By Fred Burton
At Stratfor, our doors are always open to considering different viewpoints. We have an Editorial Board, "a diverse group of thinkers whose expertise inspires rigorous and innovative thought in our analyses. Though their opinions are their own, they inform and sometimes even challenge our beliefs." Last week, an article written in this space by Anisa Mehdi, a member of our Editorial Board, created a flurry of passionate replies from law enforcement and security professionals, primarily in response to this passage:
"In the case of the truck on the Riviera promenade, French law enforcement agents could have shot out the tires on the truck, ending his hurtling charge, saving some lives and keeping Bouhlel alive for questioning. In other cases, it would behoove trained officers of the law and the military not to shoot to kill. Shoot an arm, the knees; shoot below the belt. But don't shoot to kill. (That would be good advice to police as they face down black Americans these days, too.)"
One comment in particular, written by a former law enforcement official, was representative of many readers' views. He pointed out that "shooting tires out takes a lot of time to depressurize the tires AND the vehicle will run on rims." He then asked: "…what if our suspect had a detonator in the cab and a truck full of explosives?"
Neutralizing the Threat
As a former police officer and special agent with the U.S. State Department, I most certainly echo the concerns expressed by this reader and others. Police and law enforcement agents aren't trained to shoot out tires or to shoot suspects in the extremities for good reason. Such targets are extremely small, and even if you hit them, a determined attacker is not likely to be taken out of the fight, meaning he or she might still be able to continue shooting or detonate explosives. When confronted with an imminent threat and deadly force is deemed necessary, police and agents are taught to shoot at and strike the center of mass (the torso) to neutralize the threat and incapacitate the shooter as quickly as possible. Tactically speaking, soldiers are trained the same way. However, an overwhelming amount of firepower may be required to neutralize a threat and save the lives of innocent bystanders, as we saw in Dallas and Orlando. The threat and tactical landscape can be further complicated by mass killers and terrorists wearing body armor or using massive weapons that are difficult to neutralize, like the attacker in Nice who used a common vehicle as a deadly weapon.
In fairness to our Editorial Board member, "Capturing [terrorists] alive could lead to gathering essential information about their motives, chains of command, conspirators and chieftains." I agree. For the purpose of gaining information, it is always best to capture terrorists as opposed to killing them, but only when it is practical and safe to do so. A law enforcement officer must also keep public safety at the forefront in these incidents. In many cases, terrorists come to die as part of the attack, often planning to quickly detonate bombs or suicide vests. They could even enlist confederates and lookouts to enhance their effectiveness, increasing the risk to all involved in the situation. Their mission is to kill as many people as they can, using their weapons of choice. In many of these situations, capturing terrorists alive is neither possible nor should it be, quite frankly, the goal of those looking to stop them.
Protecting Lives or Information?
In a vehicle scenario like the one seen in Nice, shooting at the tires of a vehicle as it plows through a crowd of innocent bystanders is dangerous. Rounds fired at tires can miss or ricochet and hit bystanders and other police officers. Furthermore, a vehicle can travel quite some distance with a flat tire, especially a commercial one with multiple tires in the back end. Shooting and killing the driver is the surest way to stop a rampaging vehicle, although tools such as spike strips can also prove quite effective in certain settings.
We live in a violent and dangerous world, as the attacks and mass killings in Rouen, Nice, Munich, Dallas, Baton Rouge and Orlando remind us. Cops and agents make split-second decisions that are inevitably "Monday morning quarterbacked" and questioned by many. Attack recognition and situational awareness can save lives. Though keeping terrorists alive to gather intelligence can be valuable, once a worst-case scenario happens, a well-trained officer with a firearm is one of the most effective ways to prevent further killing and minimize the body count.
To Kill or Not to Kill: The Tactical Realities is republished with permission of Stratfor.