Ex-Philly Police Commish Explains Why Cops Shoot Knife-Wielding Suspects

Blitzer echoes Biden's 'shoot to injure' mantra

October 29, 2020

Former Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsey on Tuesday told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the idea of shooting dangerous suspects "to injure" is not realistic or an accepted police tactic.

"Officers are trained to shoot at what we call center mass," Ramsey said. "Despite what you may see on TV, it's not easy to hit extremities and so forth—especially under stress."

The response came during an interview over the police shooting of an African-American man in Philadelphia on Monday. The man, Walter Wallace, was shot and killed when he approached officers with a knife. His death has led to several nights of protests and rioting in the city.

Blitzer asked Ramsey why police shoot "to kill" rather than "to injure and just prevent anything from going further."

Ramsey emphasized that police are not trained to "shoot to kill" but, rather, trained to shoot at center mass until the threat stops. He lamented that Wallace was killed in the altercation and said he would watch the investigation of the shooting closely—especially claims that Wallace may have been going through a mental-health crisis. But he said the police officers were put in a very difficult position where their own lives and the lives of those around them may have been at stake.

"When you're at the scene and you have an individual armed with a knife coming toward you, it's a whole different type of situation," Ramsey said. "And the officers have to make very quick judgments."

Blitzer's question on the use of gunfire as less-lethal force comes after Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has repeatedly advocated for shooting dangerous suspects in the leg despite criticism from police training experts. Biden first advocated for the tactic at a campaign event in June and then doubled down on it at a town hall earlier this month.

Rob Pincus, who has trained police officers in the use of firearms across the United States, told the Washington Free Beacon in June the tactic would put officers at risk in deadly situations and also blur the line between the use of deadly and less-lethal force. Currently, police who shoot a suspect must justify their actions under standards used for deadly force. Experts say the scenario advocated for by Biden could lead to police encounters where shooting a suspect does not have to be justified under deadly-force standards but instead under looser standards for nonlethal force.

"To consider it a viable option to try to shoot to wound leaves a lot of gray area for what was someone's intention when they used the gun," Pincus said. "We have simplified this issue, to a great degree, in the United States for law enforcement and personal defense by simply saying, ‘You use a gun, it's lethal force. Period. Consider that carefully.'"

Ramsey emphasized that the shooting of Wallace was tragic but added there are no simple answers to how the situation could have been handled better.

"I know some people say people should not respond, mental health workers should respond," he said. "But do you think a mental health person would be there responding to a person with a knife? It's very complicated."