Law Enforcement Confrontations – Reality v. Fiction

Sarah M. Chenby Sarah M. Chen

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.

By Kguirnela at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

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.



22 thoughts on “Law Enforcement Confrontations – Reality v. Fiction

  1. What incredible knowledge you’ve shared, Sarah! And how wonderful you have this knowledge for future writing endeavors! Hollywood does like to make major “splashes” and exaggerate things — that’s why they’re called “blockbuster movies,” I guess. Even TV — perhaps it’s to make us all feel we are more powerful than we truly are, feeds the human ego, I guess. Thanks for sharing these fascinating pieces of crime information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Gayle! Agent Tom Leighton is a wonderful speaker who not only imparts a great deal of knowledge about law enforcement, but he’s entertaining as well. I always enjoy his talks and even though he repeats some of it, there is always something new I learn. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  2. Excellent column, Sarah. Lots of stuff to think about. I agree with you. Police departments and citizens advisory groups need to sit down and communicate. Neither should see the other as the enemy. Hopefully, we’ll see some revised training procedures to come out of law enforcement academies. When I was a reporter and did stories on law enforcement academies in the 1970s and then in the 2012-13 period, I saw that there was and continues to be room for improvement in teaching tactics and procedures. In the 1970s, the academy was maintained by the police department of the county’s largest city. In 2012-13, a community college handled the training in the North Carolina county. I can see how Leighton can help you and other crime writers doing fiction put together realistic scenes that are not copycat TV shows. My friend Sharon complains to me that many of the cop shows on TV do a bad job of showing proper evidence gathering; she says British shows do a better job.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting that a community college would handle the police academy training. I wonder why they would take over from the police department? Yes, it’s all about communicating where civilians can safely voice their concerns and complaints and for leaders and police to take it in and listen. Thanks for reading and commenting, Mike.


  3. I don’t write crime but that is very useful information to use, Sarah. The misconceptions in Hollywood drama and prose are many but you show above that it would still be dramatic to use ‘true-life’ scenarios in fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think the true-life situations are just as compelling, if not more so, than what you see on TV! I couldn’t believe what happened in the Miami shooting and how these bank robbers were basically looking for a fight and not caring they were shot multiple times. Thanks for reading and commenting, Nancy.


  4. Interesting information. I would love to hear him speak. I like mysteries and I keep tossing the idea of writing them with a nurse involved around in my head. It is way too sad that what we see and read often is no the whole story as news media is into sensationalism and getting people stirred up so they buy and watch. Yet we think we see the whole story in a 30 second clip or an abbreviated news story. I do feel sorry for the law enforcement. Yes, there are some who go into it for the wrong reasons, e.g. violence and feeding their own neurosis, but the majority I believe are noble and put their lives on the line for us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s a really tough time right now for law enforcement. I know my friend who is a cop can’t believe it when people post on FB about “understanding why people would kill those cops in Dallas.” And these are friends of his who are posting. It’s shocking to me. I like the idea of a nurse mystery; there aren’t any (that I can think of!) out there. Thanks for the comments, Neva!


  5. Well said. Having worked in Juvenile corrections for about 20 years, there are a number of truths you write about. We tend to judge from our past experiences, our mind memories. Unless you have spend time ‘in the field’ it is hard to judge. Yes, there are officers who over-react, but they are few. Should some never take the badge, yes. Should all be judged by the few, no. These are my humble opinions based on my past experiences. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Doris. I bet your experience working in juvenile corrections was really tough and eye-opening, yet surely rewarding. I commend you for doing it all those years. Yes, it’s too easy to judge on things we don’t fully understand but think we do. Thanks for reading and commenting, Doris.


  6. Yeah, it’s a tricky situation. Every police officer’s encounter may be his/her last. It could put anybody on the edge. I’ve heard that it is the nice officer’s that get shot, because criminals don’t respect them. On the other hand, uber aggressiveness and misanthropist behaviors can escalate situations way beyond where they should be and generate violent responses. If not in the present, maybe in the future. Mutual understanding would be the best situation in a perfect world.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Travis. You’re so right. Aggression isn’t the answer when trying to calm an already volatile situation but that’s too often what happens. I think fear and adrenaline play a part too (for both sides).


  7. It’s too bad that more people can’t attend citizen police academies. I went to one a couple of years ago and it gave me a very different prospective on the police. Got lots of info on all the different things they handle and their attitude toward things. One thing that was interesting was taking part in a training exercise where you had to quickly figure out what was happening, who had a gun, and the appropriate response. Things happened so fast most of us were lost in the dust. Police aren’t supermen and can make mistakes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I totally agree, Kate. I took part in the ATF Citizen’s Academy and it was eye-opening and one of the best experiences. I came away from it with even more admiration for those who protect and serve. I wish more people participated in their local citizen’s police academies. I think many cities and small towns have them. The South Bay has monthly programs like “Coffee with a Cop” and citizen’s academies. Ride-alongs can be requested too which is something I did several years ago.


  8. Sarah,
    Very interesting and timely blog. There are two sides to every story and people forget that. They jump to conclusions without hearing or seeing the whole story. Most policemen are doing a great job and we should be thankful for them.
    I wonder if you write an authentic scene if people will say, “That’s not realistic. That’s not how they do it on TV.”
    Thank you for exploring this issue.
    – Stephen

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Stephen. Yes, I bet writing a more realistic confrontational scene wouldn’t fly. It would either be boring or not seem accurate. Tom Leighton joked, “What does a deer do if you shoot it once? The deer will run away because it hasn’t seen a Hollywood movie. It doesn’t know it’s supposed to automatically fall down.”


  9. Every officer in law enforcement is doing a job most of us wouldn’t have the courage to do. Yet without them there would be mass chaos and unbelievable crime. I tend to believe law enforcement officers have enough to do without looking to harm innocent people. So if there is a confrontation of some sort there is a reason the police approached this individual in the first place. I think every police officer deserves our respect and gratitude. Yes there are a few bad apples, but I think there are very few.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s