On May 30, two Vancouver police detectives, one Vancouver police officer and one detective from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office fired 20 shots at a fleeing suspect in the parking lot of a shopping center. Joshua James Wilson reportedly had pointed a gun at officers, an assertion that is confirmed by video of the incident. Wilson died at the scene after apparently being struck by six shots.
The shooting is being investigated by the Lower Columbia Major Crimes Team, led by the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office. While we will avoid drawing conclusions until a final report is issued, one question that must be raised is why police routinely fire so many shots once the decision is made to use deadly force.
In the Wilson case, 14 shots missed their target in a public space. In a 2020 shooting that resulted in the death of Kevin Peterson Jr., three Clark County sheriff deputies fired 34 shots, striking Peterson four times — meaning 30 bullets went astray.
This is not unusual. A 2019 study of the Dallas Police Department found that officers hit their target 35 percent of the time, and other studies have had similar results.
No bystanders were struck in either Clark County incident, but the possibility exists.
In January, a Denver police officer was criminally charged after firing toward a suspect in a crowd and wounding six bystanders. A grand jury indictment asserted that the decision to shoot was “reckless, unreasonable and unnecessary for the purpose of protecting himself or other officers.” In 2012, nine bystanders were wounded by police bullets or bullet fragments that had ricocheted in a shooting outside the Empire State Building in New York.
While the wounding of bystanders is rare, it warrants scrutiny and should play a role in ongoing questions about the use of deadly force and about the number of shots fired by officers.
The answers to those questions can be found in the life-or-death scenarios that typically accompany police shootings. As Michael Avery, author of “Police Misconduct: Law and Litigation,” told The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune: “It might be because the suspect is still moving. … It might be because the (officer) has so much adrenaline and he’s so excited, and he’s forgotten his training and he is just reacting viscerally.”
As The Columbian has reported in the wake of the Wilson shooting: “When police believe a suspect could harm or kill them, they’re usually trained to fire as many gunshots as it takes to bring that suspect down.”
When a suspect is wielding a gun, as was confirmed in both the Wilson and Peterson shootings, officers have a reasonable instinct to protect themselves and their fellow officers. Experts add that the chaos of a deadly-force incident might lead officers to think that shots fired by fellow officers are coming from a suspect, and that police typically carry semi-automatic weapons that can fire several shots in a single burst.
Scrutiny of police actions is necessary. The Legislature in recent years has passed a series of laws to improve investigations into the use of deadly force, hold officers accountable and strike an appropriate balance between the rights of suspects and the need to protect the public from dangerous criminals.
Such scrutiny should continue, accompanied by ongoing efforts to improve police training. But there are valid reasons for officers to fire dozens of shots when in a life-threatening situation. If deadly force is warranted, stopping to measure the situation could be fatal.