Details on the Denver Shootout

More details are in about the recent shootout in Denver.

Ivan Moreno, who has some clue when it comes to firearms, writes for the November 16 Rocky Mountain News, “Police said the suspect, 26-year-old Phuong Van Dang, walked from table to table at the Ha Noi restaurant, masked and carrying [a] black 12-gauge shotgun and a duffel.”

So the criminal carried a shotgun, not a rifle, as I’d thought previously. And the three customers were shot by the officers.

Police Chief Gerry Whitman defended the officers’ actions, notes Moreno: “They had to do something. It wasn’t a situation were they could say, ‘Stop! Police!’ because it could turn into a hostage situation. They’re trained to stop a threat, and they did exactly that.”

However, some of the details of the story raise questions about the officers’ training:

The detectives were about 12 to 15 feet from the suspect when each fired six shots, hitting Dang five times, said Division Chief David Fisher. Four of those bullets passed through Dang’s body, according to the preliminary investigation, Fisher said.

A couple and their son, who were behind Dang, were each shot once by the detectives’ gunfire. One was shot in the ankle, and another on the side. A bullet grazed the third’s leg.

So, at twelve to fifteen feet, the officers hit a large target five of twelve rounds. That’s not so unusual; police officers generally miss most of the time at close range in a real shootout. It’s harder than most people imagine to shoot accurately in a high-stress situation. Still, you don’t want seven bullets flying off-target in a restaurant. Did each officer empty his gun?

I wonder what sort of ammunition the officers were carrying. Given that four of five rounds passed through the suspect’s body, I have to wonder if the bullets were fully jacketed. If so, I’d be interested to hear the rationale for carrying jacketed rounds as opposed to hollow-points (which tend to mushroom on impact, slowing their progression). Of course, it may have been better for the bystanders to be hit with jacketed bullets, but it’s better yet for bystanders not to be hit.

To me, this is the big point: one of the officers hit a bystander in the ankle. What that suggests is that the officer may have had his finger on the trigger as he pulled his gun from the holster, causing him to shoot prematurely toward the ground. If this was the case, then that reflects poor training. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.

I’m no expert in this, but I’d like to hear a discussion about whether it’s a good idea to drop as quickly as possible to a knee when firing at an armed criminal in a crowded area. My reasoning is that, if bystanders drop to the ground, and responsive fire is headed upward, bystanders are less likely to be hit. Of course, dropping to a knee might also limit mobility.

Still, given the details that have so far emerged, the officers deserve the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the demeanor and actions of the criminal. It seems likely, though, that the officers seriously believed that the armed criminal posed a substantial threat to their own lives and the lives of others. It is fortunate that no innocent person was killed.

In general, people carrying concealed guns, whether they are officers or civilians, have a responsibility to draw and fire only if somebody’s life is in real danger. Civilians have more of an incentive to fire in fewer situations — and to shoot more accurately — because officers generally are protected from both criminal and civil action. If police officers get sued, ultimately tax payers pick up the tab. If a civilian fires irresponsibly, he or she can get into big trouble.

Nevertheless, in this case, a masked, armed robber obviously poses a serious threat to the lives of others. The ultimate responsibility for the injuries to the bystanders rests with the criminal.