Editor’s Note: This article was originally written for Officer.com.

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“Watch their hands. It’s the hands that will kill you.”. That advice has been offered in police academy classrooms and in-service training for decades upon decades. Like much that we have heard and learned over the years, if it sounds reasonable and rational, we glom on to it and repeat it. We repeat it to ourselves over and over again without ever giving it a second thought.

Every year, American law enforcement officers have thousands of successful use of force encounters. Successful meaning where the officer(s) involved does it right. However, we still have too many cases where a legitimate good guy is shot and killed despite circumstances where they should not have been.

“Blue on Blue” shootings destroy multiple lives. The officer on the receiving end of the negligent rounds now has a widow(er) and fatherless (motherless) children. Those who delivered the negligent rounds have to live with the fact that they killed another officer mistakenly.

Training the Target

For as long as I’ve been involved in the arena, and that has been thirty years now, we have tried to solve the Blue on Blue or Mistaken Identity shooting problem by putting the onus on the target. Tools and techniques for off-duty officers and armed good guys have been offered. Special shooting techniques for holding your badge and gun while in plainclothes have been developed. Unique “off-duty” jackets with pull down “POLICE” placards have been sold by the thousands.

For years I carried a specially designed waistpack that when opened had a large Velcro patch with “POLICE” boldly displayed as a potential deterrent against mistaken identity shooting. I suppose that pack is in a box upstairs somewhere.

Paul Markel Police Rifle Training
Paul Markel Police Rifle Training

Discussion versus Practice

Despite the profiling boogie-man and the modern PC advice against it, veteran cops understand that genuine bad guys tend to all behave in certain ways. Paying attention to visual cues more often than not will pay off. Salty vets can spot a bad guy just by looking at him.

In the aftermath of a mistaken identity shooting, the knee-jerk reaction of the administration is most often to make everyone sit through an in-service Use of Force class. Unfortunately, the majority of these sessions are simply warmed-over basic academy periods of instruction. These classes talk about observation, verbal commands, and again, stress how off-duty officers should behave so as not to get shot. There are even numerous policies that off-duty cops are expected to memorize and follow so as not to be a victim.

Yes, there certainly are mistaken identity shootings where an officer ‘thought’ they saw a weapon. However, where it turned out not to be so, these cases are a rare minority. The majority of mistaken identity shootings occur when the bona fide good guy has a gun in hand. Thus, the responding uniformed officers shoot them. Rarely does the off-duty guy get shot because he pointed or threatened the patrol guys with the gun. Instead, he/she gets shot because they were “holding” a gun.

Paul Markel CSAT Shoot House Rifle Training
Paul Markel CSAT Shoot House Rifle Training

Live-Fire Training to Kill People with Guns

Shoot-house and scenario based training where officers must address full-color human-like paper targets have been vogue for decades. Many companies offer targets with special overlays to change a “man w/gun” target to a “man w/cellphone” target. You can get a paper “badge” overlay to tape/glue onto the plainclothes target to make it appear to be an off-duty officer.

Consider the last live-fire scenario or shoot house training you went through. If the scenario is like most I’ve attended, there will be numerous full-color paper targets throughout. Some have guns, some don’t. As the student progresses through the scenario they shoot the targets holding guns and, if they are locked on, they don’t shoot the ones without guns. If a student shoots a target without a gun they are remediated and possibly fail the course.

Rarely, if ever, does the student ever fail to engage a target that is in possession of a gun. There’s a fifty/fifty chance that they won’t shoot the plainclothes guy with a gun and a ‘badge’ overlay on his belt. How many times have you scored these paper targets and found bullet holes in the guns? Shooting the gun happens despite the fact that the gun is held waist level and we understand that a good stopping shot is in the upper chest?

Training To Kill

Officers will instinctively, if unconsciously key in on the gun and put all of their focus on it. It is the gun that is their signal to fire and that is exactly what they do. Whether or not it has ever been verbalized, the lesson is that the gun, not the man, is the threat and the possession of a gun is the mental cue to fire. We are literally training our officers to kill people in possession of guns, motivation or actions be damned.

Thousands of man hours every year are devoted to training officers to shoot targets with guns and not shoot those without guns. This is genuine live-fire, not classroom discussion. We see the end result of a Blue on Blue on the street each year and scratch our heads wondering why.  After all of those in-service briefings, why do Blue on Blue shootings still continue to happen?

Paper targets do not display emotions or actions. We cannot divine the intent of a colored paper man in a flannel shirt holding a gun. What do we do? We shoot him because he is holding a gun. I challenge you to find a full-color paper target with a man in a police uniform to mix into the shoot/no shoot scenario. Why, because no company on Earth would make one. “Are you kidding? We can’t make a ‘target’ with a cop in uniform. Holy Hell, are you insane?”


Pause for a moment. Did you ever think that in your shoot houses you might want to put ‘No Shoot’ targets that look like guys in uniform? If you can manage it, put a paper target of a guy in uniform in your next shoot house training. However, do not tell the students. Consciously observe the reaction of your officers as they enter a building that has been designated as “Man w/Gun” call or “Domestic Violence” and come face to face with a cop in uniform. I have a hundred dollar bill that says that the target gets shot at least 50/50 if it is holding a gun.

CSAT Training School with Rich Grassi, Dave Biggers, Paul Markel, Keith Pridgen, Paul Howe, Ichiro Nagata
CSAT Training School with Rich Grassi, Dave Biggers, Paul Markel, Keith Pridgen, Paul Howe, Ichiro Nagata

One School’s Solution

A few years ago I attended training at the Combat Shooting and Tactics school. I knew that the CSAT owner and chief instructor, Paul Howe, retired US Army, Special Forces, understood the problem of mistaken identity shooting. During a telephone conversation with Paul I asked for his thoughts on the situation. “A lot of shooters will work on shooting fast, but they don’t work on discrimination. Your target discrimination skills have to be on par with your shooting skills. See fast, shoot fast is how we do it.”

Howe went on and elaborated. “We teach our shooters for first observe the whole person, then the hands, and the waistline. Shooters must take in the entire situation, not just ‘Is he holding a gun?’ During, scenario training we put the paper badge photos in different places on the targets so the students must take into account the entire picture, not just the gun.”

Parting Thoughts

If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that all the briefings and department policies are not stopping Blue on Blue / Mistaken Identity shootings. As well as off-duty cops are being shot simply because they were holding a gun.

As long as we continue to carry on the live-fire training regime of shooting anyone with a gun this will continue to happen. It is the definition of insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result. For decades we’ve been trying to treat the problem of mistaken identity shootings the same way. Yet we wonder why they keep happening.

The very hard but honest question you must ask yourself is this; does our training teach our officers to instinctively shoot anyone that is holding a gun? It doesn’t matter how many times your people sit through a Justifiable Use of Force class and reexamine Ability, Opportunity and Intent, if all of your live-fire focuses on ‘kill the guy with the gun’ that’s what is going to keep happening, regardless of visible badge holders or Velcro pull-down signs.

Rather than simply train people to instinctively shoot anyone out of uniform with a gun, it may be time to rethink our Force on Force. As well as reality-based training scenarios. Will this take dedicated time and effort? I suppose it will. The other option is to simply continue to do what we’ve always done. Which is be shocked and saddened the next time a patrolman shoots an off-duty cop.

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Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

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