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October 18, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The use of a firearm is always a last resort for Columbia police officers. MU police Captain Brian Weimer says officers are trained to use a gun only when confronted with potential deadly force or a serious bodily injury to themselves or others. Therefore, they rarely even draw or point their sidearms.
Generally, the only occasion when the Columbia Police Department or MU police officers fire their sidearms outside of training is to shoot an injured deer on the side of the road, says Lt. Scott Young, special operations commander for the Columbia Police Department.
1. Always assume a firearm is loaded.
2. Always keep a firearm in a position where an unintended discharge would cause the least damage. The safest place, Duncan says, is in the holster.
3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’ve made the conscious decision to fire.
4. Know your target and what’s behind it.
Since 1996, Columbia officers have fired at a human target only three times. In January 1996, Lt. Shelley Jones was dispatched to a forgery report at the W. Broadway Gerbes Supermarket. When she escorted the female suspect to her patrol car, the woman’s husband ambushed Jones and shot her in the chest. She returned fire and struck the man in the leg, but the couple escaped. They were later captured in Las Vegas, and Jones recovered from the gunshot wound.
Almost five and a half years later in 2001, officers arrived at an apartment on Hitt Street to aid a man who was reportedly off his medication and cutting himself in the neck with pieces of broken glass. When the two officers tried to subdue him, the man jumped up and down on his bed with a loaded shotgun of beanbag rounds, ammo designed to cause pain but not penetrate flesh. When the suspect jumped on top of one of the officers, the other fired one round in defense, striking his partner in the arm.
The third took place in 2009 in Jefferson City during a drug task force operation.
When officers fire a weapon on duty, they must complete a report on the discharge, which includes an explanation of all details of the case. This report is reviewed by superiors all the way up to the chief of police. If a bullet is fired at a human, the shooter’s shift ends, and an investigation into the discharge begins immediately. “In all cases, the officer must be able to articulate the reasons for pointing a weapon at a human,” Young says.
The Columbia Police Department has almost 160 officers, and Heckler & Koch USP 9 mm semi-automatic pistols have been standard issue for the past 11 years. Currently the department is in transition, trading the aging guns with new Glock model 17 9 mm pistols, Young says. They also carry a 12-gauge shotgun in each patrol vehicle. Qualified officers are allowed to carry personally owned rifles, all of which are M4 type .223-caliber carbines, he says.
To be eligible to carry any firearm on duty, officers must pass handgun and shotgun qualification tests for the training academy, the Missouri Department of Public Safety and their individual departments, says Adam Duncan, of the MU Law Enforcement Training Institute. As academy coordinator, he trains officers for police departments throughout the state, including Columbia and MU police.
Even after the academy, Columbia police officers train with their sidearms three or four times per year and fire 300 to 400 rounds per session, Young says. Columbia’s four snipers train every month while the city’s 17 SWAT operators undergo weapons training an additional four to six times per year.
In addition to teaching how to fire and maintain weapons, Law Enforcement Training Institute teachers instruct their recruits on four cardinal rules of firearm safety. “We reiterate these every session at the range,” Duncan says, “and we always ask recruits to name them.”
Trainees also learn about constitutional law, the use of force and when to use a firearm. When an officer uses a sidearm on duty, the decision is based on that officer’s training, knowledge and experience. “A firearm is the highest use of force we carry on our belt,” Duncan says. “We use that to counter very high levels of resistance.”