Explaining Deadly Force

Barbara A. Schwartz

“Why do police shoot unarmed people?”

Friends and acquaintances often ask me that question because they know that I have written for the “Badge & Gun,” and other law enforcement publications, for over twenty years.

My answer: Police don’t shoot unarmed people.

The person who posed the question always begs to differ. “Yes, they do. It’s been all over the news.”

I repeat my response: Police don’t shoot unarmed people.

The person gets upset and with a raised voice says, “Yes, they do. I have seen it on the news.”

Which implies if it’s been on the news it must be true.

“Let me explain,” I offer. “Police shoot to stop a perceived deadly threat at the time the threat was encountered. Police don’t, intentionally, shoot unarmed persons.”

“But they were unarmed,” the person continues to argue.

I explain that a police officer doesn’t set out to shoot an unarmed person. A police officer has less than a quarter of a nanosecond to determine whether a subject poses a deadly threat or not. An officer shoots because he/she perceived a deadly threat, a threat that put the officer or the public in imminent danger.

I point out that it is easy for citizens to sit in the comfort of their living rooms, the safety of a citizen review board meeting, or the security of a jury box and judge what an officer had to do in the throes of battle under great stress, sometimes in darkness or limited light, with adrenaline surging through their bodies and their survival instincts in high gear, while contending with tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, to defend their lives or our lives.

At the instant an officer decided to pull the trigger, the officer believed he/she was facing a deadly threat.

If that wasn’t the case, officers wouldn’t be shooting. Officers do not, consciously, decide to shoot unarmed persons.

 Forced to Use Force

 Police do not want to use force. Any level of force. Police use force as a last resort and as a consequence of the other person’s actions or decisions.

Police use force because: 1) people don’t want to go to jail (i.e. give up their freedom) and actively resist and/or evade arrest and 2) people fail to comply with lawfully issued commands.

I further explain that I have known, worked, and trained with police officers for forty-five years. I have never known an officer who wanted to use force or looked forward to doing so.

Using force hurts everyone, including the officer.

Using force is never pretty. And it always looks ten times worse when the subject is resisting.

I have known several officers who have had to take a life in the line of duty. None of them enjoyed it. All of them regret being put in that situation by the subject. All of them know they used deadly force to save their own lives or the lives of others. All know that their use of deadly force was justified under the law and department policy.

That doesn’t keep them from experiencing nightmares or seeing the person’s face glaring back at them from the mirror while they are brushing their teeth or shaving. All these officers grieve for the life lost. Some offer a memorial on every anniversary of the event.

 Wearing the Neon Uniform

 When a police officer encounters any individual, even an eighty-year-old, five-foot grandmother, they must be prepared for that person to attempt to kill them. That is the nature of the job. That preparation keeps officers alive on the street.

I ask citizens how they would feel if people wanted to kill them just because they wore the neon uniform and badge. People don’t know these officers personally. They only see the uniform and badge, what those symbols represent, and that makes an officer a target.

I remind folks that two uniformed officers in Florida were gunned down through a restaurant window while eating lunch. I tell them about the four officers in Washington state who were shot at a coffee shop.

The decision to use force, and sometimes deadly force, results from the actions of the other person. In most circumstances, if the subject had followed the officers’ lawful commands, they would be alive today.

 An Officer Cannot Hesitate

 I further explain that I have spoken to many officers who have been shot in the line of duty and who have confessed that they let their guard down. In the circumstances where they were shot, they didn’t react fast enough or perceive that person as a threat soon enough.

If we could ask the hundreds of officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty what they would have done differently a resounding “shoot faster” would be the answer.

An officer cannot hesitate. If he/she does, the officer might not go home at the end of their workday.

People are always shocked to hear that every day in this country an officer is killed in the line of duty or seriously injured while performing his/her duty. Every day!

 Willing to Die for You

 I tell people that the officers I have known put on the uniform to protect citizens. These brave officers are willing to lay down their lives for citizens they don’t even know or have any emotional attachment to. Hundreds of officers have fallen in the line of duty and hundreds more are living with a disability from injuries incurred while protecting citizens.

In return, officers get criticized and second-guessed for actions taken in the heat of battle, under great stress, that have to be made in less than a nanosecond.

 Falls on Deaf Ears

 At the end of my lecture, I ask if the citizen understands that officers don’t shoot unarmed people. If they understand that officers cannot hesitate when they perceive a deadly threat.

Sometimes, I get a yes. Most times, I still get a no with the words: “but they weren’t armed.”

I tried.

Such is the officers’ paradox.


Be safe out there. Go home at the end of your shift.

If you are forced to use force, don’t expect those you protect, and used force to protect, to understand your actions.


Copyright©2018 Barbara A. Schwartz  All Rights Reserved.

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting and writing about the brave officers of law enforcement. She is a member of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA). She is certified in first responder peer support by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS). She has completed the Force Science two-day workshop.