June 7, 2022

A small-town police department in Georgia takes a page out of the Israel Police book – and sparks a heated debate about use-of-force reform in the United States

By Katja Ridderbusch

LAGRANGE, Georgia — Standing in a small clearing surrounded by pine trees, Sgt. Joshua Clower swiftly blows his dark red whistle. The handful of police officers gathered near him point and fire their nine-millimeter pistols at cardboard human silhouettes divided by color codes — red, yellow and green. The officers shoot until Clower blows the whistle again.

It’s a damp day with deep-hanging fog near LaGrange, a town about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. Clower, tall and trim with a razor-sharp crew cut and crisp dark uniform, is the training director at the city’s police department. He instructs his colleagues to move a few yards closer to the targets and take aim. The exercise begins again.

Unlike common firearms training in the United States, the highest score doesn’t go to shooters hitting the head and torso, but those placing the most rounds into the lower abdomen, pelvic area and thighs. Hits in these areas — marked green on the silhouette — increase the chances that a human target would survive the shooting.

Had someone told Clower three years ago — he was working as a patrol officer and K-9 handler then — that he would soon find himself in the middle of a heated debate over an innovative use-of-force policy inspired by police training in Israel, he probably would have laughed.

A paradigm shift

About three years ago, LaGrange Police Chief Louis “Lou” Dekmar was getting serious about the concept that he’d first encountered in 2004 during a police exchange trip in Israel, where officers are trained to shoot at non-vital areas such as the legs if the situation allows.

Dekmar remembered the Israeli approach as public outrage over excessive police violence against African Americans continued to build in the US after Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Protestors called for radical change to the way police operated. Law enforcement agencies put a stronger emphasis on de-escalation and the use of non-lethal options, Dekmar says. It was a paradigm shift that also affected firearms training.

Dekmar has been in law enforcement for over 40 years — 26 of those as the top cop in LaGrange, a police department with about 100 sworn officers. With the new use-of-force policy at LaGrange, called Shoot to Incapacitate, the goal became “to stop the threat without taking a life,” he explains — to wound, not kill.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the US, the Israeli-inspired program runs counter to the decades-old use-of-force standards in American policing. Sworn law enforcement officers can use deadly force when they reasonably believe they, or the public, are threatened with serious bodily injury. Lethal force may also be justified when a fleeing felon is believed to pose a significant threat to the public.

American police officers typically aim for “center mass” — the chest and torso. It is the biggest target area and easiest to hit, providing the best chances to stop a threat safely and rapidly, say firearms instructors. But center mass, as well as headshots, also tend to be deadly.

By comparison, Israeli firearm rules are “much more restrictive,” says Robbie Friedmann, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He is the founder of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE), a program that takes senior police officers to Israel and other countries. It’s the program that Dekmar participated in 18 years ago.

In Israel, police officers are trained to use firearms in only two situations, according to Chief Superintendent Evgeny Shteyman, head of the Operational Competency Section at the Training Division of the Israel Police. The first is when officers witness an attack that poses an imminent risk to an officer’s or a civilian’s life, like an active shooter. The second is when a suspect is in the middle of committing a dangerous crime. In the latter, police only target the suspect’s legs.

Another distinction in firearms use is that in Israel, most military and police carry their handguns with a loaded magazine and an empty chamber, requiring them to rack the slide as they draw and point the weapon. The reason behind the practice, known as “Israeli carry,” is to prevent an accidental discharge. In the US, police officers are trained to always carry a chambered — hence live — handgun to avoid any delay during a potentially deadly encounter.

Despite the tactical and technical differences, Shteyman says that both in Israel and the US, the goal is to end a lethal danger, not kill an assailant.

However, Israel’s police have received no small amount of criticism since the start of a Palestinian terror wave that has seen 19 killed since mid-March. Police tactics at the funeral of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh have earned international condemnation, and on May 14, Hamas member Walid a-Sharif died weeks after being admitted to the hospital with a head wound sustained during clashes on the Temple Mount. The source of the wound is disputed.

Back in 2004, Dekmar found the Israeli approach interesting but foreign. “I didn’t think at the time that it was appropriate or practical for the United States, given the context of firearms training in this country,” he recalls. But he kept thinking about it.

Over the next decade, he visited several European countries, including Germany and Spain, and learned that in many police forces, it’s the norm rather than the exception to aim for non-vital areas. He also went back to Israel several times as part of other police exchange programs and in his role as president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP.

And he did research at home. Looking at five years of data, he learned that of the 1,000 people killed during police encounters each year in the US, about 300 — or 25 to 30 percent — carry a blunt or edged weapon. Dekmar found the numbers big enough to justify an additional training protocol, adjusted to the realities of US policing.

Shoot to Incapacitate only applies in very specific situations: When the suspect threatens the life of an officer or innocent bystanders with a deadly weapon that is not a firearm, for example a knife, machete, ax or baseball bat. Other factors play a role, too, such as time to aim, distance to the offender and availability of backup.

The new policy doesn’t replace center mass shots, Dekmar says.

“We simply want to provide our officers with another option, another tool in their duty belt,” he says.

It is up to every single cop to make the call, he adds. “Officers want to use their judgment.”

Dekmar says recent events involving Israeli police haven’t changed how he looks at use-of-force training in Israel, in European and Middle Eastern countries, as well as his own agency’s policy. Training and real-life applications are different scenarios, he continues. Also, not all deadly force situations justify a Shoot to Incapacitate approach.

“Use-of-force incidents are very dynamic, and there are no guarantees of outcomes for the officer or the suspect,” says Dekmar.

‘This is just crazy’

In the summer of 2019, one year before anti-police protests exploded over the violent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Dekmar presented his plan to the agency’s firearms instructors — and was met with disbelief.

Clower was among the skeptics. “When the chief first brought this idea to us, I thought ‘this is just crazy,’” he says. The concept was new and vastly different from anything he had ever learned and practiced as a cop.

Fear is one of the reasons why so many officers are wary of the Shoot to Incapacitate program, says Georgia State University’s Friedmann. Unlike in Israel and most European countries, US police officers are typically alone in their patrol cars. Routine encounters like traffic stops or domestic disturbance calls can quickly escalate into violent confrontations. Per capita, more civilians carry guns in the US than in Israel, and a higher percentage of American cops die in the line of duty.

“Many officers are afraid that their weapon of last defense will be taken away from them,” Friedmann says. “And that is the ability to shoot center mass, with a bullet in the chamber, at a risk that they perceive.”

At the police department in LaGrange, Clower — grudgingly, at first — conducted additional research into the new use-of-force concept and put together a comprehensive training program which is part classroom, part range practice.

Shoot to Incapacitate was rolled out just over a year ago in April 2021. Today, Clower believes the program has a small yet important place in his department’s use-of-force training. But it took a while for his colleagues to warm up to the concept.

As a group, cops are difficult to please, Clower says with a wry smile. “We hate the way it is. And then we bitch about change.”

Hit or miss reactions

Reaction to Shoot to Incapacitate has been mixed outside of LaGrange. So far, attempts to implement police reform on a federal level have failed. Some are surprised that of all places, innovation is happening in the small town of LaGrange, in the conservative south. But since most of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the US are run by counties and municipalities, it’s not unusual for change to be born in local police departments.

LaGrange’s use-of-force policy leaves many US police departments and police associations skeptical.

“The guiding rule of the program is the sanctity of life, and that’s admirable,” says Maj. Oliver Fladrich, the head of administrative services and investigations at the police department in Dunwoody, a metro Atlanta municipality. He participated in the GILEE program to Israel in 2004, the same year as Dekmar.

But Fladrich is also concerned “about the effectiveness and realistic application” in the US. For the new concept to be successful, he says, “a lot depends on the skill level of the individual shooter.” According to US studies, the accuracy of an average officer hitting a moving target in a high-stress situation is between 20 and 50 percent.

Like many of his colleagues, Fladrich argues that the time it would take for officers to aim at a target area smaller than center mass and correct possible misses puts the life of cops and innocent bystanders at risk. Use-of-force encounters typically unfold “in milliseconds,” he says. “And they are highly complex.”

Metro Atlanta’s Dunwoody police sent some of its firearms instructors to LaGrange for a demonstration. After carefully considering the approach, Fladrich says his department decided not to implement the program.

Shteyman points out that the security environments in the US and Israel are significantly different. In Israel, “most cases that demand police officers to use firearms are terror attacks, in which the perpetrator aims to kill as many civilians as quickly as possible.”

The suspect may be wearing a suicide belt, so not aiming center mass is more an on-site tactical response than a policy, adds Shteyman. Officers are trained to shoot either at the terrorist’s leg or the head if there is an imminent danger to other people. The goal, he says, is “to prevent the device from exploding.”

For years, anti-Israel activist groups have accused police delegations to Israel of importing militarized police tactics to the US. In 2018, the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) published a report called “Deadly Exchange.”

According to the report, exchange programs for senior police officers “promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing practices that already exist in both countries.” It further claims that “Israeli training of US law enforcement normalizes an unchecked use of violence in suppressing protests and all displays of citizen discontent.”

JVP, based in California, did not respond to several requests for comment.

The police exchange groups are mainly run by three organizations, including Georgia State University’s GILEE, the program where LaGrange’s Shoot to Incapacitate policy was born. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC, also put together police delegations.

The ADL recently debated ending its law enforcement program over internal concerns that the trips could increase the use of force by American police, according to The Guardian. But the organization decided to keep the program and update its curriculum, says an ADL spokesperson.

GILEE’s Friedmann and other exchange program organizers push back on the attacks by JVP and others, saying the itineraries focus on counterterrorism, community policing and surveillance. “There is no hands-on tactical training,” he says.

Dekmar finds the criticism a “disturbing mischaracterization” of the exchange programs. In particular, his department’s Shoot to Incapacitate policy contradicts the claims made by anti-Israeli groups, he says, because it is a firearms training module that’s designed to increase the likelihood of non-fatal outcomes in potentially fatal encounters.

More than a year into the new use-of-force concept, police in LaGrange have put the new program into practice several times. One early morning in late September 2021, for example, a patrol officer confronted a man carrying a machete in downtown LaGrange. The man did not respond to the cop’s repeated commands to drop the weapon. He raised the machete and charged at the officer. The cop first deployed his taser, and when that didn’t work, drew his gun. The shots hit the man in the lower abdomen and legs. He survived.

While it’s still unclear whether the new use-of-force policy in LaGrange will catch on in police departments across the US, Dekmar expects the program to keep sparking discussion and drawing interest. He’s had about 170 law enforcement officials from Georgia and around the country visiting his agency. Later this year, a delegation of senior police officers from Israel, organized by GILEE, will come to the US — and make a stop in LaGrange.

‘Knowing and using our options’

Back at the firing range, Clower inspects the bullet holes spread across the cardboard silhouettes, then checks them off with a thick black marker. Most officers put their rounds within the desired green target areas.

“The skillset is essentially the same as ever,” says Clower, adding that the new training is as much about decision-making as it is about the shooting technique. “It’s about knowing and using our options.”

According to Shteyman, running a well-rounded firearms program can’t be done only “by training police to shoot at peripheral body parts, but by improving overall firearms competence.” The challenge is to act decisively while minimizing harm.

“Achieving this delicate balance demands great discretion, both during training and in the field,” Shteyman says.

© The Times of Israel / Katja Ridderbusch