When the police fire and miss


Some commentators say North Charleston police officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott eight times in the back. That’s not right. Officer Slager shot Scott only five times in the back. Three of his eight bullets continued down the path looking for a place to land.

Police bullets don’t care where they end up. A tree or a child are met with equal enthusiasm. Bullets make themselves at home wherever they land. Since most agencies use hollow-point bullets that expand and sometimes fragment on contact, the bullets will tend to spread out in their new home and have a significant impact on their host.

Police rarely carry the old five- or six-shot revolvers anymore, except perhaps as a spare gun. Their official weapons are semi-automatic handguns that carry 13-, 14-, or 15-shot clips with another bullet already in the chamber. Police typically carry two or three extra clips.

There’s an old story from central Florida where officers cornered a fugitive suspected of killing an officer, shooting him 110 times. When a reporter asked the sheriff why they shot him 110 times, the Sheriff was quoted as responding, “They ran out of ammunition.” That rarely happens now.

A few years ago, I had a case where police fired 137 bullets at an unarmed man sitting in his car. The officers were just a few yards away but they hit him only 22 times. The other 115 bullets hit his car or some other car in the parking lot, or the walls of a nearby apartment complex, or went through an apartment window. In this case, no one was killed but the doomed man in the car.

The only civilian eyewitness to the shooting believed officers were trying to kill her as well.

Another of my cases involved a police officer who wrongfully killed an unarmed young man, then fired a shot in the direction of his girlfriend, the only living witness.

The officer said the shot was accidental, but it would have struck her in the middle of her back if not for a metal seat brace that deflected the bullet. As it was, she was only struck by fragments of glass and lead.

I was involved in another case where an officer fired seven shots at an unarmed young woman in her car when she tried to drive away from him. Two bullets went into the back window and one bullet went into her. No one ever figured out where the other four bullets went.

Police agencies train their officers to shoot for “center mass,” that is, the vital organs. They are trained to keep firing until they feel the threat is over. Sometimes that takes a lot of bullets, and a lot of bullets end up going wild.

Just a few more examples. In May 2011, police on Miami Beach fired 130 bullets at a driver who fleeing police, killing the driver with 16 shots but also hitting four bystanders. In August 2012, nine people were hit by police bullets when New York officers opened fire on a suspect. In September 2013, they hit two bystanders while aiming at an unarmed black man — charging the man they tried to kill with the bystander injuries.

A 2008 Rand study showed New York police only hit their target 30 percent of the time, 18 percent if the target is shooting back.

In May 2014, in Cleveland, another 137 bullets were poured into a car, killing a speeder who refused to stop as well as his passenger. The pattern of gunshots in the windshield and the fact that the passenger was hit more times than the driver seemed to indicate that police were at least as interested in killing her as the driver. In October 2014, Stockton, California police fired 600 bullets into a car they knew held a hostage, predictably killing her along with her kidnapper.

The trend for police agencies, large and small, is toward military-style weapons and massive firepower. This is happening despite declining police officer gun deaths.

Last year, 50 of the nation’s nearly 1 million sworn officers were killed by guns, up from 32 the year before but less than half the average from the 1970s. Officers too are not infrequently hit by stray police bullets.

While statistics clearly show that police bullets that hit their targets are disproportionately intended for young men of color, the bullets that miss do not show the same ethnic or gender prejudices.

In the final analysis, when police overreact, none of us is safe.

James Cook is a civil rights lawyer who lives in Tallahassee and practices police-misconduct litigation throughout the state.