Why Police Can’t ‘Shoot the Leg’

Media questions about the Ma'Khia Bryant shooting mislead public

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When I was a local TV reporter, I’d try to be the first on the scene of a DC police-involved shooting in the post Ferguson era. I was one of the few (or maybe the only) reporters who had shot a gun. I also know the use of force continuum and police training, so I could get a quick study of the situation and ask the relevant questions in the live press conference when the public would first hear the details.

I tried to pre-empty the other reporters’ inevitable questions about why the officer didn’t use a taser or didn’t shoot the bad guy in the leg.

Unfortunately I wasn’t in Columbus, Ohio on Wednesday to play that role. 

A reporter asked Columbus Police Chief Michael Woods these questions about the case of an officer shooting a knife-wielding, 16-year-old named Ma'Khia Bryant:

  1. “Can an officer shoot the leg?”

  2. “Could he have just shot her in the arm?” 

  3. “Can they shoot somewhere that would not result in a fatal wound?”

  4. “Should the officer opt to use a taser rather than a service weapon?”

  5. “Does Columbus Police Department policy state that the officer must declare he’s about to shoot before he does shoot?”

If you haven’t read about this case, Officer Nicholas Reardon was called to the scene by a 911 call. His body camera video shows that Bryant tried to stab one girl who falls to the ground. The officer yells  “get down” several times to Bryant, who then lunged with the knife at a second girl. Reardon then shot and killed the 16-year-old. 

The way the media has treated Reardon like a criminal reminds me of a story I did on a shooting that is somewhat similar to the Columbus one.

Watch my report on the police shooting a woman with a knife, video here and text of the story here.

A white police officer was called to a scene in Clay Terrace, a dangerous neighborhood in DC. There was a black woman with multiple knives coming at people on the street. She was clearly on drugs.  

The officer yelled out repeatedly and even walked backwards as the woman was coming at him in the middle of a crowd. (The police do not have to back track like that, they are trained to stop a threat if it comes within about a 20 foot circle.  The officer was new and so didn’t even follow his training — at a risk to his own life — because he didn't want to shoot her.)

The crowd all had their cell phones out to capture the scene and the videos went viral in the context of “another” white officer killing an “unarmed” black woman.

However, the officer followed his training. He was approached by a subject armed with a knife. He gave loud verbal commands but the woman didn’t respond. He had his duty weapon out and visible. By shooting her, he stopped countless people from being stabbed and possibly killed. But he had to carry the weight of it.

When I got to the scene, the young officer was very upset about having shot her. I found this to be the case with experienced officers too. The officers are given psychiatric treatment to help them work through the trauma of killing another person. No normal person wants to do that. 

Once I got to Clay Terrace and learned how the officer did everything by his training (and more), I re-enacted his movements on TV to show the audience what actually happened. I explained it clearly, and the story pretty much died down without riots and famous basketball players saying the officer should be killed next.

With my experience covering multiple officer-involved shootings that were all ruled justifiable, I wanted to jump through my TV and answer the questions for the Columbus police chief. Instead I’ll put here the points the media and public need to understand about police shootings. 

1. “Can an officer shoot the leg?”

If a police officer shoots an assailant in the arm or leg, he made a mistake.

It’s very difficult to shoot a moving target -- a person who can go in any direction-- so you aim at center mass (the torso) because it’s the biggest part of the body and easiest to hit. This ensures that internal organs are hit and the person stops coming at you or the victim.

Center mass also helps to decrease the chance that missed rounds - which are likely in a high stress situation --  hit a bystander. 

In this case, if Reardon had only shot Bryant in a leg, she would likely still be able to hold onto the knife and stab the girl on the car. (The reporter didn’t ask but that’s also why the officer shot four times — to stop her from stabbing the other girl. One shot is unlikely to stop someone cold.)

2. “Could he have just shot her in the arm?” 

The arms and legs are small targets and much harder to hit and also unlikely to stop the bad guy. If Reardon had tried to just shoot her moving arm, he would have likely missed and shot one of the victims or innocent bystanders in the crowded scene.

3. “Can they shoot somewhere that would not result in a fatal wound?”

Law enforcement is trained for complicated scenarios. They are called to a scene to stop the threat, but at the same time, they have to not kill innocent bystanders and protect their own lives. They have to try to determine what is happening in a hectic scene. There may be more than one bad guy to stop.

Officers are trained to shoot only when the threat is imminent and will cause serious bodily injury or death. In this situation, Reardon needed to stop Bryant from stabbing the second girl. Bryant was doing the opposite of the officers’ verbal commands to “get down” and stop. 

4. “Should the officer opt to use a Taser rather than a service weapon?”

We don’t know if the officer had a Taser, but it wasn’t possible in this situation. He would have had to get close to the knife-wielding girl. He would have likely been stabbed himself if he tried to use a Taser. Then she could have gone back to stabbing the other girls.

Also, the concept of “force continuum“ means the police need to have a level of force above what the bad guys use. So if the bad guy is punching a victim, the police may be able to get close enough to use a baton or Taser. But if the bad guy as a knife, the next level of force to contain the threat is a gun. 

As one officer told me, “We don't want to go and utilize our service weapon and seriously injure someone or kill them if there is another alternative out there to preserve life.” And when a Taser can do that — if they have one - they will use it. 

4. “Does Columbus Police Department policy state that the officer must declare he’s about to shoot before he does shoot?”

There is no requirement on what words to say, you just need to try to stop the threat.

After the shooting at Clay Terrace, DC Officer Robert Underwood (pictured below) told me how this type of scenario is taught in the academy:

“If time permits, you’re going to give loud verbal commands. And you give the person the option to comply with your demand — ‘Drop the knife, put your hand in the air.’ And if they don't, then the officer is challenged with using what force is necessary to save his life or potentially someone around him.”

We can see the officer training because the Columbus police department released the body camera video immediately to, most likely, calm the public on the day after a jury found Officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd in the line of duty.  Still people have been rioting and calling this a “murder” of a “child.” 

As is standard procedure in officer-involved shootings, Reardon is on administrative leave while the shooting is investigated to determine if the use of deadly force was justified.

I believe it was a “good shoot”, which is the term police use that means the circumstances fit their training and justifiable.

However, it is a tragedy both for Bryant and Reardon. A 16-year-old girl in foster care has had a terrible childhood and most likely became violent from a life of abuse and neglect. Reardon, one can assume, did not want to shoot and kill a girl and will have to live with that regret.

The public could be calmed down from rioting and protesting for the wrong reasons — this was nothing like the George Floyd/Derek Chauvin case — by very basic education to see how the police are trained to keep all of us safe. 

UPDATE: Since I published this, I found the video for my TV report for this story. Watch here: EXCLUSIVE: Union rep says DC officer in shooting of armed woman followed training

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Let’s discuss in the comments: How could the media do a better job of educating themselves and the public to understand the details of policing, use of force and how to shoot a gun?