Shooting Not to Kill. This Utah Case Fuels a Debate That Frustrates Police.
Enoch Police Officer Jeremy Dunn points his gun at Ivonne Casimiro after shooting her in the knee on June 29, 2018. Dunn told investigators he purposely shot Casimiro in the leg to save her life. She survived and is now in prison. (Courtesy of the Enoch Police Department)
Two officers confronted a woman and a man in a parking lot in the rural town of Enoch, Utah. They had the couple cornered, backed up against a fence where some cows stood around on a compacted dirt lot.
The woman, accused of breaking into cars, wore a camouflage jacket and a single orange glove. In that hand, she held a screwdriver. The man stood next to her, unarmed, with his hands to his sides.
During this 2018 encounter, the woman didn’t come at officers with the tool and didn’t threaten anyone with it, but she refused to drop the screwdriver no matter how many times the officers asked.
“Do you want me to take her out like last time?” Dunn said to then-Sgt. Mike Berg.
Dunn was referring to when he shot an armed suicidal man in the leg six years earlier.
This time, he fired three shots at Ivonne Casimiro’s knee. He said he did it to save her life, and she survived. Just like the armed man did in 2012.
But after this shooting, unlike the last, Dunn lost his job and the chance to be a police officer for four years.
Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which handles discipline for law enforcement, ruled that even if Dunn had shot Casimiro in the torso — and very likely killed her, as police are trained to do — the shooting wouldn’t have been legally justified because Casimiro wasn’t an imminent threat. The Iron County attorney, who reviewed the case to see if Dunn broke the law, agreed with the POST Board though Dunn was not charged with a crime.
However, one detective, interviewed as part of Enoch Police Department’s internal investigation, said Dunn shooting Casimiro in the knee “makes lethal shooters look bad.” That review also found that Enoch has no rule against officers’ shooting with the intent to incapacitate.
If there’s nothing barring officers from shooting someone in the leg or arm, it raises the question — one many civilians, including President Joe Biden, have wondered about — why don’t officers, if possible, shoot a suspect there, instead of in the chest or head?
It’s a question that frustrates and annoys many in law enforcement.
Salt Lake City Police Deputy Chief Scott Mourtgos said the expectation an officer could consistently hit these “precision shots” at someone’s leg or arm is “unrealistic” and could put officers and the public in danger when an officer misses.
Between 2010 and 2020, Utah police shot at 230 people in 226 separate confrontations. About 45% of those people shot at survived, according to a Salt Lake Tribune database expanded through a collaboration with FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative.
“When an armed attack is underway,” wrote Federal Way, Washington, Police Chief Deputy Kyle Sumpter for the publication Police1, “any response less than deadly force is wishful thinking, a hope-for-the-best reliance on the assailant’s good faith or luck.”
But there is a police department giving this a try.
Police in LaGrange, Georgia, have instituted a shoot-to-incapacitate training program, based on policing practices in Europe, where departments deal with fewer guns and more edged and blunt weapons, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in May.
The new policy went into effect in February and so far it is unclear if it is working, but the training has drawn the attention of the law enforcement community who are skeptical. But some say shooting not to kill may have its place.
John Shjarback, a law and justice professor at New Jersey’s Rowan University, said the idea is worth considering for situations where someone had a knife, for instance, and when deadly force would be justified but the officer doesn’t want to shoot for the head or torso, “which will likely kill a person.”
The Washington Post’s database of police shootings shows that 1,115 people killed by police between 2015 and 2020 — about 17% — were armed with edged weapons.
“That’s a nontrivial number and percentage of fatal officer-involved shootings every year” where potentially someone’s life could be saved, Shjarback said. “I think it’s worth exploring and it shouldn’t be dismissed outright.”
How officers are trained
At every police academy former officer Randy Shrewsberry has attended, an officer-in-training brings up the question: Why not shoot someone in the leg?
“And the answer is always, ‘Well, have you eliminated the threat if you shoot someone in the leg or the arm?’” said Shrewsberry, who is now the executive director of the California-based Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform. “‘Do they still have the ability to shoot you?’”
Cadets throughout the nation learn to aim for a person’s torso above the waist, known as one’s center-mass. It’s the biggest part of the body and can’t be moved as quickly out of an officer’s line of fire, like an arm or a leg could. It’s also where humans carry most of their vital organs. So, the logic goes, if officers perceive an imminent threat, their best chance of eliminating that threat quickly is to shoot someone there.
Mourtgos, with Salt Lake City police, said you also can’t expect an officer in a dynamic and stressful situation to consistently hit a small, and sometimes moving, target on a person’s body.
Then, he said, you have to consider a general principle all officers are taught: action is faster than reaction.
If an officer tried to, for instance, shoot a knife out of someone’s hand, Mourtgos said that person could move their hand faster than an officer could perceive it and reassess their aim. If an officer misses, the threat he or she sought to eliminate remains — and the misplaced bullet could hit someone in the background.
And, he said, even when you shoot someone in a part of the body with fewer vital organs, there’s still a possibility the person bleeds to death.
“I’ve seen people survive being shot in the head with a bullet … I’ve seen people die from being shot in the leg and arm,” Mourtgos said. “There is no good place to shoot a human being.”
Maj. Scott Stephenson, Utah POST director, said in a written statement that he agreed a shoot-to-incapacitate policy would result in more suspects surviving — “because officers will frequently miss their intended target.”
But the tradeoff, he said, is “this could jeopardize innocent bystanders at a higher rate.”
And he said Dunn’s two shootings “are not enough evidence that this could be practical.”
Dunn was eating lunch at home on June 28, 2018, when dispatch radioed that someone was breaking into cars at the TA Express convenience store in Parowan.
Berg, who’s now Parowan’s police chief, arrived first, according to the POST report. Dunn left his Enoch house to be Berg’s back-up.
Berg told dispatchers at 11:47 a.m. that he had suspects at gunpoint. Dunn arrived two minutes later. And three minutes after he got there, Dunn radioed, “Shots fired. One down. We need EMS.”
Body camera footage shows Dunn walking to Berg from across the parking lot. The suspects — Casimiro and a man — stood in front of Berg’s pickup truck. Berg was near the truck door, talking to dispatchers on the radio.
He later told investigators he thought the situation was under control and was waiting for an additional officer who was on the way so the three of them could “bull rush” Casimiro, disarm her and take her into custody.
That’s not what Dunn was thinking. As he approached, he said, “Well, I would say it’s a good idea to put the screwdriver down, right?”
“What am I doing though?” Casimiro asked.
Dunn told the man to walk away, but Casimiro responded, “No, he’s not going nowhere.”
She turned around and took a few steps. Dunn raised his gun and said, “You’re not free to leave.” She responded, “Go ahead and blow.”
Dunn threatened to shoot if she got any closer, saying, “I guarantee I’ll smoke you.” She told Dunn she can’t die.
“Luckily,” Dunn later told investigators, “at that moment she stopped.”
He began to wonder if she was in a mental health crisis, like the man he shot in 2012.
“I can take her out like last time,” Dunn told Berg according to the bodycam. “Do you want me to take her out like last time?”
Dunn told investigators he didn’t remember saying that or anything else to Berg.
Before he used his gun, he tried his Taser.
Video shows Dunn with his pistol in one hand as he aimed his Taser at the woman, who paced slowly, with the other. He fired the Taser twice. The woman had no big reaction, she just said it didn’t work and pulled at the wires.
“Didn’t work, did it?” he responded. “OK, that’s all I got for Taser.”
Casimiro moved slightly, as if to take a step forward. Dunn let out a breath and fired his gun at her knee as Berg yelled for her to drop the screwdriver.
Casimiro crumpled. Dunn put her in handcuffs and then applied a tourniquet on her leg. She lived. She later pleaded guilty to felony-level charges of assault against a police officer and driving a stolen car. She remains in prison.
Dunn declined to be interviewed for this article, saying it could hurt his law enforcement job prospects. His police certification is suspended until June 29, 2022. The Tribune obtained a video of his interview with an Iron County critical incident task force investigator.
He told that investigator that when he pulled up and saw Casimiro with the screwdriver, he “mentally purchased” the idea that “she’s probably going to make me kill her.”
“Because,” he said, “I didn’t want to make the decision as a screwdriver’s coming to my face.”
He said he worried for the man standing next to Casimiro, and for Berg and himself. He considered using his baton when the Taser didn’t work, but thought her screwdriver versus the “2-foot stick” might end with him getting stabbed in the neck.
Dunn said he was concerned about the people behind them at the gas station. If she ran at them, he’d have to fire at her and, if he missed, bullets might hit bystanders.
He added, if that happened, “Then I don’t have the time to aim and make a precise shot that’s not going to kill her. I’m going to hit her center-mass, and it’s going to be a lot of rounds and I’m not going to be able to save her. She’s going to die.”
“My last chance to save her life,” Dunn said, “was to take the shot that I took.”
Former Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett ruled Dunn was not legally justified in shooting Casimiro — that she didn’t reasonably present an imminent threat to anyone — but said he didn’t have enough evidence to charge Dunn with a crime. Garrett declined to comment.
Shooting not to kill
Law enforcement experts said for a shoot-to-incapacitate policy to work, police would need the following:
- A stable target.
- Good visibility.
- A clear backdrop.
- A skilled shooter.
Most officers don’t shoot at all in their careers, and most officers, when they do shoot, don’t do so under any of these conditions, much less all four.
Dunn had them all the day he shot Casimiro in 2019. She wasn’t moving any faster than a slow walk. It was a sunny day. If Dunn missed, his bullet would have landed somewhere in an empty field. And, Dunn was not just an officer with standard firearms training. He’s also a competitive shooter with sponsors.
Park City Police Chief Wade Carpenter, who is friends with La Grange Chief Lou Dekmark, ran through shoot-to-incapacitate drills with LaGrange, Georgia, police this summer.
Trainers asked officers to take aim at life-sized human-shaped targets. The head and chest were red. Shoulders, hands, groin, knees and feet were yellow. Stomach, thighs, forearms and shins were green.
Officers were told the target was a person with an edged or blunt weapon, according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution footage of the training. The trainer would whistle when that person became a lethal threat. Officers then shot for a green or yellow area. Another whistle meant those bullets didn’t stop the threat and officers needed to fire for center-mass. Another whistle meant the threat remained and officers needed to fire at the head.
Carpenter, who leads the firearms committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said he hit all his marks — but he points out the targets didn’t move.
“Unfortunately, a static target,” Carpenter said, “that doesn’t give you a realistic replication of how that individual would realistically react to you.”
On a real call, he said, officers don’t know how a person will respond. If you shoot a gun out of someone’s hand, they might pick it up and shoot you. They could continue the attack and hurt or kill someone else.
LaGrange, Georgia, police have been working under the shoot-to-incapacitate policy since February. Chief Lou Dekmar declined to comment on this story. It’s unclear what outcomes the department has seen so far.
He told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it is his “responsibility” — and that of any police leader — to look at options that could save lives when police use deadly force.
“Anytime you can preserve a life,” Dekmar said, “what that does is earn trust and maintain confidence of the public, which is absolutely necessary if you’re going to be effective in the entire arena of public safety.”
Carpenter said he understands Dekmar’s goal — and respects it. He just worries that few officers will be able to hit their marks consistently and, even if they do, officers or civilians could end up getting hurt.
Mourtgos, the SLCPD deputy chief, has another concern. He’s not sure shooting to injure would be legal in Utah.
One of the conditions under which an officer can shoot someone is if they reasonably fear that if they don’t, that person will kill or seriously injure them or someone else.
If a Utah officer uses deadly force explicitly intending not to kill, how imminent could the deadly threat have been? Otherwise, the officer would have intended to kill that person.
Shjarback, the Rowan University professor, attended a Georgia POST discussion on LaGrange’s policy. He said some there wondered if shooting someone and not killing them might open up the department to being sued — for the same reason Mourtgos raised.
Shrewsberry, the training expert, said he’s open to departments exploring shooting to incapacitate.
“If we’re doing anything to try to teach officers not to kill someone,” Shrewsberry said, “I think that’s great.”
However, it would mean increased emphasis on shooting in training, and police might become even more reliant on their gun, instead of trying to grapple with someone, or use a Taser or baton. Or talk someone down.
The goal, he said, should be for officers to pull the trigger less often — not more.
— This story has been updated to reflect Scott Mourtgos’ new title.
This story is part of a collaboration with The Salt Lake Tribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.