A Utah police shooting reignited a debate around “shooting not to kill” — an issue that frustrates many in the law enforcement community.
The case in question regarded a 2018 encounter between two Enoch City police officers and a man and woman accused of breaking into cars. The woman was armed with a screwdriver. After repeatedly refusing to put down the weapon, Officer Jeremy Dunn used his Taser on her, but she was unaffected and simply removed the wires. So, he decided to shoot to incapacitate.
“Do you want me to take her out like last time?” Dunn asked then-Sergeant Mike Berg. He was referring to the time he shot a suicidal man in the leg in 2012. When the woman, Ivonne Casimiro, took a step toward the officers, Dunn opened fire, hitting Casimiro in the knee.
She survived and eventually pleaded guilty to assault against a police officer and driving a stolen car. She is currently in prison.
However, following an internal investigation, Dunn was terminated from his job and was barred from working as a police officer for the next four years. The Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board reviewed the case and determined that the shooting was not legally justified because Casimiro was not an imminent threat.
However, the review also found that the Enoch City Police Department did not have a rule against officers shooting with the intent to incapacitate.
A question has been floated often by civilians who wonder why officers do not “shoot not to kill” more often by instead aiming for the extremities in order to incapacitate a person. It’s a question that irks many in the law enforcement community.
Most officers agree that situations like Dunn’s are rare in that officers usually do not have as much time to make a decision or to aim so precisely.
Salt Lake City Police Deputy Chief Scott Mourtgos told PBS Frontline that civilians’ expectations for an officer to consistently hit “precision shots” at someone’s leg or arm is “unrealistic.” In addition, it puts officers and the public in greater danger when an officer misses those shots.
Federal Way Police Chief Deputy Kyle Sumpter told Police1: “When an armed attack is underway, any response less than deadly force is wishful thinking, a hope-for-the-best reliance on the assailant’s good faith or luck.”
Police academies train cadets to aim for a person’s center-mass in order to quickly eliminate the threat. However, some argue that shooting to incapacitate may have its place in today’s police climate after nearly 17% of the 1,115 people killed by police over the last five years were armed with edged weapons.
Indeed, the LaGrange, Georgia, Police Department is one of the first to recognize a place for shooting to incapacitate in policing. The department is one of the first in the country to institute a specific training program dealing with this issue based on European guidelines where police deal with fewer guns and more edged and blunt weapons during a call.
However, Mourtgos argued that shooting to incapacitate won’t necessarily prevent someone from dying.
“I’ve seen people survive being shot in the head with a bullet … I’ve seen people die from being shot in the leg and arm,” Mourtgos said. “There is no good place to shoot a human being.”
Finally, Utah POST director Major Scott Stephenson said that while such a policy would result in fewer deaths, it would simply be because “officers will frequently miss their intended target” — referring to their legs.
The trade-off, he added, is an increased risk to the public, arguing such a practice “could jeopardize innocent bystanders at a higher rate.”