research conducted by scientists and PhDs in the area of “combat stress” and “survival stress.” Some of these studies go back to the 1930s when it was observed that soldiers were having a hard time sending Morse code during combat situations. The soldiers needed fine and complex motor skills to manipulate the machine and during a stressful event, such as combat, they just could not do it or their ability to do so was impaired. During the Vietnam War, pilots were having difficulty locating and distinguishing the small buttons in the cockpit during combat missions.
So what exactly happens to the body during a survival stress event? As we may recall from past biology classes, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in the human body is responsible for the autonomic responses which provide the body’s physiological response to stress or a stressor. The sympathetic nervous system provides for our body’s natural reactions which are instinctive in nature and therefore very difficult to manage or control. In effect, the system prepares the body for battle and ultimately keeps it alive. This is part of the “flight or fight” syndrome I spoke of in a few past columns.
During a stress event, the SNS is activated and adrenaline, chemicals and hormones are dumped from the adrenal glands and immediately sent out to the areas of the body needed to primarily support the survival effort. Consequently, the heart rate increases to 115 beats per minute (BPM) and this is the point where most people lose fine motor skills, experience decreased manual dexterity, are unable to multi-task and lose eye-hand coordination. At 145 BPM, most people lose complex motor skills, meaning those manual dexterity skills necessary to do several things at once or in unison.
At 175 BPM, the pupils dilate and flatten and visual narrowing occurs – or what is referred to as tunnel vision – and since the visual system is the primary sensory system for the brain it becomes increasingly difficult to focus and track objects and targets.
In the auditory system, hearing shuts down or is diminished significantly at around 115 BPMs and that is why many people say they didn’t hear anything during a life-threatening stress event.
The brain is ultimately affected as well. At 175 BPM, it is not uncommon for someone to have problems recalling what just occurred. This is sometimes referred to as “critical stress amnesia.” Immediately after an event, a person may only recall 30 percent of what happened with memory gradually increasing over many hours. At 185-220 BPM, most people will go into a state of “hyper-vigilance.” This is also commonly known as the “deer in the head lights” or “feedback mode” where a person repeats non-effectual actions or having irrational behavior like moving from behind the protection of a building during a gun fight.
Lastly, at a mere 115 BPM, fine and complex physical motor skills become less available and effective. Pulling the trigger of handgun correctly, aiming on target or manipulating handcuffs or other tools becomes increasingly difficult to do. This is in direct contrast to the gross motor skills which become enhanced such as those parts of the body needed to fight or flee.
So you can see with all of these physiological actions and reactions occurring inside the body during a stress-filled deadly encounter, such as an officer involved shooting, it can be extremely difficult to shoot a suspect in the leg or to aim at the proverbial gun waving around in the air.
Don’t believe me, here is a simple test for any non-believers out there. Next time you go to the local gun range, obviously observing all range safety rules and only after seeking permission from a firearms instructor or safety officer, run in place for two minutes, do 30 to 50 push-ups and some jumping jacks. Immediately thereafter, step up to the 10-yard line – no further – and try to engage a non-moving paper target hanging on a post or bar and experience just how degraded your marksmanship abilities are. This will give you a sense, and only a partial sense, of what happens to the human body during a deadly encounter.
Hopefully, it will provide a greater appreciation for the thankless job of a police officer and answer the question as to why officers must aim for center mass on the target in an effort to stop the deadly actions of a suspect.
Viper One Six – Out.
Leavenworth resident David Shearman has spent a career in law enforcement and the military. Viper One Six was his call sign in Afghanistan. He can be reached at viperonesix@gmail.com