SUREFIRE RESPONSE to OFFICER INVOLVED ACCIDENTAL SHOOTINGS
Dear SureFire Customers and Supporters:
Recently an article appeared in an e-mail newsletter distributed by the Force Science News of the Force Science Institute, quoting its own Dr. Lewinski. The article and Dr. Lewinski make several troubling assertions that must be rebutted in the (long-term) interest of officer safety. The gist of the article and Lewinski is that grip-activated pistol-light switches are unsafe. I paraphrase (to clarify), quote, and respond to some of the more disturbing assertions below.
- You cannot train officers to keep their finger off the trigger under stress. According to the article, “…despite training to the contrary, officers in high-stress situations tend to move the finger onto the trigger…”
Response: If true, this has nothing to do with grip-switches, but it would support a ban on the use of firearms in general. But obviously, it is not true; officers can be trained to keep their fingers off the trigger in high-stress situations. If the fact were otherwise there would be thousands of unintended discharges each day.
- The device is unsafe. The article states, “At least twice in recent months the device has been associated with shootings in which officers reportedly said they thought they were turning on the flashlight…”
Response: In 1986 SureFire introduced the first light designed specifically for mounting on handguns. This light (equipped with remote switching) was quickly adopted by SWAT teams, including LAPD’s D-Platoon. In 2004 SureFire introduced the current X-Series Weapon Lights, intended primarily for attachment to handguns. There are well over 100,000 SureFire X-Series lights and tens of thousands of optional grip-activated “DG” and “SL” switches in use today, and our competitors have sold hundreds of thousands of other pistol-mountable lights themselves. During this 24-year period the only reported safety-related incidents involving such lights are the two incidents mentioned above. These figures alone prove that SureFire Weapon Lights, and weapon-mounted lights in general, are safe.
- According to the article, Lewinski asserts that, “…an officer pressing his middle finger against the flashlight switch pad will produce a sympathetic reaction in the index finger. If that finger happens to be inside the trigger guard and on the pistol’s trigger, the reaction may be forceful enough to cause an unintentional discharge.”
Response: Sympathetic Response is a real phenomenon, but it’s not the boogeyman and it can be addressed with training. Think about it: our trigger finger doesn’t magically pull the trigger when we use our thumb to manipulate the safety or the magazine release. Nor does the trigger finger unconsciously jump into action when we use our opposite hand to activate our radio, handheld flashlight, or pepper spray. The answer to Sympathetic Response is training and adherence to Rule #2 of The Four Basic Rules of Firearms Safety: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you are ready to fire.
And please note, if an officer experiences Sympathetic Response while his or her finger is on the trigger when it shouldn’t be there, it would not matter which light switch the officer is using, or whether the officer has a weapon-mounted light at all. The point is, the officer’s finger is on the trigger when it shouldn’t be there.
- The article quotes Lewinski as saying, “When you think you’re doing one thing but are actually doing another, the result often is directly opposite of what you intended.”
Response: I believe he is referring to the phenomenon of reverting (under stress) from an intended action (activating the grip switch) to another action (pulling the trigger).
Let’s borrow Lewinski’s own analogy of drivers stepping on the gas pedal when they meant to step on the brake pedal. Can this happen? Of course, it’s called a mistake. Does every driver do it? No, in fact, most do not. Do trained drivers—such as highway patrolmen, or professional race car drivers—make this mistake? No, not in any number that is statistically significant. Again, the issue here is training. You cannot make officers safer by taking away their equipment—you must provide them with adequate training.
Dr. Lewinski lists research as one of the services he provides. Yet—with the newsletter in question—he has published what most would assume to be a professional opinion—based on just two isolated incidents (out of 24 years of safe use) that he read about in news reports, incidents that are still under investigation and that he is not privy to at this time. While he may have conducted legitimate research regarding human dynamics during deadly force encounters, he does not appear to have done any research particular to SureFire products or the use of weapon-mounted lights. For that reason alone I find the article to be unprofessional and certainly not qualified to stand as an expert opinion.
I assume Lewinski is acting out of a real concern for officer safety—and not to generate future engagements as an expert witness. But I fear the article may actually have the opposite effect by frightening some administrations into depriving their officers of crucial safety tools. Regardless, Lewinski’s opinion is just that.
The greater issue is whether officers are provided adequate training to ensure they can safely use the tools they have. To address that issue I have attached a separate document, unconcerned with Dr. Lewinski’s opinions, entitled, Officer Training for Low-Light Conditions: A Matter of Life and Death.
It should be noted that Force Science News is a communications vehicle for the Force Science Research Center, of which Lewinski is the executive director. Quoting yourself in your own publication and referencing your own studies is questionable at best. And finally, the article ends with this statement: “Lawsuits have been filed in both shootings.” For clarification, SureFire has not been named in those lawsuits.
Derek McDonald, Vice President of Marketing, SureFire
Relevant experience includes but is not limited to:
U.S. Navy Gunners Mate “A” and “C” schools
- U.S. Navy Small Arms Instructor / Range Master
- P.O.S.T. certified instructor of Officer Survival in Low-Light Conditions
- SureFire Institute founding instructor cadre member
- NRA Law Enforcement Tactical Handgun Instructor
- Simunition Scenario & Safety Instructor
- Hundreds of hours providing training to, and conducting informal interviews of, law enforcement officers with regard to lethal-force encounters, specifically as it relates to the use of low-light tactics and lighting tools
According to recent news reports, on October 15, 2010 a narcotics officer in Texas shot and killed an unarmed suspected drug dealer as the officer moved in to arrest him; and on January 25, 2011 a police officer in New York shot and wounded an allegedly unarmed man while serving a warrant. As reported, each officer said he was trying to operate his pistol-mounted light when the weapon discharged.
We at SureFire are deeply saddened by these tragic events. Ensuring the safety, success, and survival of our warfighters and peacekeepers has always been the key element in SureFire’s corporate mission.
The Texas and New York shootings reportedly involved pistol-mounted lights manufactured by SureFire. Although both shootings remain under investigation, we are confident these investigations will conclude that SureFire lights are safe and effective. According to news reports, a police spokesman for the Texas department said the department does not believe there is a problem with the flashlight in question or the way it is activated.
We take this opportunity to review the crucial benefits that weapon-mounted lights provide to police officers and the citizens they protect, and to emphasize the need for proper officer training in both the use of these lifesaving tools and in low-light tactics in general.
In 1986 SureFire introduced the first light designed specifically for mounting on handguns. This light was quickly adopted by SWAT teams, including LAPD’s D-Platoon. In 2004 SureFire introduced the current X-Series Weapon Lights, intended primarily for attachment to handguns. There are well over 100,000 SureFire X-Series lights and tens of thousands of optional grip-activated “DG” and “SL” switches in use today, and our competitors have sold hundreds of thousands of other pistol-mountable lights themselves. During this 24-year period the only reported safety-related incidents involving such lights are the two incidents mentioned above. These figures alone prove that SureFire Weapon Lights, and weapon-mounted lights in general, are safe.
We strongly believe that any department that does not permit its officers to use a weapon-mounted light increases the risk of wrongful shootings due to suspect or weapon misidentification, and the risk to its officers of serious injury or death due to the lack of illumination control in critical situations.
According to the NYPD (1996 SOP-9), as many as 77% of police shootings occur under some degree of diminished light. Yet most departments continue to dedicate a small percentage of firearms and tactics training to realistic low-light conditions. In an analysis conducted by Tom Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council (www.theppsc.org), over a 13-year span the Baltimore County PD (which Mr. Aveni regards as one of the best trained in the country) achieved an average hit ratio of 64% in daylight shootings. In shootings that occurred in low-light conditions the average hit ratio dropped to 45%—a decline of 30%. Mr. Aveni determined that as much as 18% to 33% of law enforcement shootings are of the “mistake-in-fact” variety, i.e., when a suspect displays an item that is mistakenly believed to be a deadly weapon or engages in furtive behavior that is mistakenly perceived to be threatening. As many as 75% of the “mistake-of-fact” shootings examined by Mr. Aveni occurred at a time of day “we'd generally associate with reduced light conditions.”
In a New York Post article about the NYPD shooting mentioned above, a person identified as a firearms expert was quoted as stating, “When you put a flashlight on a weapon system, there are numerous things that you have to manipulate, and under stress, things are more difficult…” While we agree that under stress things are more difficult, by eliminating the need to hold, point, and activate a handheld light, a weapon-mounted light actually reduces the complexity of illuminating a threat as soon as lethal force is deemed potentially necessary. It’s worth noting that the same purported firearms expert testified as an expert witness in connection with the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting. In that case, four NYPD officers shot and killed an unarmed suspect in low-light conditions. As reported, the officers were operating under the belief that Diallo, who appeared to match the description of a serial rapist and initially ran away from the officers, was brandishing a weapon, which later proved to be his wallet. It is very likely that this tragedy, and the resulting $3,000,000 settlement, could have been avoided if the officers had been equipped with weapon-mounted lights and adequate low-light training.
Every experienced law enforcement officer we know would agree that, in use-of-force situations that occur in diminished-light conditions, supplemental lighting is necessary for sound decision-making and effective action. Adequate illumination is required both before the decision to pull the trigger is made, and as the officer is firing. These officers also would agree that a proper two-handed grip is required for optimal accuracy. While flashlight/handgun-shooting techniques can be effective, they do not allow the full two-handed grip and the degree of stability afforded by a pistol-mounted light.
Consider the rapidly evolving nature of threat situations: Time does not always permit the use of a handheld light; an officer may need to draw his or her weapon immediately. In such time-critical situations, an officer equipped with a pistol-mounted light has an instant source of illumination in hand, which can be crucial to proper decision-making and, indeed, to survival. Both handheld and weapon-mounted lights are important safety tools. Handheld lights may be preferable in circumstances when the threat of a lethal-force encounter is low, but they are not optimal in lethal-force situations. Should an officer equipped only with a handheld flashlight have cause to present and/or discharge his or her weapon, they must either use a one-handed grip with a consequent decrease in accuracy, or hold the flashlight and weapon together in a less than optimal grip. Activating a pistol-mounted light is much more mechanically efficient and, consequently, is much quicker and easier to use than a handheld flashlight and has the added benefit of improved accuracy under stress.
Every piece of equipment issued to an officer requires training to be used effectively. Flashlights and weapon-mounted lights are no exception. The Four Basic Rules of Firearms Safety are taught to every academy cadet and posted within virtually all police and civilian shooting ranges. While each of these rules are equally important, two of them are particularly pertinent to the use of weapon-mounted lights:
Rule #2: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you are ready to fire.
Rule #3: Never point your weapon at anything you are not willing to injure or destroy.
These rules must be fully ingrained in law enforcement officers by means of proper training of sufficient quality and frequency.
Proper training is required not only to enhance officer safety and to avoid accidental shootings, but also to protect departments and municipalities against financial liability. The courts can and will hold a municipality liable for failure to adequately train its police force. See, e.g., City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989); Zuchel v. Denver, 997 F.2d 730 (10th Cir. 1993). And law enforcement agencies must conduct firearms training that is realistic, and that reflects the environment the officers are likely to encounter. See, e.g., Popow v. City of Margate, 476 F.Supp. 1237 (Dist. N.J. 1979). Unfortunately, many police agencies still have not developed such training. The failure to have appropriate and realistic “decisional” training with respect to the use of deadly force is a risk that agencies cannot afford to take.
We believe that weapon-mounted lights are crucial safety-enhancing tools for law enforcement officers, and that departments and municipalities must provide training adequate to the task. Too often officers are placed under extreme duress in complex, rapidly evolving, life-or-death situations without the necessary equipment and/or training. To that end, SureFire is developing and will release free of charge to any U.S. law enforcement agency a comprehensive multi-media training course curriculum entitled Low-Light Safety & Survival: Tools, Tactics, and Techniques. These materials will provide departments with a training format based on 15 years of testing and teaching low-light tactics and Officer Survival at the SureFire Institute.
In closing, we offer these reminders for the safe use of weapons used in conjunction with weapon-mounted lights or any other piece of equipment:
Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target and you are ready to fire.
Never point your weapon at anything you are not willing to injure or destroy.
Derek McDonald, email@example.com
Ron Canfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
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