The newest study of police shooting accuracy in deadly force encounters reflects the experience of just one municipal department. But to whatever extent the findings can be generalized, the picture is indeed a disturbing one.
Researchers analyzed 149 real-life OISs recorded over a 15-year period by Dallas (TX) PD. In nearly half of these encounters, officers firing at a single suspect delivered “complete inaccuracy.” That is, they missed the target entirely.
In 15 incidents, the total number of rounds fired could not be determined. But in the 134 cases where researchers could establish that figure, they calculated the hit rate, “incredibly,” at merely 35%. In other words, more than six out of 10 rounds fired were misses.
“Unfortunately,” the study says, “the data do not provide a clear picture of what happened with these [errant] rounds, but, at worst, they struck other officers or innocent bystanders.”
The research team, Dr. Christopher Donner and Nicole Popovich of the CJ department at Loyola U. in Chicago, note that “although the amount—and quality—of firearms training received by officers over the last century has increased considerably, there appears to have been little improvement in shooting accuracy.”
Once again, “Hollywood entertainment [that] routinely depicts the police as sharp shooters” falls far short of combat reality.
DISMAL HISTORY. Donner and Popovich begin a recently published paper on their investigation by recapping prior studies that have consistently found police shooting accuracy to be “noticeably low.”
From the earliest measurements in the 1970s, a wide range of researchers have documented that “police departments rarely ever achieve a 50% hit rate,” the authors report. Annual hit-rate averages in large departments such as New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas, for example, have typically ranged from 22% to 52% over the decades.
“Given the amount of firearms training the police receive, it would be assumed that they hit their target more often than not,” the researchers state. But the truth is that “officers are routinely inaccurate in their use of deadly force.”
In zeroing in on this subject with fresh eyes, Donner and Popovich intended not only to reassess police shooting accuracy but to “explore what factors—officer, subject, and situational”—appear to influence hits or misses.
Studying these factors, they hoped, could lead to “more effective policy and training to help officers be more accurate when they are faced with deadly force situations.”
OIS DISSECTION. Combing a public data set maintained by Dallas PD regarding its officer-involved shootings, the researchers found reports on 231 OIS events from 2003 to 2017, including specs on officers, suspects, situations, locations, and other contextual information. For simplicity, they write, they focused on “single officer/single suspect shooting incidents wherein a single suspect was shot at—or by—a single officer.” They isolated 149 such encounters.
To assess accuracy, the researchers coded and analyzed cases in two ways:
- “incident level” that is, regardless of how many shots the officer fired, did he or she hit the intended target at least once?
- “bullet level,” which took into consideration the number of shots fired, allowing for a mathematical hit rate to be computed. Of the 149 selected cases, 134 had sufficient data for bullet-level analysis.
In addition to accuracy, the researchers parsed all incidents for a range of independent variables, including officer and suspect gender and race, officer experience, the presence of non-shooting fellow officers, suspect weapons and threat level, and time of day.
KEY FINDINGS. Donner and Popovich consider these results to be of significance:
Incident-level accuracy. Among all 149 shootings studied, officers struck the suspect “with at least one round 54% of the time.” There was some fluctuation from year to year, but the overall prevailing trend was about a 50/50 split between hits and misses—“not very accurate,” the researchers note.
Bullet-level accuracy. Here, officers fired 354 rounds at suspects. Half the officers “were entirely inaccurate,” including one who fired 23 misses! Overall, about one-third (35%) of all officers’ rounds hit the targeted suspect. Most of those who had “perfect marksmanship” fired only one round.
Other variables. “Virtually all the incidents involved male suspects and male officers,” the researchers report. “Almost one-fifth involved white suspects and just under half involved white officers.” Two-thirds of the shootings occurred during the evening or overnight. Fellow officers who did not shoot were present with the shooting officer in 70% of the incidents. And in about four-fifths of the shootings, the suspect had a weapon and displayed/used it.
Only a few of these factors appeared to correlate clearly with accuracy or inaccuracy, the researchers found. For example:
- Black suspects were significantly less likely to be hit than white subjects;
- “[N]on-white officers were less likely to be accurate”;
- “Incidents that took place during daylight hours were [significantly] more likely to result in the suspect being hit” (likely related to better “visual acuity”);
- “[O]fficers were more accurate when shooting at unarmed suspects.”
Given the differences across the country in agencies’ UOF policies and training, the authors caution that the “generalizability of findings” from a single department “may be limited.” They urge that future research “investigate shooting accuracy in a more comprehensive model” to confirm that their findings are typical of law enforcement as a whole.
PRACTICAL TAKE-AWAYS. Meanwhile, despite its limitations, the current study offers several implications “in the realms of training and accountability,” Donner and Popovich write.
Along with good marksmanship and firearms handling, a successful OIS requires accurate shoot/don’t shoot decision-making, the ability to shoot at “unpredictable and moving targets,” and the ability to perform these skills “within high-stress circumstances,” they point out.
In addressing these demands, they argue, firearms training should “sufficiently replicate a realistic environment.” Rather than relying solely on shooting at paper targets or at images projected onto a screen, “police administrators should mandate training scenarios take place in mock buildings or mock towns” a la the FBI’s Hogan’s Alley, so that “training exercises put officers ‘out on the street’ ” to test both their shooting judgment and their “ ‘real-life’ firearm accuracy.”
In addition, “administrators should consider the importance of sentinel event and near miss reviews for improving OIS performance and accuracy.” A sentinel event, Donner and Popovich explain, is “a significant negative outcome,” such as an unjustified use of deadly force. Analyzed and shared at roll call briefings and in-service training, the insights gained from such reviews could be valuable “in preventing future adverse outcomes.”
Also in training curricula and roll call briefings, the researchers say, “administrators should make it a priority…to emphasize the importance of accountability.” Given the potential unintended lethality of wayward rounds, society expects officers “to be accountable for every bullet discharged from their firearms,” just as it expects them to be “accountable for every decision they make” when they use force.
In conclusion, the researchers raise a provocative question: “Given the chaotic nature of police shootings” and the persistent pattern of generally low accuracy across five decades despite presumed upgrades in officer training, is 50% shooting accuracy perhaps “the best society can expect?”
As training continues to evolve, the answer is yet to be told. The challenge, meanwhile, is to keep that benchmark from getting worse.
The Donner/Popovich study, titled “Hitting (or missing) the mark: An examination of police shooting accuracy in officer-involved shooting incidents,” appears in Policing: An International Journal. A free abstract, as well as a link to purchase the full report, can be accessed by clicking here.
This information originally appeared in Force Science News #378. Learn more about Force Science Institute.