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Why the police do not shoot people in the legs

I sat there in disbelief while watching a candidate for President of the United States. “So instead of anybody coming at you and the first thing you do is shoot to kill, you shoot them in the leg.” There was not a lot of thought put into that statement. Why were law enforcement professionals so upset with these remarks? Well, to simply put it, shooting people in the arms or legs is just not done. In fact, I could not locate any time in history where officers were ever trained in this manner.

In preparation for this article, I reached out across the country to some of the most respected officers we have in various fields: SWAT, training, range officers, medical and detectives. I spoke with Lt. Randy Sutton, Director of the Wounded Blue, who has been involved in 4 police shootings himself. Lt. Sutton stated, “I condemn this statement as not only inflammatory against Law Enforcement and dangerous to police but devoid of even a measure of common sense.”

We are commonly asked why we do not shoot people in the leg by civilians who see officers doing this in movies. Officers are trained to shoot in order to stop people, not to kill people. This is accomplished by actually putting shots on target, and you have a better chance of hitting someone if you aim at the biggest target available. A bigger target is easier to hit than a smaller target. It’s just that simple. Throughout the history of police firearms training, officers have been trained to shoot at “center mass,” which is the largest target available on the human body. That is the area from under the chin to the belt line vertically and left shoulder to right shoulder horizontally. That is approximately a 2 foot by 3 foot area on an average size person. Even with an area this size, officers still miss while under the stress of a gun fight. Now, let us shrink that target size down to an 8 inch by 12 inch target of a leg, and the accuracy of shots will dramatically decrease. Sgt. Don Huneke of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office makes a valid point in reference to target size. He points out the many cases when officers firing at dogs missed, as they are a smaller target, and struck innocent bystanders- in one case, killing a child. Officers would be putting citizens in much greater danger if they were to start aiming at legs. Sgt. Huneke, who is a range and training officer, also stated that if they had to train officers to shoot more accurately at the much smaller targets, range time and costs would increase astronomically.

Patrick Yoes, President of the National Fraternal Order of Police, stated, “We are trained to stop the threat; leg injuries do not stop the threat.” The reason everyone in the country trains to shoot at center mass is because in a gun fight, that is not only the easiest target to hit but the quickest target to acquire. Shooting the criminal before he shoots you is an extremely important survivability factor. Shooting someone in center mass (the chest) is more likely to stop them quicker than shooting them in the leg. When we shoot someone, we are looking to end the threat against us. Legs are also moving a lot more than the chest area, making the shot even more difficult. Detective Ralph Friedman, the most decorated Detective in NYPD history who was involved in 14 shootings, said it’s not like you see in the movies when the shooting starts. That’s why we are trained to shoot for center mass. There is no time to pick a specific target. We shoot to stop the threat, not kill anyone. There are many police training videos out there of incidents showing officers being attacked by suspects with knives. Even being shot in the chest, suspects are often able to walk 25 to 30 feet and in some cases, are still able to stab the officer. Now replace the knife with a gun and even well-placed shots to the leg won’t stop the suspect from shooting the officer.

Under most guidelines, police officers only shoot someone if deadly force is authorized because the suspect is placing the officer or another person’s life in jeopardy. That means they are trying to kill someone. We do not shoot suspects if deadly force is not justified. Another point brought out by numerous officers and medical professionals is that by shooting someone in the leg, there is just as good of a chance of killing them. A bullet striking the femoral artery can cause death in as little as 90 seconds. There is also a large femur bone in the leg. A bullet striking that bone and fragmenting it can cause numerous tears in the femoral artery, so shooting someone in the leg really isn’t any safer for them. Shooting a suspect in the leg would be difficult, ineffective and not feasible. That is why we don’t shoot people in the leg.

Sgt. John Krupinsky

The writer is a police sergeant with 38 years of policing and 19 years as a SWAT operator.