Armed policing

Discharge of firearms

The primary intention of the police, when discharging a firearm, is to prevent an immediate threat to life by shooting to stop the subject from carrying out their intended or threatened course of action. In most circumstances this is achieved by aiming to strike the central body mass (ie, the torso).

Accuracy of shot

Research indicates that the accuracy of shots fired under training conditions is generally greater than in operational circumstances. Police officers are normally trained to discharge conventional firearms at the largest part of the subject they can see, which in most cases will be the central body mass.

Physical response

The physical response to a person having been shot is unpredictable – there are a range of physical and psychological moderators which can contribute to the nature and extent of any response. Only shots striking the central nervous system (which is largely located in the brain and spinal cord) and the major organs, (which are contained in the upper body) are likely to result in rapid incapacitation.

Conventional shot

The primary intention of the police, when discharging a firearm, is to prevent an immediate threat to life by shooting to stop the subject from carrying out their intended or threatened course of action. In most circumstances this is achieved by aiming to strike the central body mass (ie, the torso) and is known as a ‘conventional shot’. However if, for example, only the head of the subject is visible and in order to prevent an immediate threat to life, a shot must immediately be discharged, then the AFO will have no option but to aim at and strike the only part of the body of the subject which is then visible namely, the head. A conventional shot should only be fired when absolutely necessary in self-defence or in defence of another when there is an immediate risk to life from unlawful violence and where the circumstances are not such as to require the immediate incapacitation of that subject by a critical shot.

Critical shot

There will be circumstances when aiming directly for the head will be necessary, as aiming to strike another part of the body would:

  • be impractical in the circumstances
  • present increased risk to life
  • be unlikely to achieve immediate incapacitation.

A ‘critical shot’ is a shot or shots intended to immediately incapacitate the subject. A critical shot should only be fired when absolutely necessary in defence of a person when there is an imminent and extreme risk to life from unlawful violence. A critical shot is a shot or shots to the head, if possible, or otherwise to the central nervous system or major organs.

Discharge of less lethal weapons

Alternative points of aim will be appropriate for approved less lethal weapons in accordance with weapon-specific guidelines. Where alternative points of aim and intended points of impact are referenced in the guidelines, the purpose is normally to minimise the risk of unintentional effects or potentially lethal injuries, and to maximise the effectiveness of the weapons system.

Threat to life

When it is considered necessary to discharge a firearm at a subject, police officers need to shoot to stop an imminent threat to life. The imminence of any threat should be judged, in respect of the potential for loss of life, with due regard paid to legislation and consideration of absolute necessity, reasonableness and proportionality.

When an authorised firearms officer (AFO) decides to discharge a firearm, the number and sequencing of rounds fired will depend on the circumstances that exist at the time. Officers must constantly assess the threat posed by the subject and the continuance of that threat. Officers must be able to demonstrate that the degree of force used was absolutely necessary and relative to the threat posed. The use of excessive force is strictly prohibited.

The discharge of firearms by police may not necessarily result in the death of a subject. Every effort must, therefore, be taken by police to provide medical assistance.

Accountability for all rounds fired

AFOs are accountable for all the rounds that they discharge and they should be aimed so as to minimise risk (either directly or by ricochet) to any person other than the subject.

Where in, exceptional circumstances, a round is discharged in a direction where it is not intended to strike a person or defined area, officers must take account of potential unintentional harm being caused as a consequence. This could also include death or serious injury of a person not in the immediate proximity.

Officers should be aware that any discharge of a firearm may lead a subject or other officer to believe that they are under fire.

Moving vehicles

The circumstances in which it will be necessary for police officers to fire at or from moving vehicles are operationally rare. There may, however, be situations where life is at risk and the only course of action available is to engage a subject in, or from, a moving vehicle, or to fire at a vehicle in order to immobilise it. e.g. where a vehicle is being deliberately used as a weapon by the driver with the intention of injuring or killing people.

In such circumstances the inherent risks (see considerations when taking action) must be balanced against the likelihood that the action taken will prevent the loss or further loss of life. If such a course of action is deemed absolutely necessary, officers must be aware of the potential consequences and their responsibilities to the public.

Firearms should not be discharged at a moving vehicle simply because it has failed to stop when directed, or to immobilise the vehicle, unless there is intelligence to support such action. Where the nature of the threat warrants the use of firearms to immobilise a moving vehicle, and/or its driver, AFOs should consider their capability and the capability and limitations of their firearms and ammunition prior to undertaking this activity.

Considerations when taking action

The following matters must be borne in mind:

  • the construction of modern vehicles means that shots are unlikely to be effective in immobilising the vehicle and there may be real danger of ricochet
  • rounds may over penetrate the vehicle causing danger to innocent persons
  • if the driver is killed or injured, there is a high risk of the vehicle going out of control
  • the difficulty of maintaining accuracy when firing from a moving vehicle
  • when bullets, especially those from high-velocity weapons, strike the windows or bodywork of a motor vehicle, a flash is produced which may resemble the muzzle flash of a weapon, thereby potentially causing officers to believe that they are being fired at. The same effect could be produced when a high-velocity bullet strikes the window of a building or other solid matter.

Page last accessed 05 July 2020