An explanation of why police officers use deadly force

COMMENTARY: Just over a week ago, during the funeral for Hatch Police Officer Jose Chavez, a Las Cruces police officer was involved in the fatal shooting of a felony suspect on Lohman Avenue at the overpass of I-25.

J.R. Lonsway

Courtesy photo

J.R. Lonsway

The suspect that was shot had just robbed a man (felony) and stolen his pickup truck (felony), and after coming to a stop on the bridge got out of the truck and came at the officer with a large hunting knife (felony). There is also information (which I have not been able to confirm) that just before coming at the officer, he tried to open the door of a passing car, but it was locked and he was unable to gain access.

In the days following that shooting, there came the usual cries and protests of unnecessary force being used by the police. The grousing generates from quarters occupied by the self-appointed civilian use-of-force experts that have never had to deal with a suspect armed with a deadly weapon intent on doing them harm. Some of the civilian use-of-force experts say that a Taser should have been utilized to incapacitate the suspect, or, at the very least, the police should have “winged” him — as in, shooting for the arms or legs. Shooting to kill, they said, is unnecessary.

When deadly force is utilized, it is as a last resort because other reasonable means have failed, or what other means could be utilized are deemed inadequate because the suspect has suddenly, willfully, and deliberately escalated the situation. That means dynamic, rapidly developing events involving suspects who have expressed (verbally or otherwise) their intent to do bodily harm to police officer(s), or others, must be stopped immediately.

It is always desirable to incapacitate a dangerous human being, as opposed to using deadly force, but those options are limited.

Tasers, which often work well, but sometimes do not work at all depending on the suspect or the equipment itself, cannot be depended upon when a suspect armed with a deadly weapon is approaching officers and is clearly displaying an intent to harm. Intent to harm is manifested in a person who is armed with a large knife, comes at police officers, and refuses to obey commands to stop.

Tasers were never designed as an instrument of deadly force (although they have caused deaths), but as an alternative to using deadly force. Assuming that there was a Taser available for deployment on Lohman Avenue, its use would be limited by the actions of the suspect. In other words, some events unfold much too quickly for a “less lethal” option of force to be entertained.

Shooting to “wing” a suspect is a myth perpetuated by Hollywood movies over the decades, where the good guy wings the bad guy because good guys, after all, don’t actually shoot and kill people. An actor playing a good guy, who is not in danger of imminent death from an actor suspect coming at him with a deadly weapon, shoots a blank and a small amount of fake blood appears on an arm, or leg, or shoulder — or, by golly, they just shoot the weapon right out of the bad guy’s hand with no bloodshed at all! It’s a scenario that goes great with popcorn, but In real life it’s a wee bit different.

Contrary to what some in certain quarters believe, in matters of deadly force, police officers are not trained to “shoot to kill.” Police officers are trained to stop violent actions by suspects that could result in death or great bodily harm to officers or innocent bystanders. We know from data collected over decades of post-mortem examinations of suspects who have been shot, and from medical examinations of suspects who have been shot and lived, that the greatest chance of stopping a violent suspect is by shooting into the area of the body containing vital organs. This area is commonly referred to as the torso.

There is no guarantee that shooting a violent suspect in the torso will stop them, and there are plenty of documented police shootings to prove that statement, but it’s the best option available.

We also know that stress plays a big part in an officer-involved shooting, and it is not at all uncommon for officers to shoot at and completely miss a suspect. It is one thing to stand on the firing range and put bullets into a paper target that is not attacking. It is another entirely to shoot rounds into a human being who is violent and showing intent to do great bodily harm with a weapon that could kill the officer.

The torso is a large target, but imagine trying to hit an arm or leg under stress. My favorite method of demonstrating this is to stand 15-20 feet away from someone who is armed with a plastic training firearm, and then charge at them as if I have a knife. They have approximately 2.5 seconds to sight in on a shoulder, arm, or leg to “wing” me before I stab them to death, and following this exercise they begin to understand the difficulty (one might use the word absurdity) in “shooting to wing.”

Arms and legs are small targets, and when they are moving, i.e. pumping rapidly in a running motion, good luck hitting them. And even if I am “winged,” my violent intent has not been stopped (by the way, there are arteries of significance in the arms and legs, and people have died from gunshot wounds which severed those blood vessels, so there is another argument against attempts at “winging”).

It would be easy to say that anyone stupid enough to attack a cop with a knife deserves what they get, but we also know that a good percentage of our confrontations are with mentally ill people who are not thinking rationally. The bottom line is that police officers would much rather resolve a situation peacefully, but unfortunately they are sometimes put into a position by a suspect who affords them no other option but to use deadly force.

J.R. Lonsway is a retired deputy chief of police with the City of Las Cruces and the author of Twenty. He blogs at

This BBSNews article was syndicated from, and written by Heath Haussamen, Read the original article here.