ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Especially after a controversial shooting death, our law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste often gets the question, why don't police fire warning shots? Martin hears the question so often he decided to find out the answer, and that's when he learned that the conventional wisdom against warning shots is changing.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: First, here's the short answer to that question. Warning shots are dangerous.
MASSAD AYOOB: When you raise the gun and blindly fire, you don't know where that bullet will land.
KASTE: That's Massad Ayoob. He's a longtime cop and a well-known firearms instructor. He can tell you some stories about warning shot mishaps.
AYOOB: A guy raised his gun, fired what he thought was into the air. The bullet struck and killed someone on the top-floor porch of a nearby tenement building.
KASTE: He says that's the kind of thing that drove warning shots out of policing by the time he started in the 1970s. These days, departments either discourage warning shots, or they ban them outright - the NYPD, for instance. But times are changing. Terry Cunningham is the deputy executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
TERRY CUNNINGHAM: We're kind of venturing into this new environment in, you know, use of force. And you know, we're - everybody's trying to learn how to better de-escalate.
KASTE: And in this new environment, the IACP has changed its mind about warning shots. It used to recommend a ban, but when it joined 10 other law enforcement groups to write a new national model policy on the use of force, it decided that there are some times when maybe warning shots could save lives.
CUNNINGHAM: We said, OK, if an officer's going to use a warning shot, then they could only use a warning shot if, you know, deadly force would be justified, number one, and, number two, that, you know, clearly they have a safe backdrop where they could fire the warning shot at. And there would have to be an explanation on why they decided to deploy the warning shot.
KASTE: The news of this change is still trickling out to the world of police training. Lou Hayes Jr. is a cop and a trainer with the Virtus Group. He likes the idea of giving police more options for these situations, but he also knows that many cops will not want that option on the table.
LOU HAYES JR.: The resistance from police officers is such that, oh, warning shots are stupid because what's going to happen is the moment that a police officer does not deploy a warning shot, the public is going to outcry and demand to know why another chance wasn't given to a suspect.
KASTE: If warning shots are against the rules, you don't have to explain why you didn't use one. Hayes says allowing warning shots also raises another problematic question for police. Why don't they shoot to wound?
Cops hate this question. They say it's Hollywood-thinking to expect them, in a chaotic situation, to shoot with that kind of accuracy. They're taught that when they shoot, they aim for the center of mass. But Hayes says this new opening for warning shots got him thinking about that, especially when he saw this scene of cops wrestling with a suspect on reality TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Still going for it. Still going for it.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Stop. Police.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: He's going for a gun.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: He's got a gun.
UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: He's got a gun.
HAYES JR.: What's happened there is officers are struggling over a gun in a man's waistband. And it would have actually been a case where a shot to somebody's leg may have been a real possibility here.
KASTE: What he's saying here is sort of heresy for most police trainers, but the point he's trying to make is that warning shots are this weird kind of deadly force in which you're aiming not to kill someone.
HAYES JR.: So if we're going to aim away from a person, why is there not some incentive to potentially aim for non-vital area on person? So you open the door for the idea of a spectrum of deadly force here.
KASTE: So a spectrum or maybe blurred lines because if there's one thing American police have come to rely on, it's the clear rules about when they can use deadly force. And that's why Massad Ayoob is cautious about adding warning shots to that mix.
AYOOB: Why are we taking our eyes off the threat and firing a warning shot? If deadly force is justified, deadly force should probably be applied.
KASTE: And that kind of clarity may be lost if police departments now give their officers the option of shooting not to kill. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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