The One Lesson Police Officers Need to Learn About Shooting Their Weapons

The fatal shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers raise familiar set of questions about American policing practices. In both instances, onlookers are questioning why the officers chose to deadly force, rather than de-escalate the situation.

The officers claim killing Sterling was necessary; but if you look at the scene from a military perspective, you might get a different answer.

Every police department has its own firearm guidelines, but overall, law enforcement policy emphasizes deescalation over deadly force. However, Iraq War veteran and military reporter Alex Horton told ATTN: that the military guidelines for using deadly force are much clearer, because the consequences of making a mistake are much higher. In short, Horton said, military members are trained not to shoot unless they see that their target has a weapon. 

ATTN: talked to Horton, who wrote an op-ed about his own experience being raided by police in The Washington Post last year, about the differences in police and military firearm protocol.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ATTN: Could you just tell me a little bit about your military history?

Alex Horton: I joined the army when I was 19, that was in 2004, and I was an Army infantryman stationed out of Fort Lewis, Washington, and I deployed to Iraq in 2006 in the summer for a 15-month tour.

ATTN: Could you estimate how many raids you were involved in during your service?

AH: I would estimate, it's hard to classify one raid over another. A raid when we were seeking out high value targets or had intel. [sic] In the sense of going somewhere and raiding and gunning people out, I would say over two dozen.

ATTN: Now, can you characterize the type of training you received in terms of use and discharge of a firearm during one of these raids?

AH: The overarching principal of using your weapon in combat is kind of a melding of doctrine with the Geneva Convention, which is, "Don't fire unless you're fired upon." In combat, when you are able to tell between friend and foe or civilian from insurgent, you have what's called "positive identification" which we used as the acronym PID, which means you can visibly confirm that there's a weapon and typically in most situations you are not allowed and very discouraged to engage anyone without seeing a weapon.

Outside of Sadr City [a suburb of Baghdad, and the location of some of Iraq War's most intense fighting] there was this car we were observing that was making repeated circles around this block, and we had known there were insurgents who would either lie in the trunk of cars or backseat of cars as a sniper platform to shoot at someone and then quickly drive away. Very much like the Beltway sniper in 2002. In fact, it's essentially the same idea — so removing a tail light, sticking a barrel through, shooting, and then either killing yourself or driving away. So we watched this guy do it, we knew it was happening, but we couldn't see inside of the car. We were too far away, but close enough to watch and do this.

So we kept on calling it up: Can we engage? Can we engage? Can we see a weapon? No, we can't view it. No, we can't engage. He did it over and over again and we have to engage and well what's around? Kids are around. Okay, you can't engage. So he rolls down his window and takes a shot at us and it came so close to my ear that there was ringing in my ear — I had tinnitus the whole day after that. He drove away and we weren't able to do anything with it. It's an example, under very intense circumstances. It's very common for troops to have a lot of restraint when it comes to known perceived threats.

ATTN: In general, what was your firearm training like during basic training?

AH: What's really different — and what people need to understand when they say "in the military these guys are gun experts" and saying there's a large population of people with guns on a military base — on a military base, gun access is very, very strict. All of the assigned weapons and machine guns, M4 rifles, sniper rifles, everything like that, is stored and locked in cages with very strict access and ammunition is kept separately, and it's very uncommon to keep personally owned firearms onset of a base.

In my experience, I don't even think it was allowed. You could not own a firearm. You couldn't even have more than a six-pack of beer per person, so things like that are very tightly regulated. If I wanted to take my M4 out on day where not everyone had their M4 out, not everyone could do it, and now we have to have special permission. And the ammunition is kept miles and miles away, so the thing you learn in basic training is: this is a dangerous instrument, a deadly weapon. It is to be used responsibly and with the utmost care, under the most lacked circumstances.

And one of the first lessons you learn, and this is what I said in the op-ed is, you point this at somebody that you intend to kill — not intimidate, not warn, not subdue — but you intend to kill this person. That's the only living thing you should be pointing this thing at. And that's drilled into you. First you learn just the parts of it, then you learn how to take it apart, then you learn how to hold it, then you learn how to align the sights, then you learn how to hold it in different positions like the prone or kneeling or foxhole, and then you do drive-by, which is firing it without any ammunition, and then you go to the range. So it's not just, Here's a gun, let's go shoot stuff.

ATTN: Based on your experience and what you've observed domestically in terms of American policing, how would you characterize the difference between these firearm protocols?

AH: One way to characterize them without getting too much into the politics and procedures of policing, which I'm not an expert, it's not my lane. I will say, and I'm not making a direct comparison, but this is how I kind of observed and one of the points that got trimmed from the op-ed that I feel so strongly about is, and this is considered in the vacuum of just military experience, but I feel like we as a force as an army unit, as a company, a small group of people, we understood the cause and effect of unleashing violence and what that entails — what's the second and third order effect of being violent in a place where civilians might get killed. We knew that if we killed someone on accident or used excessive force, we knew there would be consequences. It wouldn't just be the families. That uncle is going to pick up an AK-47 and shoot it the next day, or they're going to set off a bomb as a revenge because we killed an important part of the community, and rightfully so. People are upset that we killed someone and they perceive that to be malice. So we took it very seriously when stuff like that happened, because we knew that there was going to be a reaction.

For every action there is a reaction, and when you are in combat and you make decisions like that, it's very complicated and people are being killed that doesn't happen in a vacuum, there is going to be a consequence. So if you kill a kid on a raid and he gets martyred two days later, those things are not mutually exclusive. They are related. That's one thing I see that you can read into it why I'm making that comparison, policing is when we went into a community and did things that the community saw as bad, we knew there was going to be a reaction. We learned to accept it and understand it but we also tried to mitigate it because every time we put people in danger, the effect was we were putting ourselves in danger. That was a consequence we had to live with but also struggle with.

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