Skip to main content

NYPD a model of restraint in use of deadly force

By Eugene O'Donnell, Special to CNN
August 25, 2012 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT