Here's a topic that comes up quite a bit in our firearms classes, and sometimes in discussions that we have with fellow gun-carrying civilians. Once people get serious about training/carrying and they start to give some thought to real-world potential situations, they start to play through scenarios in their mind. They see reports of soft targets (malls, movie theaters, schools, etc.) getting hit by active shooters. So they give significant thought to how they might respond in a similar situation. It's not that they want to find themselves in a deadly-force fight for their lives. They're not day-dreaming about being the hero that saves the day. They're just being realistic about the modern dangers of our world and they want to be as prepared as they possibly can.
If you're smart, you're playing through scenarios in your mind everywhere that you go. You're developing plans and trying to identify potential threats. Ask yourself, "who in this theater (or wherever) is a potential threat to me and how would I respond to terminate such a threat?". Some in the industry call this "playing the game". And I'm sure you've read all of the silly cliché sayings that get spread via social media memes and say things like "Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody that you meet". Such sayings are usually spread by new-comers to the gun world who are more into bravado than they are into serious training. These guys serve as more of a caricature that makes it easy for the other side to stereotype and criticize us. And I'd strongly advise you to scrub your public image (social media presence, bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc.) of anything that projects such rhetoric. If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to defend yourself with deadly force, some prosecuting attorney is going to dig up all of that stuff and easily convince a jury that you have been itching to fill somebody full of lead as soon as you got the chance.
But I digress... the focus of this post is avoiding being seen as a bad guy after you defend yourself (or somebody else) when the cops get on scene. We (the INPAX firearms instruction team) discuss this topic in great detail as part of the "Aftermath" lecture portion of our concealed carry instruction courses. But if you haven't yet had an opportunity to take one of our classes, you may not have heard what we have to say on this subject. So I'll discuss a small portion of that here.
The first thing to keep in mind is that when the cops show up, they have no idea who you are or what role you played in the events that just took place. Most of the time, all they know is that there's been a shooting. They may not have a description of the shooter and they may not have a description of the "good guy" (you) or even know that such a person exists. Regardless of whether or not they know about you and the fact that you just stopped the threat, you must be aware that they are going to approach the scene with the mindset that EVERYBODY is a potential threat and even if they know that you're a good guy, you're going to get treated as a potential threat. That's especially true if they know that you have a weapon. So even if they do know that you're a good guy, it's safer for them to proceed as if they don't know. So what do you do?
First and foremost is situational awareness & compliance with law enforcement commands. Those may seem like two unrelated concepts, but allow me to explain how they go hand-in-hand. It's important to understand what happens to you physiologically under stress. Among other effects, you can expect to have some level of sensory limitation. You are likely to have some degree of target fixation (tunnel vision) that could take your peripheral vision from its normal ~160-degrees down to somewhere between ~6 and ~60-degrees. That's a huge impact! In addition to vision limitation, it's also somewhat common to have a degree of auditory exclusion - where sounds can become muffled and isolated. There are biological reasons why these things take place and their role in our survival is important. But I don't want go down a rabbit hole by getting too deep into that subject in this article. Right now, just understand that those are two of the common effects of stress & adrenaline. Now... imagine not being able to see a full field of vision and not hearing much around you. Then the cops show up and start yelling at you to put your gun down. Do you see them? Do you hear them? Or does it just blend in with the other background noise? And what are the potential consequences of you failing to comply with those commands? All of the sudden, you go from the hero to the seemingly incoherent guy with a gun who's not following law enforcement instructions. You are about to have a very bad day!
As responsible gun owners, our training has to extend well beyond target practice at the range. You have to take all of these factors into consideration and incorporate them into your training. Since we know how we are likely to be impacted under stress, we have to work that into the equation and train to overcome those added challenges. And our training must be robust enough to inoculate us from stressors to whatever extent possible. This is one of the reasons why scanning & assessing before/after engaging is a skillset that we work to develop & maintain. There are techniques that we can use to mitigate the effects of adrenaline. When we talk about our (INPAX) training offerings being "full spectrum", we mean that in the most thorough sense imaginable.
So if you can maintain awareness and comply with law enforcement instructions, your chances of being seen as a threat & subsequently shot are greatly decreased. Believe it or not, the cops don't want to shoot anybody either. And when they do, they are subject to the same level of scrutiny that the rest of us are - even if they are engaging an active threat. People often assume that cops can shoot a bad guy, no matter what the circumstances are, and then they just go about their lives. That's not true. A police officer involved in a shooting will have their weapon removed, will be placed on leave, and an investigation (sometimes multiple) will take place. They, just like you and me, will likely have to go to court and defend their actions too. And in today's political & social climate, there may be public protests, and calls for their resignation. So believe me when I tell you that these guys aren't looking for a gun fight any more than you are. Their training does not instruct them to show up and shoot the first guy they see, even if that guy happens to be in possession of a gun. In fact, they're trained in de-escalation tactics and methods of gaining control via verbal commands & other non-lethal/less-lethal options when possible. Don't do anything stupid, and listen to what they're telling you to do.
Ideally, you'd already have your firearm re-holstered prior to law enforcement arrival. If at all possible, I'd recommend doing so. Unless there are verified active deadly-force threats that warrant continued deployment of your firearm, then it should be secured in your holster. Do you think that maybe you'd be much less of a threat if your gun is in your holster under your shirt instead of in your hands when the cops show up?
But that's not always possible. Maybe they show up before you're able to re-holster and you do have a gun in your hand. The first command that you're likely to hear is "PUT THE [expletive] GUN DOWN!". Guess what you should do? If you guessed anything other than "put my gun down", then please send your carry permit back to the state and sell your gun today. Also, it's important to note that "put the gun DOWN" does not mean "put the gun in your holster". If you start reaching somewhere that they don't want you to reach, you're in for an unpleasant surprise. But let's take a slight pause for a second and break down a critical point that must be understood. Regardless of the specific command that you receive, when you are being yelled at by the police, you are likely to instinctively re-direct your eyes/head to visually identify the source of those commands. It's an automatic function that we've instinctively done since birth. When we hear/see something, we turn towards it. Unfortunately, that may also mean that our bodies turn along with the head to see what's going on. And that single action is likely to take an already tense situation to an explosive application of force by the people that you're turning towards. I can't stress this enough... you cannot direct your gun towards the police unless you want to be shot. That means that your training has to include drills that de-program this instinct!
It kind of goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway. The police are going to be expecting very specific body language that indicates compliance or lack of compliance. And whether they realize it or not, they are continuously evaluating your body language and interpreting it. Your body language is actually much more important as an indicator, than your spoken language. You could be yelling back at them "it's cool man, I'm not the shooter and I'm going to put my gun down now". But if your body language says otherwise, they will be able to process that much more quickly and will act upon that data. That's a nice way of saying that they are probably going to shoot you if you make any movements that appear to be threatening. Do what they say, no more, and no less.
But here's one more added complication. What if several cops are yelling several, perhaps conflicting, commands to you at the same time? Maybe one guy is telling you to drop the weapon while another guy is telling you to get on the ground and a third guy is saying "show me your hands"? How the heck do you process that?! Well, there's nothing wrong with asking for clarification, if the situation allows you an opportunity to do so. A simple shout of "WHAT SHOULD I DO FIRST?" should help re-synchronize their effort and point out to them that you're receiving conflicting information. Any communication in a situation like this needs to be crystal clear and very succinct. Keep it brief and leave no room for ambiguity in the meaning. In absence of an opportunity to seek clarification, you have to be able to prioritize these commands on-the-fly. Their biggest threat in this case is the gun, so ditch it ASAP. I'd probably opt to just drop it rather than gingerly setting it down, because at least one of these guys is expecting you to put your hands up and if your hands travel down, that could be seen as a red flag. After getting rid of the gun, open your hands and make sure they're visible, then await further instruction (which would probably be to move away from the gun in a very specific direction).
Don't expect to be treated nicely. You may be tackled, you may be placed into extremely uncomfortable (painful) positions such as arm bars & other joint locks. You will likely be handcuffed and you may be "escorted" to a cruiser in a stress position. Don't take it personally and don't be a prick about it. It'll all get sorted out later. They're operating on high adrenaline too and they're having the same physiological challenges that you are. These guys are just trying to make sure that they make it home to their families and your side of the story just doesn't matter yet. It will once they get a handle on the situation and start collecting data (eye witness statements, etc.). Your gun will be taken into evidence (you may eventually get it back). And you will be interrogated at the scene and if/when taken to the police station. There are differing opinions about what you should say to the police at this point and I won't get into it in an article. We do discuss this in classes however. Apart from providing the required self-identification information, I'd request an attorney before making any statement to law enforcement as a general rule. You may even have to post bail. You will definitely need an attorney and you should ideally already have one on retainer or at least have a plan to contact one in such an event. Even if your actions are ultimately determined to be a justifiable application of force, you are likely in for a long and expensive legal process. In some states, you may be clear of criminal charges but subject to potential civil litigation. Some states have protection against this but that doesn't pertain to every situation.
One other side topic that applies to all encounters with the police... if at all possible, you want to be the person that calls the police, or at least among the first people who do. If you have an opportunity to call them and describe your role & appearance, they will know ahead of time to keep an eye out for you. There is sufficient data to support the fact that the person who calls the police first has a distinct advantage. I have some specific cases that I can point to, but I'm trying to keep this article brief.
There's a lot more to this subject and I've just scratched the surface here. What are your thoughts? Do you have anything to add that I may have missed? Let me know.
Please note that I consulted with several friends who are Pennsylvania police officers when I wrote this. That includes one of my partner instructors at INPAX, who is a municipal police officer, and several friends who are state troopers. One commented on the conflicting info that they often receive over the radio when the situation is still ongoing. He stressed the importance of not having a gun in your hand when they arrive if at all possible and pointed out that ANY object in your hand could prove troublesome. Another stated that it is a good idea to not only call the police, but remain on the line and keep an open dialog with police (through dispatch) so that their approach and can be more controlled. That way, they can work out a plan to approach you and they can be given a heads up on actions such as you exiting a residence, etc. Having an open dialog with the police as they approach can completely change the dynamics and provide for a less hostile encounter.
Another one of my (Ohio) police officer friends, Greg Ellifritz, of Active Response Training and Tactical Defense Institute chimed in with an additional recommendation - one that I don't think I've heard before. Greg recommends to his students that they designate somebody to "stand between you and the likely location of the arriving police officers. That person's job it to visually block you and to intercept the police and tell them what's going on... i.e. that you are the good guy." I think that's a great piece of advice, if the situation allows for it and you have time to coordinate something like that. If you don't know Greg, he's a fantastic resource of information and a highly accomplished instructor. He's also a very prolific writer who posts some great instructional articles, etc.