Skip to main content

NYPD a model of restraint in use of deadly force

By Eugene O'Donnell, Special to CNN
updated 9:53 PM EDT, Fri August 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On Friday morning, a gunman shot a former co-worker outside the Empire State Building
  • Eugene O'Donnell: For the NYPD, firing a gun must remain the rarest of rare events
  • He says it is hard to make the right decision in rapidly unfolding and unpredictable situations
  • O'Donnell: Ultimately, there really is no safe way to deal with shootings in a crowded city

Editor's note: Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor, is a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

(CNN) -- Shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, a man identified as Jeffrey Johnson shot a former co-worker outside the Empire State Building with a .45-caliber weapon. A courageous civilian saw what happened and alerted two NYPD officers. After the police caught up with Johnson, he pulled his weapon out of a bag and pointed it at the officers who had been performing counterterrorism duties. The officers fired 16 shots, killing Johnson. In the exchange of fire, nine bystanders were injured.

As a rule, it takes a lot to get NYPD officers to fire their guns at anyone. Despite a handful of isolated, but highly publicized, exceptions to this rule when officers have shot unarmed individuals over the past decade and a half, New York's 35,000-officer force remains a worldwide model of firearms restraint and veneration for human life.

The nation's largest police department instills in its officers that the decision to fire a weapon is momentous and should only be considered after every reasonable alternative has been exhausted. Only when officers feel that a suspect is a clear and imminent danger to them or others can they resort to using their firearms. Then, they must take care to not needlessly endanger innocent people who might be in the way.

Eugene O\'Donnell
Eugene O'Donnell

In rapidly unfolding and completely unpredictable situations, assessing the need to use firearms is often a split-second decision. It can mean the difference between life and death. Officers have to sift through confusion, fear and fragmented information.

In the incident outside of the Empire State Building, it is made more difficult because the street is one of the busiest in America. The officers had to take into account the risk of the gunman hurting potentially many people in the vicinity were he not stopped.

NYPD names gunman; co-worker targeted

When New York officers do use firearm, it is a matter of great importance to the department. Shootings are vigorously reviewed. Officers are questioned thoroughly and can be ordered to undergo additional training. They can be disciplined and even terminated. The police department pores over each shooting and tries to glean insights that can help better train cops. The message is clear: Firing a gun must remain the rarest of rare events.

10 shot outside Empire State Building

For prosecutors and police executives reviewing events when all the facts are known afterward, it is a different story. Officers can be criticized for too much action or for too much restraint when things don't go well.

Empire State shooting a 'surreal scene'

Fortunately, in the incident today, the bystanders who were shot were not seriously hurt.

Street officers are always interested in better ways to handle unpredictable situations, and police departments everywhere cannot provide enough quality hands on training for front line cops. Excellent training in firearms restraint is a vital tool that has helped drive down NYPD shootings over time. In 1972, New York's finest were involved in almost 1,000 incidents in which firearms were discharged; in 2010, that number was just 92. Good thing, too, because no matter the training or innate restraint of the police, there really is no safe way to deal with shootings in a crowded city. Ultimately, the outcome is always uncertain.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eugene O'Donnell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
updated 8:25 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
updated 7:28 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 8:41 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 6:31 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT