Why don’t the police fire warning shots? That’s a question that comes up a lot, especially after controversial shooting deaths.
Last fall, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and 10 other law enforcement groups got together to work out a consensus policy on the use of force — a sort of model document for local departments that want to update their rules. When the document came out in January, it contained a surprise: It allowed for warning shots.
For police trainers and use of force experts around the country, that news is still sinking in.
“The idea of warning shots has been prohibited for decades in policing,” says Lou Hayes Jr., a police officer and trainer with the Virtus Group Inc. “And to now open the door up again is pretty eye-opening.”
There’s never been a binding national rule against warning shots, but the IACP used to recommend that departments ban the practice. Leading agencies such as the New York Police Department have long had such bans in place.
The main concern is the risk. “When you raise the gun and blindly fire, you don’t know where that bullet will land,” says Massad Ayoob, a longtime cop and widely respected firearms trainer. “A few decades ago I followed a case in New England where the guy raised his gun, fired what he thought was into the air, and the bullet struck and killed someone on the top floor porch of a nearby tenement building.”
Firing at the ground can be just as dangerous, especially on streets or confined spaces. And Ayoob says the payoff usually isn’t what people imagine.
“Movies show people firing a shot in the air and the running man stops,” Ayoob says. “And that just ain’t how it happens in real life.” Often, he says, the gunshots just persuade a suspect to run faster.
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