OPINION: Police shootings: Why there’s so often a fusillade of bullets

Atlanta police officers respond to the aftermath of the fatal Jan. 18 trooper-involved shooting near the site of Atlanta's planned public safety training center.



Atlanta police officers respond to the aftermath of the fatal Jan. 18 trooper-involved shooting near the site of Atlanta's planned public safety training center.

The body of Manuel Teran, the protestor killed in January near the planned Atlanta public safety training center, weighed 130 pounds and had 57 bullet wounds, according to the autopsy.

The activist was shot from head to toe including in the right eye, chest, abdomen, buttocks, each arm and leg. The medical examiner ran out of alphabet to document the wounds, so he went to double letters (AA, BB, etc.) then triple, ending with EEE.

The 57 includes both entrance and exit wounds, so probably 20-some bullets struck Teran, who authorities have said fired a shot and hit one of the officers “sweeping” the woods of protestors.

A gun purchased by Teran was found in the tent afterward, the GBI said. A police report said two empty 9mm shell casings were found under the body. The GBI says gunpowder residue was found on Teran’s hands.

The Georgia State Patrol troopers, who did the shooting, were not wearing body cameras, which makes getting to the bottom of things difficult. That they do not wear them in absurd, a thumb in the eye to the public. The case is being investigated by the GBI.

The fusillade seen in the killing is nothing new.

In 2016, Jamarion Robinson was killed by nearly 60 wounds (with 100 shots fired) by a fugitive task force arresting him. An officer and a federal agent have been charged in that case.

In 2006, 92-year-old Kathyrn Johnston was killed when Atlanta narcotics officers broke into her home and fired 39 bullets at her, hitting her five or six times.

These are seemingly examples of what is called, alternatively, “contagious, “reflexive” or “sympathetic” shootings meaning that once one officer perceives a threat and starts firing, others join in. The extra shooting and commotion cause others to fire even more, experts say.

The family of Jamarion Robinson speaks following the indictments of two officers in his death

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Since police use semi-automatic weapons, as do almost everyone else, lots of shots are fired.

Firing early and often is a training tactic instilled in almost every department. If a gun is present, or even the thought of one, police are understandably agitated and on high alert.

“They’re trained to shoot center-mass to neutralize the threat,” said Noah Pines, a former prosecutor who has represented about 10 cops in shooting cases. None have been convicted, he said.

“In that moment, you’re reacting, not thinking,” he said. “It’s not like you have a license to kill, but you kinda do.”

Pines was referring to court rulings that allow allow prosecutors, judges and juries to consider what a “reasonable” officer would do in making the sometimes milli-second decision to shoot. The “reasonable” doctrine almost always protects officers after shootings.

Bill Lewinski, head of the Force Science Institute, is a leading expert witness for police when they shoot someone.

His training of officers tells them the world is a dangerous place and you must be alert — and quick in your actions. Last year, 60 cops were shot to death in the U.S. according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

On the other hand, almost 1,100 people were shot to death by police, according to a Washington Post data base.

Lewinski once said, “A batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at.”

He told me a person can fire a semi-automatic pistol four times in a second and it takes a wounded or dying person almost a second to fall. That means the odds are that someone shot by police may get hit several times.

“If you’re shooting to stop a threat, do you slow down to evaluate your shots?” he asks.

Well, no, he answers. Pausing to evaluate can take up to a second and “if you take that time to assess, they can put three bullets into you.”

050521 LaGrange: LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar’s goal is to give his officers another tool in the use of force spectrum using a new technique to shoot, not kill targeting areas of the body other than the chest leading to a greater chance the person will survive at the LaGrange Police shooting range on Tuesday, May 4, 2021, in LaGrange.  LaGrange PD is believed to be one of the first agencies in the country to formally structure training to teach officers to aim for the extremities, when possible and if circumstances allow.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Seth Stoughton, a professor at the University of South Carolina Law School, sighed when I told him I spoke with Lewinski.

“If you’re no longer an immediate threat, the officers should stop firing,” he said.

Bill Harmening, a former deputy and investigator, wrote a book called “The Deadly Force Script” saying police justification for shootings — such as “He was reaching for his waist band” — are highly organized, almost ritualized.

When he became a cop in 1981 he said there was more emphasis on backing up to avoid a confrontation.

“Now officers are more likely to use force,” Harmening said. “Now when they know it’s justified, the switch is clicked and they go. The law is behind them.”

“It’s a function of training. It’s zero risk. You do what you do to go home at night.”

I called Lou Dekmar, a recently retired Georgia police chief who had pushed back against the routine of always shooting at the chest. He said less-fatal shots could be employed in maybe a quarter of the 1,000-plus police killings that occur each year, cases where the weapon is not a gun.

I asked if he ever shot anyone.

No. But he almost did. He once had his finger on the trigger when a burglar spun around on him. The man had a screwdriver, not a gun.

“It would have been legitimate,” he said of the shooting that never occurred.

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