When police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., mentally distraught and wielding a knife as he approached officers in front of his West Philadelphia home last month, some questioned whether they should have aimed to wound him instead, perhaps by shooting him in the leg.
But law enforcement officials and legal experts say that suggestion reflects a common misunderstanding of how police are trained to use firearms.
Officers in Philadelphia and across the nation have long been taught to shoot at what they call the “center mass” — the chest — because that’s the widest part of the body, experts said in recent interviews.
Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, confirmed that instructors at the police academy teach trainees to aim at center mass.
Experts push back on the shoot-to-wound notion, calling it naive and ultimately dangerous for officers and bystanders. They say police making split-second decisions in fast-developing situations and facing threats of death or serious injury should not attempt to be sharpshooters.
“It’s difficult enough for an officer to hit a solid target or center mass, much less to try to hit a moving target and specifically aim at a limb or foot,” said Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and a former commander of police in Charleston, W.Va. “Typically, if you have to shoot, you shoot to kill because your life is in imminent danger.”
To be sure, the view of those professionals won’t be the last word in the debate. A few experts believe police should be taught to wound, rather than kill.
And some critics, notably including former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, have faulted the city for failing to fully equip officers with Tasers, the nonlethal devices designed to incapacitate people with an electric shock.
Officers Thomas Munz Jr. and Sean Matarazzo, who killed Wallace in a volley of 14 shots, had no Tasers when they encountered him as he approached them with a knife on Oct. 26. (Only about a third of the city’s 6,500 officers have such devices, department officials say, while the goal is to equip all 4,500 patrol officers.)
The two officers were dispatched after Wallace’s sister, brother, and a neighbor made frantic 911 calls pleading for police to come to the family’s home to stop him from attacking his parents. Screaming could be heard in the background of those calls, tapes of which were released by the city last week.
City officials also released excerpts from footage recorded by the officers’ body-worn cameras. The footage depicts a confrontation that began when officers arrived at the Wallace family’s house on the 6100 block of Locust Street. Wallace came to the door holding a knife, then walked into the street and toward the officers, who repeatedly shouted for him to drop the weapon. He ignored their warnings, and in less than a minute, the officers fired.
The death of Wallace, 27, an aspiring rapper and father of nine with a history of mental problems and a criminal record, drew protests in his neighborhood and across the city as people decried the police use of force that took his life. The shooting is under investigation by police Internal Affairs and the District Attorney’s Office.
Paul Hetznecker, a Center City lawyer who has sued the city over police brutality and misconduct, said the department’s use-of-force protocol and training need to be revamped to help prevent deadly clashes like the one that killed Wallace.
“The paramilitary culture of policing, where officers are trained to kill, but not adequately trained to de-escalate, all too often results in an overreaction by police with tragic consequences,” he said. “Unfortunately, without broad systemic change in the policies, training, and culture of the department, incidents of excessive and deadly force will continue.”
Von Kliem, executive director of community relations for the Force Science Institute, an Illinois-based organization that researches police use of force, said numerous studies have found that officers’ shooting accuracy rates are relatively low, ranging from 18% to 35%. Typically, he said, officers are shooting at moving targets and are under duress when firing.
“That means we have to work on accuracy, which means shooting at the largest available center mass, which is usually the upper torso,” he said.
“There’s nothing in the law that prevents officers from shooting somebody in the leg,” he said. “The justification to shoot is to stop the threat. So it’s hard to say there’s never a circumstance where an officer might not want to aim for the leg. But those circumstances are typically not going to be when the suspect actually assaulted the officer.”
Kliem, a lawyer and former police officer in Topeka, Kan., added that shooting someone in the leg does not always stop the threat, but could still kill someone if an artery is hit.
“Nobody likes the idea of killing another human — officers included. So we’re always imagining ways that we could have avoided that. And it’s easy to imagine because we see it in the movies.”
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge #5, the union that represents Philadelphia police, has said the officers acted appropriately in the face of imminent threat.
“These officers followed their training and Police Department policy,” he said. “It’s completely inappropriate that these officers continue to be vilified for doing their job.”
Still, some say shooting to wound is often a better alternative. Arthur Mackey Jr., an author, a pastor in Roosevelt, N.Y., and a police reform advocate, said officers should be trained to consider that option. In Wallace’s case, he said, “That could have stopped him from coming forward. He was not in a good mental state. That could have spared a life.”
Mackey is calling on police departments with officers who have killed mentally ill people to devote up to 20% of their budgets to hiring crisis counselors to accompany officers when dealing with mentally ill people.
Shaka Johnson, an attorney representing Wallace’s parents and a former police officer in Fulton County, Ga., who served on the SWAT team, said he does not expect the Philadelphia Police Department to change its firearms training.
“That’s not going to happen. Police officers are not trained to hit in those extremities,” he said. “If anyone is ever shot in their leg or thigh, trust me, that was a bad shot. That is not where they were aiming. I’m prepared to accept that anytime you fire a gun, killing is what you desire to do. There is no other natural outcome of shooting a pistol.”
That’s why Johnson believes all police officers should have Tasers and other nonlethal weapons — the use of which, he said, might have spared Wallace’s life.