Video: Shoot or don’t shoot?

By and NBC News
updated 4/25/2008 10:34:55 AM ET 2008-04-25T14:34:55

As details emerged about the fatal shooting by New York police late last year of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old unarmed man, one number stood out:


Five officers got off 50 shots. Thirty-one of them were fired by one officer, who emptied his gun, reloaded and continued firing.

“My first reaction was, uh-oh. Why? Why?”

David Klinger’s question has been asked many times since Bell was killed and two of his friends were wounded outside a Queens nightclub on Nov. 25, which was to have been Bell’s wedding day. The incident, in which two of the five officers have been indicted on manslaughter charges and a third faces lesser charges, sparked a series of protests by New Yorkers numbering in the thousands.

David Klinger, however, is not a protester or a victim’s rights advocate. He is an ex-cop, a street veteran of the gang wars in South Central Los Angeles. Today, he is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“The first thing that I thought about is, what sort of training did they have?” said Klinger, who interviewed 80 police officers involved in fatal shootings for his book “Into the Kill Zone: A Cop’s Eye View of Deadly Force.”

‘Maybe we need to shoot the driver’
The Justice Department’s “Principles for Promoting Police Integrity” declare that officers are authorized to use deadly force “only when it is reasonable and necessary to protect the officer or others from imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to the officer or another person.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton and other activists point out that Bell and his friends were unarmed. How could they have posed an “imminent danger”?

Klinger stressed that it was important to let the investigation play out before drawing any conclusions. But he noted that Bell and his friends were in a moving car.

“It is possible that 50 rounds needed to be fired in order to stop a threat, because, remember, a motor vehicle traveling at anything over a few miles an hour can be a deadly instrument,” Klinger said.

“It makes sense that maybe we need to shoot the driver who’s trying to run us down. But then why were two other people struck with bullets?” he asked. “Could it because one of them acted as if he had a gun? Even though no gun was found?”

Klinger said he just couldn’t know, and neither could anyone other than the five officers themselves.

A cop does what he has to do
“That’s what we pay police officers for, is to go out and put themselves in those situations and stop people from carrying out violent acts in our society.”

To Maj. Don Fuhr, an administrative division commander with the Springfield, Mo., police, “the car is a weapon.”

Most police regulations, including those of the New York department, say “you do not fire on a vehicle or from a vehicle unless there has been a violent act by the person inside or your life is in danger,” said Fuhr, an instructor at the Springfield police academy. “And yet, there isn’t a cop I know where if he’s been rammed by a car wouldn’t take a shot, because his life is in danger.”

For Fuhr, the question of whether to shoot is personal.

In 1989, he was on foot, chasing a man suspected of threatening people in a laundry, when the suspect turned and pulled a knife. Fuhr fired four shots, three of which struck the man, who died at the scene.

It was ruled a clean shoot. It was what he had been trained to do. And he had been there before.

Lessons from experience
Six years earlier, as a rookie, Fuhr had been involved in another showdown, with a suspect who was brandishing a rifle or a shotgun. Fuhr ordered him to drop the gun. The man swung around with the gun over his head. Fuhr made a split-second decision and concluded that the man was not going to shoot. So Fuhr did not shoot. The man dropped the gun and was arrested.

Today, Fuhr thinks he was wrong. “As he turned towards me, I should have shot him,” he said. “I made the incorrect decision, looking back on it.” 

Although the incident turned out all right, Fuhr could easily have been killed. He took a chance he shouldn’t have, because at that time, in 1983, police weapons training was rudimentary, and he wasn’t prepared.

At the firing range, “you fired from the 25-yard line. You fired a directed number of rounds,” Fuhr remembered. “It was very static, and there was no alteration from that.”

Things are different today.

At police academies across the country, would-be officers navigate their way through astonishingly realistic computer simulations. Instructors can devise an almost infinite number of variations, putting their students into almost any dangerous situation that can be imagined.

Then there are the “live fire” houses. Here, officers go into a building where a crisis situation is replicated. They learn to handle their weapons around one another, around possible criminals and around innocent bystanders. They have to shoot while walking. They have to shoot while running.

So when the same scenario arises in real life, said Scott Williams, lead firearms instructor at the Bergen County N.J., police academy, “your mind will immediately trigger and say: ‘I know what that is. That’s a gun. That’s happened before. And I’m ready to take care of it.’ ”

‘It’s something we didn’t want to do’
David Klinger also killed a man once.

It was July 1981, and Klinger was the greenest of rookies, just four months on the beat in South Central L.A. He and his partner, Dennis Acevedo, were chasing a suspect when the man pulled a butcher’s knife and plunged it into Acevedo’s chest.

Acevedo called out, “Shoot him!” But Klinger’s gun had fallen out of its holster. By the time he retrieved it, the suspect was just about to cut Acevedo’s throat. From 18 inches away, Klinger fired.

The bullet tore through the suspect’s lungs and aorta. The knife flew away, but the suspect kept struggling. It took four officers to subdue him, despite his grave injuries. Sitting on the stoop of a nearby house, Klinger watched him die.

“I managed to beat myself up for many years, because I should have been able to grab his wrists and take the knife out of his hands,” Klinger said. “I beat myself up for not being able to avoid shooting him.”

Many officers involved in fatal shootings react the same way. But not all of them. After interviewing scores of officers involved in shootings for his book, Klinger said there was one consistent thread in all the stories.

“For all the officers, it was a life-changing experience,” Klinger said. “Not always a negative — for some officers, it was quite positive, in the sense that they wondered, ‘Will I be able to do my job if I need to?’ I.e., ‘Will I be able to pull the trigger if I need to?’ ”

Klinger was not in that camp.

“For other officers ... it’s life-changing in the sense that it’s something we didn’t want to do,” he said. “We tried our best to avoid it. And living with the notion of taking another human life is simply tough for many officers.”

For cops, lives are altered
Worst of all, said Fuhr, the Missouri cop, is that the public doesn’t get it.

“I don’t even like watching police shows, because I see things that anger me,” he said. “Because we don’t do them that way. They’re either stupid, they’re wrong, they’re illegal or they’re just not factual.”

And yet, Klinger said, the public pigeonholes cops as swaggering macho guys — even the women — with itchy trigger fingers thanks to those shows and movies like the “Lethal Weapon” series.

“Mel Gibson and Danny Glover running and gunning through the streets of Los Angeles and various environs around Southern California — that’s just not how it is. It simply isn’t,” he said. “The other thing is, it doesn’t show what happens afterwards. ...

“Dirty Harry or whoever shoots them up, and then he goes home and he’s happy. He drinks a Scotch, goes out on a date, whatever the case might be. The impact that it has on the officers is simply something that doesn’t show up at all.”

Klinger said a good officer was always cognizant that he or she was “an agent of the state exercising the ultimate power of the state to take a life.”

“It should come easy in the sense of solid, sound decision-making, when a practiced, experienced officer says: ‘Hey, look, my life and the life of an innocent party besides myself is in imminent jeopardy. I need to shoot.’ That part should be simple,” he said.

“But the morality of it should never be forgotten.”

NBC correspondent Mike Taibbi and Dateline producer Fred Rothenberg contributed to this report. Alex Johnson is a reporter for


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