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Testing Targets

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Back in early March of this year I read an article by a serving, unamed New Zealand police officer, which advocated that the NZ Police start openly carrying semi-automatic pistols.

This would overturn a long-standing convention, inherited from Britain, although the NZ Constabulary were armed up until 1886. Of course it’s been well understood for some years now that officers typically have access to pistols in their cars, even if this news is not broadcast widely. But the officer pointed out that they are increasingly confronted by criminals, particularly gangs, who are armed with all manner of guns, even during traffic stops. It’s getting more dangerous out there and a cop simply may not be able to get back to the car, or do so quickly enough.

The article sparked only a small amount of debate, and it was soon swamped by the Christchurch shootings, even though the sudden appearence of armed Police officers in public all over the nation, every day, in the wake of that shooting, unnerved people.

Since then the debate has not re-appeared, but it’s likely that the officer was not just speaking for himself or a small fringe of the Police, so it’s likely to come up again, as it has many times over the years.

In that case it’s appropriate to take a look overseas at what this might mean, and the largest and most comprehensive studies have, of course, dealt with the USA. What they show is not good.

Most people, exposed to a lifetime of cop movies and TV shows, think that US cops are at the shooting range often, their feet covered in brass shell casings as they unload hundreds of rounds at targets. Moreover, all this practice shows when the cops drop a bad guy, usually with a single, accurately placed round, possibly two rounds in a classic double-tap shoot, or even shooting to wound.

People also think that most cops have fired their weapons on the job, and do so regularly.

This is all nonsense.

Dealing with that last myth first, from a Pew Research study in 2017, which had a very comprehensive survey:

In fact, only about a quarter (27%) of all officers say they have ever fired their service weapon while on the job, according to a separate Pew Research Center survey conducted by the National Police Research Platform. The survey was conducted May 19-Aug. 14, 2016, among a nationally representative sample of 7,917 sworn officers working in 54 police and sheriff’s departments with 100 or more officers.

And of course even those weapon discharges don’t mean that they shot somebody.

For this we should probably be grateful, because despite the regularly proclaimed idea in the USA – “leave guns to the professionals for dealing with crime” – US cops just aren’t very competent or professional at handling their guns.

And this shows up regularly with stories like this one out of New York City in 2012 – 9 shooting bystander victims hit by police gunfire. None of the bystanders died. There was also a shootout several years earlier where NYPD cops confronted a guy who’d gunned down a store-owner, and fired over a hundred rounds before finally hitting him. Bystanders were hit there too, but again none died. Then there are cops who’ve died from “friendly fire” (7 cops, 42 shots). Cops who keep accidently discharging their weapons (even “elite” units). Cops having their weapons stolen. My favourite remains the FBI agent who lost his gun during a dancefloor backflip, and shot a bar patron (who survived).

There are a number of reasons for all this.

First, most cops do a qualification shoot only once a year, some perhaps twice. No more than 50 rounds are normally fired. As noted above, for most cops that’s the only time they’ll actually fire their weapon.

Second, this usually consists of shooting standard, stationary silhouette targets at known, fixed distances in good light. Usually 25 yards is the outer limit.

Third, the passing scores are generous, as low as 70%. Virtually all allow reshooting as many times as necessary to pass.

Fourth, the guns are not really set up for them. Often the sights are standard set rather than specifically for the officer. They usually use “practice” ammo, which has lighter powder loads and therefore has different chracteristics from “duty” ammo.

Fifth, the handguns often have trigger-pull weights of 12 pounds to reduce accidental discharges, compared to the common off-the-shelf weight of 5.5 pounds. That heavier pull makes it tough to shoot accurately, especially with multiple shots.

The results, aside from the stories that make the news, speak for themselves, according to an early 2000’s Police Policy Studies Council report. It showed that in 1990, NYPD officer hit potential was only 19%. Put another way, 81% of the rounds they fired at criminals missed.

At less than three yards, they hit only 38% of the time. From 3-7 yards, 17% and from 8-15 yards, only 9%. The report has more recent data from other US Police Departments that show the same thing, with only small variations in the percentages.

Given that all this is in a country where the cops have every incentive to be good at using their handguns, I don’t have a lot of confidence that NZ Police would be better.

I have not found as much comprehensive information about our cousins across the Tasman Sea, who have been armed from the start, but this article by a former Australian detective (now a criminologist at Bond University in Queensland) is not encouraging:

In Queensland, operational police undergo Operational Skills and Tactics (OST) training once a year. This is hardly the repetitive training that allows you develop instinctive reactions,

Much of the three days’ training is wasted on irrelevant tasks such as memorising and naming gun parts and stripping the weapons down – tasks that in 28 years of policing I never had to do in the field.

If NZ cops are going to insist on carrying handguns then they’ll need to have far better and more frequent training or they’ll end up with similar problems to the USA. Moreover, I’d insist on regular reports on all this from the Police to Parliament, not just to the Minister of Police.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 27, 2019 at 10:42 pm

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