On page one in “Shots Fired: The Misunderstandings, Misconceptions, and Myths About Police Shootings,” Joseph P. Loughlin, former Portland, Maine, assistant chief of police, lists a dozen or so common questions people ask when they learn that someone has been shot by police: Why did the police have to fire so many bullets? Why didn’t the police just shoot the gun out of the suspect’s hand? Why did the police kill him instead of just trying to wound him? Why didn’t they use their baton or a Taser?

“Shots Fired,” co-authored by award-winning crime writer Kate Clark Flora, goes into great detail addressing these and other questions and issues. Loughlin and Flora have teamed up before, writing the Edgar Award nominee “Finding Amy,” about the disappearance and search for Amy St. Laurent, who vanished in Portland in October 2001. From the get-go, the authors set themselves a steep hill to climb in “Shots Fired,” seeking to change ingrained public perceptions on the subject of police officers using lethal force. They cite how the daily news is filled with headlines about deadly encounters with police. And how scripted television and movie stories rarely touch on the staggering complexity and lightening-flash speed with which normalcy explodes into deadly mayhem. Findings show that deadly force confrontations “begin and end within three seconds …,” they write. “In reality, a person charging from 20 feet away can plunge a knife into you or put a hammer in your head before you draw your weapon …”

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, there are more than 11 million annual arrest charges in the United States. According to the Washington Post, lethal force resulted in 990 deaths in 2015. “This pales in comparison to 9,704 to 14,703 deadly-weapon assaults against officers,” the author of one study that is cited in the book asserts. In comparison, according to the Post, medical error led to 251,454 deaths that year. The annual number of officer deaths the last few years has been running slightly more than 120.

The authors chronicle scores of in-the-moment, first-person accounts of police officers from interviews that Loughlin conducted. Like the rainy night of May 3, 2008, in Portland, when Officers Nicholas Goodman and James Davison stopped a Ford Explorer driven by Al Kittrell on St. John Street. They confronted Kittrell when he provided false identification. Kittrell attempted to start his truck and drive off. Goodman, half through the window trying to shut off the engine while defending himself against Kittrell, and Davison, on the floor on the passenger side of the car, were carried off down the street. Both feared they were going to be ejected and possibly run over. Goodman managed to get his weapon out and fired before falling to the street.

And there was the night Officer Becky Robbins was sitting in her patrol car parked in a lot in Tampa, Florida, in March 2003 and observed a man urinating 20 feet away. She got out and approached him, ordering him to stop. Instead, he turned and charged her, wrested her baton away and repeatedly beat her. She fired eight times, and hit him four times, before finally killing him.

In January 2008, Jacksonville, Florida, Detectives Jared Reston and Chris Brown were working off-duty security at a mall when they got word that two men had shoplifted goods from a clothing store. The detectives pursued them. The shoplifters split up outside, as did the partners. Reston collared his target, but the man turned and fired a .45, striking him in the jaw and knocking him into a drainage ditch. The assailant then stood above him, continuing to fire before walking away. Reston got to his knees, but the shooter turned back and fired again, then started back toward Reston, shooting as he approached. Reston also kept firing. When the suspect got close enough, Reston grabbed him, pulled him down, held him close and shot him in the head.

One of the most detailed and graphic accounts in “Shots Fired” is about the gun battle that raged in a Watertown, Massachusetts, neighborhood with the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston Marathon bombers, on an April night in 2013. Watertown police officers were responding to a BOLO (be on the look out) about a carjacking in Cambridge. They spotted the car and approached it, but were met by a hail of bullets and thrown bombs. Only the heroics of Watertown police kept the shootout from escalating into hostage-taking and carnage, according to the authors. One of the bombers was killed.

The national media present the use of lethal force as near epidemic. Detailed reporting dramatizes the shootings, the authors assert, but rarely the lengthy investigations that involve “exhaustive crime-scene reconstruction, medical examiners … and multiple protracted internal and external investigations.” These take months, and sometimes years, and seldom get covered in the news.

In one of the most sensational cases in recent memory, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, eye-witness accounts and forensic evidence – including DNA on Officer Darren Wilson’s gun, ballistics and the medical examiner’s report regarding entry and exit wounds – all led to the finding that Brown was not walking away, but rather was approaching and that he fought with Wilson for his gun before being shot, the authors report. It was this case, Loughlin writes, and the subsequent public furor, that prompted him to write “Shots Fired.”

The authors shed light on many public misperceptions.

“A fact that surprises many people is that all police are not trained to the level the public and media believe,” they write. Officers are greatly undertrained because resources – most importantly budgets – don’t allow for lengthy training and retraining. De-escalation of situations is the primary goal in engagements, but the authors stress the speed at which things can go badly. If lethal force is deemed necessary, officers are trained to aim at the greatest mass of the body because it is the biggest target. The notion of purposefully wounding assailants or shooting a weapon out of their hands is unrealistic and only happens in movies, they argue.

Legally, officers do not need to wait to see a weapon to assess grave threat. Decisions to fire typically take place in milliseconds, with responses often slowed by the need to unlock holsters and draw guns. Multiple shots are often required, the authors stress in several of the accounts in the book, because perpetrators are so adrenalized or hyped on drugs that a single shot – and often not even a half dozen wounds – doesn’t stop them.

“It is not the incident alone that is little understood,” the authors write. “These events are embedded in the officer’s mind … The incident itself may lasts only seconds or minutes; the aftermath may take months or years… Then there is living with the fact that you killed a human being, a huge trauma in an officer’s life that never goes away.”

The use of lethal force has become a galvanizing and deeply divisive issue in America. Loughlin and Flora say that their objective in writing the book was to start an informed conversation on the subject. In their minds, police are already asked to do the impossible, to address countless social ills like homelessness, spousal abuse and the mentally impaired, while also protecting and preserving the safety and well-being of the community. It is undeniably a tough and often thankless job.

“I mean, we’re cops,” said Sgt. John MacLellan, one of the officers whose actions ended the gun battle in Watertown with the Boston Marathon bombers. “If you wanted to be loved by everyone, you’d be a firefighter. You couldn’t be a cop. It’s just the way it is.”

“Shots Fired” fails to address the disproportionate percentage of minorities who are killed by lethal force, which is a serious weakness. Granted, the book focuses on the law enforcement perspective, which the authors believe is undertold. But failure to even acknowledge what drives so much anger today over the use of lethal force – the fact that many see its use as a reflection of rampant racisim in our society – makes it very difficult to productively frame the issue.

Still, “Shots Fired” is worth reading. It has the potential to help open a more informed dialogue about a critical issue that these days generates a lot of heat, but very little light.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. It was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver. Smith can be reached via his website:


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