LEO vs. Civilian Self Defense

It’s no secret that I am comfortable carrying a revolver or single stack auto for self defense as a civilian. I’ve also frequently said that if I were still a police officer I’d carry a Glock 17 with a red-dot sight, because civilians face a different type and level of threat. Let’s dig into that a little, because there’s more to it than you might think.

OK, let me clarify something before the pedants and ‘what iffers’ start in. We are discussing average civilians going about their normal lives, and typical police officers in the course of executing typical duties. Yes, extraordinary circumstances can and very, very occasionally do occur, but they happen so rarely they don’t really enter into this discussion. Self-defense in the home is also not part of the scope of this article.

Gen 5 Glock 17 with an optic- my ‘duty gun’ of choice. I mean if I were still a cop instead of an old, fat civilian.

Common Ground

Both a law enforcement officer (LEO) and a civilian are likely to be relying on a pistol as their front-line self-defense weapon. Both could face a variety of threats, ranging from a drunk with a broken bottle to multiple attackers with firearms. Both need a pistol that they can carry at all times in the course of their day. Either might need to reload. Both need to be aware of innocent bystanders, and to exercise care not to inadvertently harm innocents.

Both need to be knowledgeable of the manual of arms for their chosen weapon, and be aware of and observe the rules of firearms safety within the limits imposed on them by the situation and the attacker.

The standards of the application of lethal force are also similar. The language and exact rules vary from place to place, but it boils down to this: you apply lethal force to someone when it is so important to stop what they are doing that whether or not they die as a result is a secondary consideration. What would be so important? A reasonable belief that you or another innocent are in immediate danger of death or grave bodily harm. This is the standard that US society more or less agrees on.

So far things are looking pretty similar.

Parting Ways

OK, there are a lot of similarities, but there are major differences in goals of both the defender and their attackers. Both LEOs and civilians are mission oriented, but those missions are very, very different.

The civilian mission is reactive, and it comes to this: survive the situation and/or insure other innocents do. To survive you can disengage if possible, drive off or otherwise stop the attacker or avoid the attack through situational awareness or retreat. This gives you a lot of options, and you need to be aware of and properly employ every option, not just default to the the use of lethal force. Lethal force is the last, least desirable and most problematic response available.

The LEO’s mission is proactive, and this is where it departs abruptly and significantly from the civilian’s. Not to be overly dramatic, but their job is to run towards the sound of the guns, not away. They need to confront the situation, not avoid it. They are often required to stand their ground in circumstances where a civilian could retreat. A police officer has to stay in the fight to accomplish their mission. Last and most importantly personal survival is not their highest priority. They’re doing a job and it must get done, whether they personally survive or not. Innocent civilians, their fellow officers and society as a whole depend on them.

The Colt Detective Special. A viable choice for civilian self defense?

Given those definitions a police officer needs ‘more gun’ than a civilian. It’s reasonable to suppose they might need more capacity and more reloads, and depending on the situation might need to engage a target at a greater distance than usually occurs in civilian self-defense scenarios. They might find themselves in a protracted gun battle where it’s their job to not disengage or retreat. They need a very capable firearm and plenty of ammunition.

But that’s only the start of the differences between the situations of civilian and police self-defense; another major factor has to do with their attackers.

It’s Not Always About You

Attacks on Civilians

The other factor is the intent of the attacker and how committed they are. Excepting serial and spree killers a criminal who attacks a civilian wants something specific from their victim. They may want to kidnap them, might want their money or other personal possessions, they might want to sexually assault them or have a combination of these reasons. They might just want to harm their victim to save face or enforce respect. The point is they want something. Generally they do not feel the attempt to get it is worth dying for.

In viewing hundreds of security videos of civilian self defense, whether it’s a person on the street or an armed robbery, the overwhelming response of the suspects when wounded or facing effective resistance is to flee.

Interviews with people convicted of violent criminal activities such as armed robbery reinforces this; almost universally their response to effective defense is to disengage. They want your goodies, but they cannot benefit from them if they are dead or in prison. Basically it’s extremely unusual for a person attacking a civilian to commit unreservedly to carrying through their attack.

Police Self-Defense

The situation of police is very, very different. The odds are if a situation devolves to suspect using deadly force against a LEO their attack will be fully committed. They have one goal: to take down the officer at any cost. Some of them view a potential return to prison as a ‘fate worse than death’ and act accordingly. They are also aware at some level that the option to disengage or evade is no longer in play. They know they may die in the process, and any chance of a good outcome depends on them winning the fight, even if they are injured in the process.

Such a determined attacker is much, much harder to stop. Humans are tough and can accomplish remarkable things when committed. In the majority of cases a civilian doesn’t even need to hit their attacker to stop them; most criminals attacking a civilian will flee to rob another day rather than expend their life to ‘get’ their erstwhile victim. We’re often told to shoot until the attacker stops; for a civilian this typically means 2-3 shots on average. In part this is because a ‘soft stop,’ where the attacker has elected to flee or give up, is more likely given the mindset and reason for the attack.

The individual going after the police officer has most likely fully committed. They aren’t going to take a bullet and think ‘screw this’ and give up. It’s going to require a ‘hard stop,’ where the attack ends because because the attacker is physically unable to continue.

Even a good hit from a potent weapon with modern defensive ammo can require several seconds to physically incapacitate an attacker, and the person attacking a LEO is going to use those seconds to press the attack. If they are across the room behind a barricade it doesn’t so much matter; the officer can wait a few seconds for it to take effect. A suspect in cover also has time to re-evaluate their priorities, perhaps even surrender. But if the suspect is charging them or already in close-contact they aren’t going to stop, and those are going to be a few very bad seconds. Of course the officer, not knowing that their attacker is going to drop, will keep shooting.

Basically a police officer, in addition to all of the other factors already mentioned, has a much higher chance of needing to produce a hard stop, and given the way these things happen that might take a lot more bullets.

OK, if civilians usually require 2-5 shots in a self-defense shooting, why carry an extra magazine? Because the fastest way to clear a jam involves a reload. Of course an argument can be made for ‘just in case,’ which is why I carry a reload even for a revolver.

The Take-Away

Police have a different mission, face a broader variety of situations that they need to respond to and often have to stay in the fight when a civilian could retreat. Adding to that they are much, much more likely to face a determined, committed attacker than the average civilian, and it makes absolute sense for them to carry a high-capacity weapon and multiple reloads. Different mission, different needs, different threat = different, more capable gun.

Yes, a civilian might face multiple attackers also; but those attackers are very unlikely to have an absolute commitment to killing them. They might face a mentally disturbed person who is genuinely determined to kill them at any cost, but that’s rare among civilian shootings, which let’s admit are already a rare occurrence.

A civilian probably doesn’t need a high-capacity tactical wonder-gun for everyday self-defense. OK, I am not going to dis them if the gun they like and shoot best, or their only gun or whatever is a high-capacity weapon; that’s great. Carry what you’ve got, are most comfortable with and shoot well. Increasingly for newer shooters that’s going to be a high-capacity weapon, and that’s totally fine. But those of us who opt for a revolver or single-stack auto for self defense aren’t necessarily dinosaurs or idiots.

But What If…?

‘But what if I face multiple men with military-grade weapons and body armor?’ Sorry mate, you’re screwed. But then if this happens to you in real life it doesn’t matter what you’re carrying; you’re still screwed. This isn’t Hollywood and you aren’t John Wick. Most of the extreme situations people hold out as examples of why they need a tacti-cool wonder-gun and 82 spare magazines have never happened in real life, and if they did you’d be dead anyway.

Whatever your situation and however you choose to equip for it, make damn sure you know your gun, inside out and backwards. Practice drawing from the rig you carry it in, standing, sitting, kneeling or flat on the ground. Train to clear jams and reload. Shoot two-handed, one-handed, both strong and weak side. Yes, training for accuracy is good; being a good shot is never going to make you less likely to succeed! But don’t obsess over it; if you ever do need the gun, God forbid, it’s most likely to be at contact distance to six feet, and knowing how to deploy and retain your weapon is going to be a lot more important than keeping them all in the black at twenty-five yards.

Accept that no matter what you do not every conceivable scenario has a realistic chance of occurring, or is survivable by any means at your disposal if it did. Have a realistic assessment of the threats you face, what sort of situations you are most likely to encounter and plan for that.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 13 march 2021

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