Vargas: Shooting people in the leg to stop them is a Hollywood myth

By Joe Vargas

It’s a question that never seems to get answered enough: “Why don’t police officers shoot people in the legs?” Or for that matter, in the hand, shoulder, or some other body part that won’t kill them.

The first thought that comes to mind is simple. This is the real world. This isn’t the fictionalized make-believe reality created by Hollywood.

Remember the classic scene from “Terminator 2” where Arnold Schwarzenegger promises a young John Connor he won’t kill anyone? He then exits the building and takes out an entire SWAT team by shooting each of them in the leg.

Police officers are not the Terminator and Hollywood is not the real world.

Reality check no. 1

Shooting someone in the leg is not a less-lethal level of force. Bullets striking anywhere between the knee and pelvis can kill you. If the femoral artery is hit, there is a strong likelihood the person will bleed out within seconds. The same goes for shooting the arm, shoulder or any other body part.

Reality check no. 2

Most police shootings take place when an officer is under a great deal of stress and lots of movement. Picture someone trying to do you harm, maybe even trying to kill you. In the real world, most shootings occur in fluid situations. The possibility of trying for a leg shot on a moving subject is difficult to imagine for anyone experienced with firearms.

Reality check no. 3

Police officers receive no training in “shoot to wound.” They are trained to “shoot to stop.” Despite hundreds of hours of training, most police officers are above average but not expert marksman. Police officers are trained to stop a perceived threat. That training involves shooting at the largest possible target. Hence, police officers around the world are trained to shoot at “center mass.”

How many additional hours of training would be needed to train to “shoot to wound?” Ask any police range master. It’s an unachievable goal.

Range Masters watch over every step of training of new Garden Grove PD officers at the Westminster Police Training Facility.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Reality check no. 4

Firearms are deadly weapons. They are not, by design, made to wound.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, calls these popular public misconceptions “training by Hollywood.” His organization wrote a white paper on the subject after New York lawmakers introduced legislation in 2006 that would have required officers to “shoot to wound.” Luckily, the legislation was withdrawn after they were shown the error in their logic.

Force Science Institute research describes the challenges: “Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. For example, an average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second. He can move his hand from his hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second.”

“The average officer pulling the trigger as fast as he can on a Glock, one of the fastest-cycling semiautos, requires 1/4 second to discharge each round.

“There is no way an officer can react, track, shoot and reliably hit a threatening suspect’s forearm or a weapon in a suspect’s hand in the time spans involved.”

That, my friends is science, not fantasy.

There is no doubt the influence of Hollywood can create an environment where reality and fantasy become mixed. As members of the public, we just have to make sure we are smart enough to know the difference.

Joe is a retired captain. He can be reached at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com