Response Time: The Human Factors of a Self-Defense Shooting

Recent national publicity has centered on actions of police officers employing deadly force. Common narratives are that the suspect “presented no danger to the officer;” that the suspect was shot in the back; or that the officer fired multiple rounds even though the suspect was hit and “no longer presented a danger.” The investigation that follows the shooting will almost always be conducted by the officer’s own agency and might also involve the local district attorney and the state Department of Justice.

When increased publicity focuses on these incidents, the federal government might also get involved, as in the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting. Details of the incident will be placed under a microscope. Every bit of forensic evidence from the scene will be painfully analyzed by every agency involved.

A criminal conviction or civil damages could result from a shooting death, and the same accusations leveled against a police officer could be applicable to a citizen who is forced to shoot.

The autopsy report will be added to the mix. The press will, of course, be involved, reporting every step of the investigation. “Experts” will be featured on TV and pundits will offer opinions on the actions of the officer for weeks. Lawyers hired by the suspect’s family will likely pressure the investigation and push “civil rights” organizations for action, which could lead to rioting.

If an armed private citizen defends himself against an attack, the above scenario will almost certainly change in intensity, primarily because the politics and deep municipal pockets involved when a law enforcement officer has to shoot will be absent. Some things won’t change though. A criminal conviction or civil damages could result from a shooting death, and the same accusations leveled against a police officer could be applicable to a citizen who is forced to shoot.

Until recently, no evidence that took the human factors of a defensive shooting into consideration was ever really examined. This has changed in the last 20 years as various credible individuals and agencies have done their best to do so.

Perception/Start Shooting

The mind can’t really multi-task; it deals with one stimulus from the senses at a time. When under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”), the brain processes the most urgent stimulus and ignores other sensations.

Research tells us that vision is affected by perception. Simply because a scene is unfolding before a person’s eyes does not mean that he or she perceives all of it. Tunnel vision or unintentional blindness will focus the attention of the individual to what the brain perceives as the most important.

A police officer responding to a request for assistance and aware of the unknown dangers that might be present will focus attention on anyone who is loud or aggressive.1 If the situation calls for an arrest, the officer will tell the person he is under arrest and order that the person put up his hands. If the person does not show his hands, the officer will again repeat the order and draw a weapon to emphasize seriousness and to prepare to enforce that order. This is where the situation can deteriorate.

Assessing the effect of your shooting while the suspect is still armed takes too much time, and anyone can pull the trigger several times in less than two seconds.

If the suspect’s hands are concealed or if he reaches inside his clothes, the officer must be prepared to shoot. If a gun appears in the suspect’s hands, the officer will lose the fight. Why? Because action beats reaction.

Extensive experiments conducted by William J. Lewinski, Ph.D., Director, Force Science Research Center,2 have determined that a suspect can retrieve a gun from the waistband, point and fire in 9/100ths of a second, while an officer, upon perceiving the threat, will take 31/100ths of a second to pull the trigger. This time includes 25/100ths for perception processing time and 6/100ths of a second for reaction/motor time.3 The suspect is not slowed by the perception processing time since he has made the decision to draw his gun and shoot.

It should be noted that, in these experiments, the volunteer subjects knew that the stimulus — a light or series of lights — would come on and they would fire as soon as this happened. Hence, they were prepared to shoot; an officer has to decide to shoot. There is no human way the officer can win except for luck — his good luck or the suspect’s bad luck. Knowing this, the officer cannot wait to identify what is in the suspect’s hands; he is already behind the curve.

Stop Shooting

Most people believe that if you shoot a person once, the person will die, and this belief is supported by TV and films. Some departments — a very few — train their officers to fire once and then assess. Others train their officers to “double tap” and then assess. Some adopt the “Mozambique Drill,” which is to deliver two rounds to the body and then one to the head before deciding whether they will have to continue firing. Most departments currently train their officers to shoot and keep shooting until the suspect is down and no longer has a gun in his hands.

Assessing the effect of your shooting while the suspect is still armed takes too much time, and anyone can pull the trigger several times in less than two seconds. The FBI Miami shootout in 1986 demonstrated that, even with multiple bullet wounds, a person can function and shoot back: One suspect had 12 rounds in him and was still shooting until he died.

Lewinski has established that it takes a second to a second and a half for an officer to stop shooting when firing rapidly at an obvious threat.

When faced with someone who is about to kill you, the brain internally screams at you to stop the threat. Your body is taken over by the sympathetic nervous system, hormones are released and you have an imperative to shoot as fast as you can and keep shooting until the threat to your life is removed. Your focus is glued to the suspect and your eyes are only capable of clearly seeing within 2 to 3 degrees of what it is staring at. The brain suppresses all other stimuli.

As for assessing the results of your first shots, let’s take a closer look at that idea. To assess, in this case, means to determine if your first shots have stopped the threat; if the threat has been stopped, there is no reason to continue firing. If the threat still continues, what then?

The suspect continues to fire while you are assessing. Not too smart. The act of assessing includes the decision to assess, then refocusing, then evaluating, all of which will take anywhere from a second and a half to two seconds. Meanwhile, you are still pulling the trigger at about one third of a second per pull, which is why officers might be accused of excessive force. William Lewinski of the Force Science Research Center writes:

Reaction time can be unpredictable, and if you run some tests, you might be surprised.

Reaction time can be unpredictable, and if you run some tests, you might be surprised.

“The delay in noticing any change in the nature of the threat and having the officer change his or her behavior in response to that threat could theoretically take the average officer a second to a second and a half in a dynamic, ‘real-world,’ life-threatening encounter if the officer did not expect that the threat would cease. This process alone could be the reason for an extra three to six rounds being fired by the officer after the threat ceased — particularly if the officer was shooting as quickly as possible, was focused on shooting to save his or her own life or emotionally recoiling in response to that threat and also simultaneously involved in assessing the threat.”4

Shot in the Back

Why have some police officers shot suspects in the back? Despite what is claimed by suspects’ relatives or attorneys, Lewinski has established that it takes a second to a second and a half for an officer to stop shooting when firing rapidly at an obvious threat. During this time, a suspect could have turned his back to the officer. Force Science Research Center did extensive research to determine just how long it took for a suspect to fire at an officer and then turn his back.5

In 11 different experiments, repeated several times, it was found that a suspect could fire and turn his back in well under a second. Specifically, a suspect could stand facing an officer, raise and fire his gun, and then turn away with his back to the officer in half a second.

A suspect running away from an officer could fire several ways without turning, stopping or slowing. He could turn his shoulders, fire a shot and then have his back turned to the officer in an average of .14 seconds

And let’s not forget that a suspect with his hand on a gun in his waistband could, on his own initiative, draw and fire in 9/100ths of a second.

A suspect facing an officer could fire, turn and run several yards before the officer could react and shoot. As the FBI Miami shootout revealed, suspects have continued shooting despite being struck several times by .38 Special ammunition.

In most of these experiments searching for the actual facts involved in a gunfight, reference is made to “reaction time.” This is not correct.

Mental Processing/Reaction Time: This is the time it takes for a subject to receive the stimuli, decide upon a motor response and send commands to the muscles. It is only cognitive and no physical movement is involved.

Movement Time: After the “program” is downloaded to the muscles, this is the time it takes for the muscles to complete the action — presenting the weapon, assuming body stance and squeezing the trigger.

These elements are what can be called “response time.” Reaction time + movement time = response time.

If you’re ever forced to shoot, you need attorneys who will be able to bring this information to light in your defense. If you’re facing a prosecutor who’s doing everything she can to destroy your life, you need to be fighting back with every honest available resource. This is exactly the kind of information that can save an innocent individual from a lifetime in prison, and if you’re ever forced to defend yourself against a deadly threat, it’s exactly the kind of information that the USCCA demands be brought to light in your defense.

Endnotes

(1) On average, 64 officers will be murdered each year, but more than 250,000 will be assaulted with guns or other dangerous weapons that result in 75,000 injuries or deaths. (2) (3) (4) “New Developments in Understanding the Behavioral Science Factors in the ‘Stop Shooting’ Response,” William J. Lewinski, PhD, Director, Force Science Research Center, Minnesota State University, Mankato, CEO, Force Science Institute, Ltd. Christa Redmann, Bethany Lutheran College/Force Science Institute, Ltd. (5) “Finally, Hard Data on How Fast the Suspect Can Be in 11 Different Shooting Scenarios,” Bill Lewinski, Ph.D., The Police Marksman, November/December 2000, pgs. 20- 28.

This article is featured in the following categories:

Published By USCCA

We're here to help you

Prepare and Protect Your Family

  • - Knowledge
  • - Training
  • - Trusted Legal Protection