Accidental shootings by police expose training shortfalls

SEATTLE (AP) — When an Iowa mother tried to take her child from her husband during an argument on a snowy sidewalk in 2015, an officer stepped in to stop the scuffle, but he accidentally fired his weapon as a dog approached. The bullet went through the woman’s arm and into her chest, killing her as her family watched in horror.

When a Minnesota sergeant stopped a motorcyclist after a 2015 high-speed chase, he stepped out of his patrol car with his firearm drawn, flush with adrenaline, and accidentally shot the man in the arm.

And an Arkansas police officer fatally shot a suspect in 2012 as she tried to get him into handcuffs.

Accidental shootings by law enforcement have happened in recent years at agencies small and large and at all levels — city, county, state and federal — across the United States (US), an Associated Press investigation found. They’ve caused hundreds of injuries to officers, suspects and bystanders, and sometimes they’ve caused deaths.

Experts said it’s because officers don’t get the training they need to handle their guns proficiently, especially in life-and-death situations.

A King County Sheriff’s deputy holds a training weapon as he practices a traffic stop during a class at Washington state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy in Burien, Washington. PHOTOS: AP
An officer at Washington state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy fires his weapon as a training photo of man not holding a weapon is rotated into view during a training class in Burien, Wash, designed to teach officers to quickly identify the presence of weapons or other threats

The methods used to train officers with their firearms “create the illusion of learning” but are inadequate for the demands of today’s policing, said Executive Director of the Illinois-based Force Science Institute Bill Lewinski, which provides research and training to law enforcement agencies.

“The training has to match the shooting challenges on the street,” he said.

“We don’t do enough street training connected to actual skill and decision-making that’s required of officers in this type of encounter. Some officers only handle their guns once a year.”

Officers are most proficient with their guns immediately after graduating from a police academy, experts said. After that, most are tested only once or twice a year in “qualifications” that measure a minimum level of firearms proficiency.

There are no federal guidelines for these tests so there are thousands of different standards across the county.

No one tracks these shootings nationwide, so the AP collected media reports and surveyed agencies across the country through public records requests. The review was not comprehensive, due to the sheer number of US law enforcement agencies and a lack of reporting requirements for such shootings. But it provides a snapshot of the problem, documenting 1,422 unintentional discharges since 2012 at 258 agencies, and uncovering detailed reports on 426.

The tally includes any incident in which a gun went off and the officer did not intend it to, whether they were cleaning or unloading a weapon or surging with adrenaline while responding to a call. Some shootings occurred because of involuntary muscle reflexes, experts said, or because the officer simply tripped.

While countless law enforcement officers safely perform their duties every day, some experts say even a small number of accidental shootings is unacceptable because they are preventable.

“Ninety-nine out of 100 times, there is not something wrong with the gun,” said Paul Markel, a former police officer and firearms instructor in Mississippi. “It’s the person holding it.”

TRAGIC CONSEQUENCES

Gabe Steele describes January 6, 2015, as the worst day of his life.

He and his wife, Autumn, had been having marital problems, issues he partly blames on his PTSD from two tours in Iraq. When she showed up at their Burlington, Iowa, home that morning, he called 911, fearing another fight.

Autumn Steele was trying to wrest their three-year-old son from Gabe’s arms on the sidewalk when Officer Jesse Hill approached.

Just then, their dog darted toward Hill, barking loudly, and the officer lost his footing, firing two shots as he fell backward into the snow. One bullet hit the dog, the other hit 34-year-old Autumn Steele, killing her.

Hill became frantic.

“I pulled my gun and shot it, and I hit her,” he told Officer Tim Merryman, according to Hill’s body camera video. “Oh, my God, no!”

Gabe Steele knew instantly his wife was in trouble. She “actually sat down, looked me in the eye” before she died, he recalled, choking up, in a recent exclusive interview. “That was tough.”

The AP found 21 cases where people died in accidental shootings by police. It identified another 134 where the officer injured himself, and 45 where an accidental discharge injured another officer. An officer accidentally shot bystanders in 34 instances and suspects in 19.

Unintentional shootings usually lead to two investigations: one by an outside agency to determine whether charges should be filed, and an internal review to see if any policies were violated and punishment, such as suspension, is appropriate.

In Autumn Steele’s case, state investigators reviewed the shooting and sent the matter to then-Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers to determine if Hill should be charged.

Beavers compared the evidence against Iowa’s homicide statutes: First- and second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter didn’t fit the scene, she said; involuntary manslaughter would apply only if the death occurred while the officer committed a crime; and Iowa has no negligent homicide law. She decided Hill could not be charged.

“(It) appeared to me that Officer Hill was trying to protect himself from the dog and an assault,” Beavers said in a recent interview, adding that the decision still weighs on her. “It was a tragic accident.”

Hill also kept his job, including working as a school security officer. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment, and Burlington Police Chief Dennis Kramer declined AP interviews with himself and Hill.

Gabe Steele, 40, thinks Hill should have been held accountable. “He just got to go on vacation and get paid for it, for taking my son’s mother away,” Steele said. “No one has ever apologised to me and my son. That hurts.”

Steele’s family filed a wrongful death suit against the city and Hill, and reached a USD2 million settlement in 2018, according to their lawyer. The AP’s investigation found 17 cases in which the officer was charged and 28 that ended in lawsuits. Settlements varied from USD200,000 to several million.

PERVASIVE PROBLEM

Law enforcement agencies have different terms for these shootings, including “accidental,” “negligent,” or “unintentional” discharges.

But Doug Tangen, firearms programme manager at Washington state’s law enforcement training centre, argues they are all caused by a degree of negligence because at some point the officer violated one or more of the four universal firearms safety rules: Assume all guns are loaded, always point the muzzle in a safe direction, keep your finger off the trigger, and be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

“Guns don’t go off by themselves,” Tangen said.

In addition to a lack of standards for police shooting qualifications, there are no federal regulations mandating the amount of firearms training officers must receive at the police academy or once they graduate, Tangen said.

The US Justice Department has issued consent decrees mandating certain types of training following use-of-force complaints, but those orders focussed mostly on de-escalation training, not firearms, he said.

Accidental shootings happen at agencies of all sizes. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, reported 140 between 2012 and 2018.

New York City police had 100 during that time, while the smaller Jackson, Mississippi, Police Department had 93, the AP found.

They also continue to occur at federal agencies, more than a decade after the Justice Department’s inspector general documented high rates.

The watchdog office studied shootings by four federal agencies from 2000 to 2003. It found that of 267 shootings reported, 38 per cent were unintentional.

According to the AP’s review of records obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, the FBI has had at least 48 accidental shootings in the past five years. US Customs and Border Protection has had at least 122 since 2012, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 27.