“It’s a legitimate question that people are asking,” says the reporter. No, actually, it isn’t — because not only has this been explained ad infinitum, even a moment’s thought would answer it. Anyone with a passing familiarity with human anatomy, ballistics, or the very narrow circumstances in which lethal force can be deployed already know the answer to it.
Nonetheless, lots of people are asking dumb questions on social media, so it’s worth watching this clip and then extending the conversation … again. Interim police chief Michael Woods answered the question as professionally and politely as anyone could expect:
JOURNALIST: "Can an officer shoot the leg? Can they shoot somewhere that would not result in a fatal wound?"
COLUMBUS POLICE CHIEF: "We don't train to shoot the leg because that's a small target. We train to shoot center mass…There was a deadly force threat that was going on." pic.twitter.com/Cat67kY5Ox
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) April 21, 2021
In the first place, police (and anyone else) are only allowed to deploy lethal force to stop a reasonably lethal threat, either to themselves or someone else. The point of using that lethal force is to stop the threat, not kill the person, but it has to be put to a use that has the best percentage of stopping the threat while not harming others. In a high-pressure situation, fine motor skills deteriorate while gross motor skills necessary for fight-or-flight responses increase — which doesn’t help with precise aim. Center mass provides the highest percentage target to stop the threat because it’s larger and doesn’t shift around as much as legs, arms, and heads do. And in this situation, where Ma’Khia Bryant already had the knife in motion to plunge into another teenager, there was no time at all to ponder shot selection. The officer needed to stop the lethal threat immediately, and followed his training.
That brings up another point: what happens when someone misses on a target? Bullets don’t magically evaporate — they continue traveling until they hit something, and even then might ricochet and hit something or someone else. Every missed bullet is a danger to others in the vicinity, which is why police and civilians train to be mindful of the background in target selection. Center mass targeting reduces that risk considerably, especially in this case where the attacker was all but on top of her intended victim. Police can’t shoot warning shots either, another stupid suggestion that usually emerges in these situations, because bullets don’t disappear into the sky. They eventually come down at terminal velocity, which can be fatal.
Let’s also not forget that a leg shot, even if expertly delivered, can be just as fatal as a center-mass hit. A severed femoral artery is nearly always fatal, usually in a matter of seconds. If a leg shot isn’t fatal, it almost certainly won’t stop an attack of the kind that Bryant had already begun. Even a center-mass shot might have proven too late had the officer hesitated another split second in this case.
At least the reporter didn’t ask about tasers, even though there are plenty of foolish demands on social media to explain why the officer didn’t use one instead of his firearm on Bryant. Tasers aren’t intended as counters to lethal threats, especially in imminent split-second events; they are largely non-lethal compliance devices, used when the subject doesn’t pose a lethal threat but physically resists cooperating. A taser was appropriate in the Daunte Wright arrest, for instance, which is why the officer involved is facing manslaughter charges for accidentally drawing and firing her firearm instead. The officer’s priority in dealing with a lethal threat is to stop it before its lethal potential can be realized, not to try out various weapons to see which one might work. That’s especially true in this case as — again — Bryant was swinging a knife at another person, a threat that had to be stopped in a split second before Bryant could succeed in stabbing the girl. (Also, tasers are not 100% reliable even as compliance devices, as the barbs fail to seat properly in many cases. And in rare cases, tasers can also be lethal.)
None of this is new or news. These are all well-known factors in uses of lethal force, which reporters should already know if they cover police activity and crime. Having ignorant people raise these questions on social media don’t make the questions any smarter, and casting them as “legitimate” questions only encourages people to cling to their ignorance even when the answers get provided ad infinitum.
The body-cam video makes it clear that the officer acted appropriately to save a young girl’s life. If it’s not clear to others, then take the word of an expert in use-of-force issues, Professor Philip Stinson, whose work has been used in prosecuting police officers:
“My first impression is that the officer was legally justified in using deadly force,” said Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University professor who has compiled nationwide statistics on fatal shootings that have led to criminal charges against officers.
“It’s a terribly tragic situation, and my heart goes out to the girl and her family and friends,” he told The Dispatch Wednesday. “But from looking at the video, it appears to me that a reasonable police officer would have had a reasonable apprehension of an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death being imposed against an officer or someone else. That’s the legal standard.”
Or this expert:
James Scanlon, a retired Columbus Division of Police SWAT officer who spent 33 years with the division, has since trained officers, and served as an expert witness at trials in use-of-force cases, agreed with Stinson’s assessment of the video.
“An officer is justified in using deadly force if his life or the life of someone else is at risk,” Scanlon said Wednesday. “Few would argue that there weren’t at least two lives there that were at serious risk.”
In this case, Scanlon said, Reardon wasn’t trying to protect himself, “but to save the life of someone he doesn’t even know… It’s a shame that no one has recognized that that officer, in all likelihood, saved one or more lives.”
It’s a shame that the media won’t report it that way, even when the body-cam footage makes it obvious. Or that reporters don’t make it clear rather than wasting everyone’s time on stupid, repeatedly answered questions.