Death by Defiance

Is there a “racial” link to bad shoots? It is a tragedy whenever a LEO (law-enforcement officer) in low-light, ambiguous conditions shoots someone who was actually unarmed and surrendering. It a political nightmare when the bad-shot person was Black. Statistics on officer-involved shootings (OIS) show that unarmed surrendering African Americans are more likely to be shot by police than are non-Blacks. And yet shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios testing hundreds of experienced LEOs reveal no link between a bad shoot and the person’s “race”. A recent study explains the discrepancy. Surrendering unarmed non-Blacks are culturally more likely to comply with LEO commands. Surrendering unarmed African Americans are culturally more likely to posture, threaten, and act defiantly.

The Study

The summer 2008 issue of Answering the Call (a quarterly journal for law enforcement and first responders) published a summary of a study conducted by Thomas J. Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council. The study subjected 307 experienced LEO volunteers to a series of low-light ambiguous shoot/don’t shoot scenarios designed to identify what factors influence the split-second decision to use deadly force.

Dozens of traits (age, dress, behavior, “race”, sex) of the potential BG were tabulated, along with traits of the LEO (age, experience, agency policies, training). Of particular interest were:

  • Which factors most often led to the LEOs’ getting shot (by airsoft pellet) because they waited too long and
  • Which factors most often led to the LEOs’ shooting an unarmed surrendering person because they fired too soon.

In real life, both outcomes (shot cop and bad shoot) are tragedies and no one suggests that either one is worse than the other. The study was simply designed to learn what factors make such tragedies more (or less) likely.

Some of the study’s findings are intuitively obvious. (Officers trained to be certain of a threat before shooting often get shot.) But two findings regarding bad shoots were surprising.

The first surprise was that other factors being equal, neither the potential BG’s “race” nor the “race” of the officer was significant. (In contrast, as mentioned above, OIS statistics routinely show that in real life unarmed surrendering Blacks get shot more often.)

Second, the most significant bad-shoot factor was how compliant or defiant the person was, just before the shoot/don’t shoot event. Those (Black or not) who had been compliant and cooperative before turning to face the LEO while, say, pulling a cellphone from their belt, did not get shot. Those (Black or not) who defied and vilified the LEO before turning suddenly towards the LEO often got shot even while raising empty hands over their heads.

And so, on the one hand the study found no bad-shoot link to “race”. On the other, real-life statistics show that Blacks are more often bad-shot than non-Blacks. How to reconcile these findings? The answer is in the words, “other factors being equal”. Behavior was measured as a separate variable.

According to the study report:

One of the least documented, perhaps least understood and yet most problematic concerns that entered into this study was a phenomenon that injects an incendiary set of cultural variables into citizen confrontations with police. For the better part of two decades, if not more, pop culture in general and hip-hop culture in particular has glamorized defiance and resistance against authority figures. While sociologists have looked extensively at race as a predictor of the police use of deadly force, they may have to consider whether culturally influenced nuance that police perceive as “defiant” suspect behavior serves as a more reliable predictor than race alone.

In real life, unarmed surrendering Blacks are more likely to get shot (regardless the the LEO’s “race”) because they are more likely to posture and threaten before the sudden movement, not because they look Black.

A patrol officer might conclude that the lesson to be learned from the study is that “you should not anger or frighten people who have guns.” But the study was not aimed at street cops nor at the people they must confront daily. It was aimed at firearms instructors and administrators. Three study conclusions stood out in my mind:


Policies are irrelevant — After a bad shoot, agency leaders often adjust policy manuals. This is a waste of effort. In the study, agency policy was a measured variable. There was no correlation between agency policy and the likelihood of a bad shoot or a shot cop. In a low-light stressful situation, muscle memory is more important than a policy manual.

“Race” sensitivity training is irrelevant — Although sensitivity to people’s “racial” self-identity is important in neighborhood patrols or community outreach, it is irrevelant in low-light ambiguous shoot/don’t shoot situations. Money spent for this purpose is money wasted. In a low-light stressful situation, muscle memory is more important than “racial” sensitivity.

Training is vital — The study showed that in order to survive a threat, the officer must make the decision to shoot before the severity of the threat is clear–usually before the person’s hands are visible. To avoid a bad shoot the decision to hold fire must also be made before compliance is clear. Shoot/don’t-shoot cannot be a conscious choice because it would thus consume about half a second–too late. It must be automatic. Split-second decision-making is called “muscle memory” and it comes only from training.

Click here  for a copy of the summary article published in Answering the Call.

Click here for a copy of the complete 44-page Police Policy Studies Council study.

Next Time: The First Rule of a Gunfight


Frank W. Sweet is an NRA-certified firearms instructor who teaches the safe and effective use of handguns for self-defense. He was awarded an M.A. in Civil War Studies in military history from American Military University in 2001. He is the author of Legal History of the Color Line (ISBN 9780939479238), Six Gems of Forgotten Civil War History (ISBN 9780939479023), and of numerous published historical essays. To receive a schedule of his firearms training courses, email to The information above should not be construed as legal advice.

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