At the Sisters in Crime / LA chapter meeting last month, we had a speaker I’ve met a couple times over the last four years. FBI Special Agent Tom Leighton spoke at a meeting in 2014 and he also was on the faculty of the biennial Crime Writers Conference which Sisters in Crime / LA and Mystery Writers of America – SoCal chapter put on jointly. Special Agent Tom Leighton provides investigative support to FBI investigations as well as teaches crisis negotiations. Today he talked about law enforcement confrontations and that what we see in the movies and on television can lead to misconceptions about law enforcement shootings.
It’s a very timely topic considering the widespread violence, questionable police shootings, and protests in this country over the past year, especially the past few months. It’s extremely troubling and gut-wrenching to see these videos, yet I believe it’s important to hear from both sides. I have close friends who are cops and I know this is an extremely difficult time for them.
Agent Tom Leighton started off by saying that even the simplest law enforcement interaction is extremely complicated, especially shootings. We all feel competent to pass judgement on a video of a shooting, including police officers themselves.
Movies and television perpetuate certain myths about shootings. Everything is exaggerated with Hollywood. It’s entertainment. In reality, when people are shot, there is not enough energy in one bullet to knock them off their feet, yet when we see films like “Dirty Harry,” the bad guy is blown backwards and off their feet with one bullet.
When you’re shot, you don’t always feel pain. For example, President Reagan never even knew he was shot. He felt a little pain but not until someone saw blood, did people realize he’d been hit. They were headed home but instead, he was rushed to the hospital and luckily, his life was saved. The body is an amazing machine.
Leighton then discussed the biggest shootout between law enforcement and criminals in US history. It’s the 1986 FBI Miami shootout that took place in Dade County. Matix and Platt were two bank robbers who were responsible for a string of violent bank robberies across Florida. This shootout is the most famous and the most studied shootout in law enforcement circles. It led to more powerful handguns in the FBI because even though the agents outnumbered the suspects 4 to 1, they were outgunned by Matix and Platt, two killers who were looking for a fight. These guys weren’t your average “bad guys.” An individual who doesn’t care about survival is the toughest to negotiate with. These two, despite being surrounded by agent vehicles and shot multiple times, managed to kill and critically injure several agents. Semiautomatic weapons are now standard with law enforcement because of this shootout.
Leighton said it’s quicker to act than react. The average person can move 21 feet with a knife before your brain registers what’s happening. An officer only has a few seconds to make a critical and life-altering decision. Today, most police officers never even shoot their guns. The chances they will actually strike their target are 13-20%. Time is a big issue. Sometimes, the police officer doesn’t know if their bullets are penetrating because the threat is not stopping, they keep advancing. Officers are trained to “shoot until the threat stops.” Sometimes when an officer shoots, the target spins away and a bullet strikes them in the back. Now it looks like the officer has shot them in the back.
These are all things I think about as I watch the horrifying videos and violent protests on the news. I know it will be a long time before cities like Milwaukee and Baton Rouge can heal after the senseless violence they endured. It’s not something that will work out overnight and these are issues that have plagued our society for decades. But it’s my hope (and granted, an overly simplistic and perhaps naive one) that the community and respective police departments and city leaders can eventually come together and learn from one another or at least make small steps toward this.
Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, and, Dead Guns Press. Cleaning Up Finn is her first book available now with All Due Respect Books. www.sarahmchen.com