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Armed Citizens' Interactions with Law Enforcement

by Gila Hayes

Armed citizens often express a nearly morbid dread of contact with police, fueled no doubt by fear of being arrested while exercising their lawful right to carry defensive weaponry or horrified anticipation that they will be hauled off to jail after defending themselves or their families. jumpsuit.jpg

Fear, abhorrence or resentful subservience toward the police are counterproductive to the citizen, ruining much chance for cooperation toward a reasonable outcome should circumstances bring them together. On the other hand, educating our members about interaction with police certainly can improve contacts they may have with law enforcement.

That is the goal of this article. Drawing on interviews with retired law enforcement officers, this article offers insights into how police make decisions when responding to a call about a citizen with a gun. I chose to interview retired officers for several reasons. First, situations in which legally armed citizens act in self defense are so rare that, drawing on their entire careers, most of the interview respondents could only cite perhaps a half dozen such calls. The retiree’s career-long experience provides better depth. No longer being attached to an agency alleviates defensiveness about doing an unpopular job and certainly removes pressure to represent the employing department favorably.

Police practices have strong regional overtones. Four retired officers from various regions of the country contributed to this study. In addition to addressing west coast practices Roy Huntington is the publisher of American Cop magazine. Readers of the NRA’s Shooting Illustrated and the online Tactical Wire are familiar with Rich Grassi’s byline; his comments in this study are representative of the mid-western states. After a 35-year career in policing and corrections, Herb Furhman now teaches firearms classes, and here he speaks to his experiences working in Connecticut. Police procedures expert Edward Mamet served a distinguished almost-forty-year career in New York City, including 20 years in NYPD’s detective bureau, and he speaks about policing in large, metropolitan areas. All four answered questions candidly, and it is my hope that their information will give armed citizens better strategies for interacting with police.

RESPONDING TO THE UNKNOWN SITUATION

Armed citizens bristle when told that they may be treated like a violent criminal after defending themselves. They forget that law enforcement enters the scene with only limited knowledge. Queried about how law enforcement approaches a call about an armed citizen, all of the respondents explained that safety of the responding officers must be foremost.

The manner in which an officer approaches a scene “is really situationally-dependent,” Roy Huntington explains. Dispatcher skill and style varies, he notes, and the information given by the complainant is incomplete and sometimes unreliable. For example, a neighbor may report hearing gunfire coming from an address, a caller may say he has been threatened or harmed, or a homeowner may call and state that they’ve shot a burglar.

Huntington remembers responding to four or five shootings by homeowners during his 25-year career. “Every single one of them was different,” he recalls. “I’d say, ‘Let’s have the victim come outside.’ I want to meet him and make sure he doesn’t have the gun visible,” he adds, noting that the citizen would be asked to put the gun away. If the citizen’s statement matches up with the evidence, and the shooting wasn’t gang-related, a long-standing dispute between neighbors or is otherwise dubious, the job of the uniformed policeman usually becomes nothing more than to contain the scene for investigators, he explains.

How did Huntington determine if the situation merited skepticism? “I was very careful not to make any judgments until I actually looked at what was happening, so I would always say, ‘Can you tell me what happened here?’” he answers. “See, the homeowner is there with his wife and children and his hands are shaking and he is obviously distraught and says, ‘We were sleeping and there was a loud noise and glass breaking. I got my gun. I came out here and there was somebody in my house. I said get out of my house, and he came at me with this knife (and there is a knife laying there). I shot him, I don’t remember how many times, I just shot him and he fell down. Then I called the police.’ You usually hear something like that. So in that situation, I would say, ‘OK, I understand completely. Sit down, why don’t you? I’ll cover the body up. The detectives are en route.’ That is usually all the preliminary response unit would do.”
When I commented that I was surprised he hadn’t described confiscating guns and putting the shooter in the police car, Huntington explained that the officer’s actions largely “hinge on the response of the homeowner. This is especially true if you get the Felony Cop (Huntington’s term for a hard-charger who enthusiastically exercises his power) who is anti-gun! They are out there, so be respectful and honest,” he adds.

“You don’t have to be subservient, just respectful. A good cop–one with eight or ten years in the field–can read people pretty well. If you’re not being honest or if you’re acting subservient but that isn’t how you really are, I’m probably going to spot it and say, ‘Something’s up here.’ Remember that as a policeman you have to figure out if someone is lying to you within seconds of when you meet them,” he admonishes.

“When you have that initial communication with an officer something as simple as a gesture, a shrug of a shoulder or a shaking hand suddenly changes the entire color of the contact,” Huntington explains. “I’m watching their body language. I’m watching their skin color. I’m looking to see how their eyes are glistening. I’m very carefully listening to what they are saying and I’m watching their family react. Are the kids thinking, ‘That’s NOT what happened, Dad’?” he illustrates.