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Suppressive Fire

Suppressive fire is understood by some to be rounds fired at an area to reduce or stop return fire, and to deny a geo-graphic area to the offender. These are rounds not necessarily aimed at the specific threat, but at the general area of the threat.

This is a difficult proposition to incorporate in the nonmilitary environment of law enforcement. Most police agencies have a prohibition against firing into areas where the offenders cannot be seen, such as firing into windows and closed doors. Many administrators consider this an unsafe practice at best.

Immediate need will always drive a police response. In very limited circumstances, where there exists a direct threat to life, firing on an offender’s location is a valid and necessary response to protect innocent lives, which includes the police. To better define the concept, replace the word suppressive with the word directed and the issue becomes less contentious.

Training is a vital component of this matter, as officers must not have unrealistic expectations or dangerous misconceptions about the effect of gunfire on intervening barriers. They must also take into consideration the danger posed to other law enforcement officers and citizens in the area.

This tactical response is clearly illustrated by an incident involving two SWAT/ERT officers who acted against an immediate deadly force threat. During entry, an offender hiding low in a closet with the doorknob punched out to view the officer’s entry fired on them. The shield man and partner were taken under fire through the wooden door. All they could see was the door exploding outward and feel the impact of the rounds on the ballistic shield. The offender was not visible during the gunfight. The officers returned fire, shooting high over the gunman’s head. The shield man shot dry, reloaded his SIG 220 and fired at a lower position, striking the offender in the head, killing him. The offender fell forward, rolled out of the closet pushing the door open.

That was the first moment the officers could see him.
It was explained to investigators and the administration that this was directed gunfire. The officers fired at the known source of the deadly force threat, where they reasonably believe the threat to be located, regardless of whether they could actually see the gunman.

The following is an example of a policy change: “Officers shall not fire at windows, doorways, or structures unless there is a direct threat to life and the location of the threat can be identified.” A rifle barrel pointing out a window, even though the gunman is not visible, certainly gives an officer a reasonable belief as to the location of the threat. This is the exact situation a rifleman of this same team faced two years before the closet matter. The offender, a Korean War sniper-trained veteran, took the team under fire with a pellet gun, then with a .22 caliber rifle, then a 30-06 M1 Garand. In the final moments, the rifle barrel could be seen but not the offender. Then the offender broke the shadows and was shot and killed with a .308 police sniper round.

In officer down rescues, officers face the same problem. When the source of the gunfire or threat is known but not necessarily visible, officers may direct fire to that specific threat area. As a rule, directed fire must not create a greater hazard than the actions of the offender. Absent a life-threatening situation, police must avoid firing into a building that is occupied by innocent persons or where the backstop area presents a danger to others by the direct fire. Angle of fire, distance to the threat area, weapons type, caliber and bullet type are important factors. Rounds capable of penetrating entire structures (.308 Win) v. rounds that are frangible and less likely to over-penetrate the structure (.223 Rem) are a matter of consideration.

There is no absolute answer to this issue, as what the bullet will do once out of the barrel cannot be guaranteed. Take away the clear visual contact with the offender and it becomes a greater problem to convince those who set the rules that at times such action is not only lawful but also vitally necessary. It is always a risk.

Proceed with care and caution. There is no perfect answer or choice. But when faced with the barricaded gunman who is shooting from an unseen but not unknown location, the choice is to allow a gunman freedom of movement and action, or deny the same and protect the officers and public. In this scenario, gunfire that is controlled, methodical and confined will be reasonable. The directed fire policy language should strongly emphasize more training.

Jeff Chudwin is the chief of the Olympic Fields, IL, Police and President of the Illinois Tactical Officers Association. He may be reached at jlcjd@aol.com.

Published in Tactical Response, Nov/Dec 2002

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