Accidental shootings show training gaps
SEATTLE (AP) — When an Iowa mother tried to take her child from her husband during an argument on a snowy sidewalk in 2015, an officer stepped in to stop the scuffle, but he accidentally fired his weapon as a dog approached. The bullet went through the woman’s arm and into her chest, killing her as her family watched in horror.
When a Minnesota sergeant stopped a motorcyclist after a 2015 high-speed chase, he stepped out of his patrol car with his firearm drawn, flush with adrenaline, and accidentally shot the man in the arm.
And an Arkansas police officer fatally shot a suspect in 2012 as she tried to get him into handcuffs.
Accidental shootings by law enforcement have happened in recent years at agencies small and large and at all levels — city, county, state and federal — across the U.S., an Associated Press investigation found. Theyíve caused hundreds of injuries to officers, suspects and bystanders, and sometimes they’ve caused deaths.
Experts say it’s because officers don’t get the training they need to handle their guns proficiently, especially in life-and-death situations.
The methods used to train officers with their firearms “create the illusion of learning” but are inadequate for the demands of today’s policing, said Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Illinois-based Force Science Institute, which provides research and training to law enforcement agencies.
“The training has to match the shooting challenges on the street,” he said. “We don’t do enough street training connected to actual skill and decision-making that’s required of officers in this type of encounter. Some officers only handle their guns once a year.”
Officers are most proficient with their guns immediately after graduating from a police academy, experts say.
After that, most are tested only once or twice a year in “qualifications” that measure a minimum level of firearms proficiency. There are no federal guidelines for these tests so there are thousands of different standards across the county.
No one tracks these shootings nationwide, so the AP collected media reports and surveyed agencies across the country through public records requests. The review was not comprehensive, due to the sheer number of U.S. law enforcement agencies and a lack of reporting requirements for such shootings. But it provides a snapshot of the problem, documenting 1,422 unintentional discharges since 2012 at 258 agencies, and uncovering detailed reports on 426.
The tally includes any incident in which a gun went off and the officer did not intend it to, whether they were cleaning or unloading a weapon or surging with adrenaline while responding to a call. Some shootings occurred because of involuntary muscle reflexes, experts said, or because the officer simply tripped.
While countless law enforcement officers safely perform their duties every day, some experts say even a small number of accidental shootings is unacceptable because they are preventable.
“Ninety-nine out of 100 times, there is not something wrong with the gun,” said Paul Markel, a former police officer and firearms instructor in Mississippi. “It’s the person holding it.”