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Reluctance to Use Deadly Force.

Causes, Consequences, and Cures

Police officers understand that some day, they may need to use deadly force against another person. Although most officers go their entire careers without having to use lethal force, those who face a suspect's life-threatening assault must defend themselves and the citizens they serve. Researchers now know that most people are reluctant to kill other human beings but that they can be trained to overcome this natural resistance.(1)

Taking their cue from the military, law enforcement agencies have developed training methods to ensure that their officers will employ deadly force when the need arises. Unfortunately, the training may produce unintended and undesirable effects. Law enforcement agencies that understand the human reluctance to kill and the effects of conditioning can develop training programs that will allow their officers, first, to successfully and appropriately employ deadly force and, second, to survive the emotional and psychological aftereffects of deadly force incidents.


Every day, law enforcement officers face individuals who seem to kill without question or remorse. And, for about 2 percent of the general population, this holds true.(2) Yet, studies of ancient battles and more recent wars reveal an innate human reluctance to kill another human being. Studies conducted by the U.S. Army estimate that only 15 to 20 percent of infantry soldiers in World War II fired their weapons at exposed enemy soldiers.(3) Most feared being forced to kill another person more than they feared being maimed or killed themselves. In fact, those who did not fire still rushed into the open to save wounded comrades. They simply did not participate in the killing if they could avoid it.

If forced to fire, many simply fired into the air, deliberately missing their targets. Many soldiers found they could not bring themselves to kill, or attempt to kill, another human being, even the enemy, even in self-defense. In fact, after decades of research, military psychologists have discovered that soldiers have greater difficulty overcoming the effects of having to kill or injure the enemy than facing the carnage of war.

As a result of these studies, the military changed its training methods and, in fewer than 20 years, achieved a more than 95 percent firing rate in Vietnam.(4) The core of this new training entailed Pavlovian and operant conditioning. Law enforcement agencies use the same techniques to overcome their officers' natural reluctance to use deadly force.


In a law enforcement setting, Pavlovian conditioning involves using a systematic series of desensitization techniques and rewards to condition subjects to overcome their natural reluctance to use deadly force. This conditioning takes place early in police training. Though not officially sanctioned to do so, instructors at the academy often describe criminal offenders in derogatory terms that, in effect, dehumanize suspects. When recruits hear staff members, whom they admire and want to emulate, applying such labels as "dirtbag," "scumbag," and worse to offenders, the impressionable officers become desensitized and conditioned. They no longer, except in formal settings, refer to offenders as "suspects." The reward for this conditioning becomes inclusion and acceptance into the ranks of veteran officers, where this attitude frequently continues.

Although this process may not represent an intentional component of the police training process, desensitizing future veteran officers to the use of force begins with this type of conditioning. In fact, without some form of behavioral conditioning, officers may not be able to effectively use any type of injuring force against a suspect when the need arises.

Police departments employ an additional training concept in all phases of their physical force training. Called operant conditioning, it involves reprogramming the recruit's reflexes in order to produce the correct response. To do this, trainers must somehow bypass the forebrain, with its capabilities of thought and reason, and, instead, access the primitive midbrain. The midbrain is capable of only one of two responses: fight or flight.(5) Successful conditioning trains officers to overcome their natural aversion to injuring or using deadly force against other people. It becomes a simple matter of stimulus/response: threat/fire.

Trainers accomplish this operant conditioning through the use of silhouette targets, knock-down targets, and interactive training videos (e.g., Firearms Alternative Training System, or FATS), as well as in role-play scenarios (e.g., confrontational simulations) or paintball training. Officers learn to evaluate only whether the target represents a deadly threat. If it does, they shoot; if not, they don't shoot.

After a period of intense firearms training that includes multiple, varied range exercises, in conjunction with the positive reinforcement of instructor approval, peer acceptance, and passing grades, recruits respond to threats with the desired action. Once recruits decide that a threat meets the criteria established by agency policy and the law, only one response exists. Officers set aside their moral objections in favor of the conditioned response.


Though necessary, this type of training may have unintended, perhaps even detrimental, consequences for recruits and their ability to perform their jobs in a manner expected by society. Academy instructors who refer to suspects in a derogatory manner reduce the humanness of suspects in the minds of recruits and introduce an us-versus-them mentality. On the street, field training officers and other veteran officers reinforce these feelings. At the very least, new officers may develop a callousness that contradicts the values of today's community policing environment. Worse, they may perceive that criminal suspects do not deserve the same rights as other citizens.

While some insensitivity may help officers face the realities of police work, at the same time, officers are human beings, with human vulnerabilities. Lessening the value of any individual and emphasizing an us-versus-them mentality can lead to a greater degree of separation from their families, their social safety nets, and, ultimately, from society. Officers need the balance that comes from having friends and social contacts from all walks of life, and police training and conditioning may tip the scales in the wrong direction.


Even as officers are conditioned to respond with deadly force, they learn in a disciplined environment where the use of force is tightly controlled and the consequences for an improper or illegal use of force are great. The discipline instilled at the academy and maintained throughout the officer's career by management's enforcement of agency policies prevents officers from responding with deadly force to a simple suspect threat, such as an individual's hostile attitude or physical resistance.

The term "threshold requirement" applies to the level of threat to which officers need to respond with deadly force. Once a threat raises an officer's perception of peril to a reasonable and objective belief of imminent danger of death or serious physical injury, it crosses the threshold necessary for the officer to legally and morally respond with deadly force. Discipline controls officers' behavior in their use of deadly force against a perceived threshold threat. Officers internalize the discipline from training in general and the firearms range in particular, incorporating it into their evaluations of threats. Thus, a disciplined approach to firearms training ensures that officers assess the suspect's actions prior to employing the conditioned response.


If police officers have an innate reluctance to use deadly force but receive training to overcome their resistance, what happens to police officers involved in shooting incidents? Most go through three distinct stages: the exhilaration stage, the remorse stage, and the rationalization and acceptance stage.(6)

The Exhilaration Stage

During this stage, officers experience a sense of great satisfaction for having survived a deadly force situation. Whereas beforehand, they may have questioned their ability to react appropriately, their survival erases any doubt. Officers become intensely conscious of and grateful for being alive. The exhilaration stage can last from minutes to hours.

The Remorse Stage

During the remorse stage, officers experience conflict between the success of their actions, the requirements of their jobs, and the belief that killing or injuring another person is morally wrong. A sense of guilt often compounds this stage, especially when officers have experienced any degree of exhilaration. In its acute phase, this stage can last for days or weeks. It may never be resolved completely.

The Rationalization and Acceptance Stage

As officers move toward acceptance, they rationalize their role in the event, often arriving at the realization that the choice came down to the suspect's life or theirs. The fact that the incident came down to a battle for survival not only provides legal justification for the shooting, but it also remains critical to officers' recoveries, helping them make the transition to the acceptance stage. This stage may take a lifetime to resolve, or the process may stall at some point, leaving officers feeling guilty, even if their actions proved legally and tactically proper.

What determines an officer's ability to accept and move past a deadly force incident? Studies indicate that officers who have more contact with suspects prior to and during the incident have a greater difficulty resolving the event.(7) For example, snipers who fire at a distance and do not view the suspect's body often have less remorse than officers who have several prior contacts with a suspect and must struggle over a prolonged period, perhaps over a weapon, which ends in the suspect's death. Officers who view or must stand watch over the suspect's body afterward often face greater remorse issues than those who can leave the scene quickly. A suspect who chooses "suicide by cop" sometimes creates the greatest difficulty for officers to resolve their roles in unwittingly assisting the suspect to commit suicide.(8)

The response stages are not clear-cut, and they do not necessarily occur chronologically. Officers often move from remorse to rationalization and acceptance and back for some time. Individuals rarely experience a crisp, identifiable transition from one stage to another. Officers also may feel they have completely overcome any remorse or negative psychological effects from the shooting, only to have something trigger further feelings of remorse that they must resolve to feel "normal" again. A comprehensive employee assistance program can help officers in the recovery process.


Historians and psychologists have identified an extreme reluctance on the part of most people to engage another individual with any force, particularly deadly force. For police officers, who may need to use deadly force on the job, any hesitation could prove fatal. To overcome the human aversion to killing, police academies condition their officers to meet force with force.

Pavlovian conditioning involves rewarding recruits for taking the appropriate action in conjunction with the reinforcement of inclusion by peers and the approval of superiors and veteran officers. Operant conditioning techniques, which include various shoot/don't shoot training methods, program into officers' behavior an automatic response to stimuli. This combination of training provides officers with the ability to respond successfully to deadly threats regardless of their inborn aversion to using force against other human beings.

While training helps officers overcome their natural reluctance to using deadly force, the consequences of that conditioning can make officers insensitive to the needs and rights of the citizens they serve. A disciplined approach can help to address these concerns.

At the same time, officers experience a series of psychological responses following their programmed use of deadly force. These reactions are normal and do not indicate an inability to handle an incident. Rather, they show that the officer is handling the consequences of using deadly force. By moving through these phases, officers can resolve the negative emotions surrounding incidents and resume their lives with some sense of normalcy. Law enforcement agencies should provide the assistance officers need to overcome the psychological effects of deadly force encounters.

The legal use of deadly force remains one of the most important functions of law enforcement officers. Police trainers and administrators must understand what makes officers successful, as well as the costs of that success, in order to help officers perform at their best.


1 Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1995).

2 Ibid., 180.

3 Ibid., 3.

4 Ibid., 35.

5 Ibid., 8.

6 Ibid., 234.

7 Ibid., 156.

8 During such incidents, suspects create the circumstances that require officers to use deadly force. Although the officers' actions are reasonable and justified given the totality of the facts know at the time, when officers learn later that the suspect had a toy gun or an unloaded weapon, they often have trouble rationalizing the "need" to use force. Instances involving suicide by cop are becoming recognized as a large contributor to postshooting stress for officers. See Daniel B. Kennedy, Robert J. Homant, and R. Thomas Hupp, "Suicide by Cop," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1998, 21-27.
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Article Details
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Author:Williams, George T.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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