'Nobody ... walks away unscathed'

Police train extensively to learn the appropriate use of deadly force, but the decision to exercise that option is often made in an adrenalin-soaked split second, far from any classroom.

When an officer makes the call to use his gun, he's playing for keeps. That's the way they're taught. Shoot for center body mass, the largest target available.

Hollywood films and television are rife with images of crack-shot officers blasting a gun out of a suspect's hands or disabling the perpetrator with a well-placed bullet to the arm or leg. It doesn't work that way in real life, police say. There's just too much room for error.

"We shoot to eliminate the threat," said Cpl. Craig Farr, range master and a firearms instructor for the Charleston Police Department. "When the threat is there, you don't have the time to say 'I'll wing him in the shoulder or the ankle.' Very few people are good enough shots to accomplish that in the first place."

The Lowcountry has seen more than two dozen police-involved shootings during the past decade, including at least eight in the past year alone. The latest incident occurred Saturday, when a Charleston County sheriff's deputy fatally shot a rifle-wielding man outside a Meggett home.

Some police shootings in recent years have prompted outcries in area communities and accusations of excessive force. In almost every case, however, authorities determined that police acted appropriately.

Elder James Johnson, a longtime civil rights activist from North Charleston, said police too often seem to resort to deadly force to resolve confrontations. He questioned whether officers could do more to negotiate, disarm or wait out a distraught suspect before using lethal means. "Why do the police departments always have to shoot and kill somebody?" he asked.

Police officials said using deadly force always is a last resort and never is a decision officers take lightly. Officers have been known to leave the force after killing a suspect, too traumatized to return to duty.

"Nobody involved in these kinds of situations walks away unscathed or unaffected," Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said.

Area law enforcement agencies have specific guidelines governing when it is proper — or reasonable — for an officer to use deadly force. The rules revolve around the principle of imminent danger. An officer is justified in shooting a suspect if he feels his life or someone else's is endangered or if a fleeing felon presents an obvious threat to someone's safety.

University of South Carolina criminology professor Geoff Alpert, an expert in police use-of-force, said the parameters of justifiable shooting drew tighter in the mid-1980s and that police departments have improved both training and policies in its use since that time. Still, the number of police-involved shootings has been on the rise nationwide as officers encounter more heavily-armed suspects "who really don't have much respect for life," he said.

"The thing people always forget about is this: What is the suspect doing and why does the suspect think he can walk around threatening people with a gun or knife?" Alpert said. "If you have a weapon and some opportunity to use it, it is quite likely an officer will be justified in taking your life."

Vance McLaughlin, a criminal justice professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, said aiming to wound is unrealistic. Studies have shown that, at best, police officers hit home with only one out of every five shots they fire in a combat situation. They need to aim at the biggest target possible. Each miss by an officer increases the chances of a suspect shooting them first or a stray bullet striking an innocent bystander, he said.

Charleston County Sheriff Maj. John Clark said officers can't afford to wait until a suspect shoots first. That point was illustrated all too clearly in March when two Moncks Corner police officers were gunned down by a shotgun-wielding man whom they approached at his home, he said.

"Police officers are paid to do a job that has risk associated with it," Cannon said. "They are not paid, however, to be injured or killed."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.