One of the first things police officers learn is that a suspect's "hands" pose the greatest threat—indeed they do. When dealing with a suspect, an officer should be acutely aware of the ability, or inability, to see the person's hands to ensure he or she is not clutching or reaching for a weapon. This is a proper concern and when officers encounter someone with their hands in their pockets the officers should immediately assume an elevated level of awareness.
Such was the case with Stephon Carter, the night of December 20, 2011.
Aiken, South Carolina Public Safety Officer Travis Griffin responded to a drive-by shooting about 9:30 p.m. and a short time later saw a black Chevrolet Impala similar to the car witnesses said was involved in the shooting. Griffin followed the vehicle and initiated a traffic stop in the parking lot of a near-by apartment complex. Four other officers arrived as backup at the scene including Officer Edward Scott (Scotty) Richardson, who parked his patrol vehicle behind Griffin.
Griffin asked the front-seat passenger Stephon Carter to exit the vehicle and walk to the rear of the car. Initially Carter had both hands out of his pocket; however, as he came around to the rear of the Impala Carter placed his right hand in his pocket. Griffin asked Carter to remove his hand from his pocket, at which point Carter pulled out a revolver and began firing at the officers.
Carter’s first shot struck Griffin in the chest; however, his bullet resistant vest stopped the round. Carter continued to fire as he turned to his left firing a second shot which missed Griffin’s head and at least one more shot before fleeing the scene. Two of Carter’s shots fatally struck Officer Richardson—one in his left side and one in the head.
The video of this incident demonstrates the danger in telling a suspect to remove his hands from his pocket in an uncontrolled manner. The suspect’s hand movement is not going to be an indicator of trouble—Officer Griffin initiated the movement when he requested Carter to take his hand out of his pocket. The first opportunity for Griffin to see that Carter had a firearm was when it was too late. . . when Carter fired his first shot into Griffin’s chest.
From the moment Griffin could have seen Carter's revolver until he fired was 0.33 seconds.
Video analysis shows that from the moment Griffin could have seen that Carter had a revolver in his hand until Carter fired the first shot was 0.33 seconds. Figure 1 shows the first moment that Griffin could see that Carter had something in his hand. Although you can see Griffin is looking at Carter’s hand, Griffin did not react until after Carter fired (figure 2). In truth, he could not have reacted in time—it was not humanly possible.
The Force Science Institute conducted several experiments in a 2014 study to measure police officer reaction time to start and stop shooting. In experiment one the officers were positioned in a firing stance with a training pistol and were instructed to fire the pistol when a green light came on for 0.5 sec. On average, it took officers .25 sec to begin the trigger pull (i.e. react to the stimulus) and .06 sec to complete the trigger pull (defined as the actual travel time of the trigger from a position of rest to a position back against the frame) for a total reaction time of .31 sec.1 So even if Griffin was in a firing stance, finger off the trigger, with his pistol aimed at Carter, it would have been almost impossible for Griffin to have reacted to Carter’s movement in time.
Carter fired his second shot .57 sec later as he was spinning to his left and at least one more shot which the video did not capture. The first officer to draw and fire at Carter does so at 2.7 seconds into the incident; given the circumstances, a credible reaction time.
Is there a more effective tactic to effectively replace the command, one which improves the officer’s position of advantage while placing the suspect at a disadvantage? I believe so. First, issue the command: “DO NOT take your hands out of your pockets.” Followed immediately with a repeat of the command “DO NOT” to emphasize that you do not want the individual to remove his hands. Many suspects with prior police encounters will automatically begin removing their hands the instant they hear “hands” and “pockets.”
Command the individual to face away from you and to not look back. After the individual turns facing away, leave your original position and move several steps to the right (or left as the situation dictates). If the suspect was to suddenly turn with a weapon, he would do so anticipating that you would be where he last saw you.
Command the individual to slowly take his right hand out of his pocket and hold it away from his body, spreading his fingers and turning his palm toward you. Once you see an empty right hand, quietly move again so the next time the individual hears your voice you are in a different position. Instruct the individual to slowly remove his left hand from his pocket and hold it in the same position as the right hand. You may now take additional steps to ensure the individual does not possess a weapon.
At night you can use a similar tactic; however, modern high intensity flashlights help. After you issue the command “DO NOT take your hands out of your pockets” and repeat “DO NOT,” shine your light in the individual’s eyes using the FBI technique (see figure 3) and command him to face away from you and to not look back. After the individual turns facing away, leave your light on him and move several steps to the right (or left as the situation dictates). If the suspect was to suddenly turn with a weapon, he will likely shoot where the light is located. Continue to issue commands and take additional steps to ensure the individual does not possess a weapon as discussed above.
During the course of a career, a police officer will interact with a countless number of individuals who have their hands in their pockets. On the street, simply commanding the individual to remove his hands makes it almost impossible to tell whether he is drawing a weapon or complying with your command until it is too late to react. Controlling the manner in which they remove their hands will give you an advantage and position you to react if they do present a weapon.
2 Although the picture shows a drawn handgun, you can do this technique with your hand on a holstered or ready pistol as well. Photo credit: Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, Level I Handgun Instructor Course, 2008