Well, neither of those statements can be proven true based on the information supplied by “the FBI.” The available facts are actually a lot less conclusive than many people portray them as. Consequently, there is a great deal of unsupportable extrapolation of the facts that do exist.
The data that is being referred to is compiled and published as part of the FBI’s annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed & Assaulted report, which is available to download from the FBI’s website. It is published around the end of October each year for incidents occurring the previous year.
Since LEOKA 2012 has just been released, let’s examine the assertions about them. Unfortunately, the FBI does not gather information about distance of gunfights in routine submissions to the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. The only information on distances is gathered as supplemental data in cases where police officers are actually killed. These data are compiled in Table 36 — Distance Between Victim Officer and Offender, 2003–2012, in the current report. However, this table reports only a very small subset (44) of “gunfights” police engaged in. The data that is collected about the total number of police gunfights (2,259) is compiled in Table 70 — Type of Weapon and Percent Injured, 2003–2012. No distances are provided in this table.
Table 70 does list an interesting piece of information that provides a reality check on the “zero to three feet distance” assertion. Of the 2,259 Assaults with Firearms, only 9.8% resulted in injury. However, 13.2% of the officers who were assaulted with knives or other cutting instruments were injured. Statistically, it seems unlikely that within the same zone of influence, knives would result in a 35% higher casualty rate than firearms.
Over the past ten years, injury rates for firearms have been the lowest of all weapon types:
- Personal weapons – 28.5%
- Other dangerous weapons – 23.8%
- Knives or other cutting instruments – 12.7%
- Firearms – 9.3%
If most police gunfights took place within three feet, it would seem reasonable to expect that the injury rate would most likely approach 100% rather than 9.3%. Using these data to partially vet the distance of police gunfights would seem to indicate that police gunfights do not take place at near-contact distances. More likely, gunfights actually take place at considerably longer distances, where the popular spray-and-pray point-shooting techniques employed by criminals are rather ineffective.
Looking at the overview of officers killed in 2012 also provides some interesting information. Forty-four officers were killed with firearms, 32 with handguns. However, only seven officers fired their weapons, and two additional officers attempted to use their weapons. Twenty-four of the officers killed with firearms were within five feet from the offenders. Combining the data of officers who fired their weapons with the data of distance the officers were killed at would seem to indicate that officers tend to be slain in “shootings” rather than “gunfights.”
A more justifiable assertion based on the data in Tables 36 and 70 would be that if a police officer is shot (at) by a criminal at a distance of under five feet, the possibility of death is high. The data gathering and analytical capabilities of the FBI and UCR are probably not necessary to arrive at that conclusion. The only study that actually looked at distances of gunfights in a detailed and methodical way was done for Police Marksman magazine by Richard Fairburn in the 1990s. The average distance reported in that study was 14 yards.
Another frequent claim goes something like, “There’s a commonly held and cited statistic that three out of four times, when officers are killed during shootings, it happens in low light.” That “commonly cited statistic” is a fallacy.
- Mean 12:44pm
- Mode 11:00am
- Median 1:20pm
Of the 64 incidents reported in the 2011 Summaries, only 36% took place between the hours of 2100 and 0700. Of those, in only one incident would a flashlight have had any relevance whatsoever, and even that incident is questionable. For instance, if an offender uses his car to run an officer down at 12:20am, a flashlight is unlikely to help the situation. This isn’t to say that flashlights aren’t useful. However, when using statistics as the underlying premise for an assertion, they should be researched for veracity, rather than be “commonly cited.”
The purpose of this article is not to say that gunfights and shootings don’t take place at close range but rather that stating “the FBI” says they do is incorrect. Statistics can be useful, but their data collection methods and interpretations must be well understood before the final product becomes useful intelligence. And the actual source for the statistic must be determined and vetted to be real and appropriate. If we’re going to use numbers as a basis for our training and decisions, let’s get them correct.