Knowing What’s Behind Your Target

Knowing What’s Behind Your Target

A discussion on the importance of knowing what lies behind your target during a self-defense encounter.

On December 23, 2021, Los Angeles police officer William Dorsey Jones Jr. shot and killed 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta, who was hiding from a criminal assaulting a patron of the Burlington store in North Hollywood. The officer’s video camera was on, and it clearly caught officer Jones not only shooting the man who was beating a female customer with a bicycle lock, but also killing Orellana-Peralta.

The video shows Jones firing three shots from his AR-15 rifle, apparently striking the criminal suspect, but also at least one shot missing and hitting Orellana-Peralta through the dressing room wall.

There was no indication of a dressing room right behind the criminal, and in all appearances, the death of Orellana-Peralta was accidental.

But not so fast.

While the shooting of the criminal suspect has the appearance of a justifiable use of force, was striking Orellana-Peralta truly an accident? For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to take the side of the family who will undoubtedly be suing officer Jones and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

Before you dismiss this discussion as not applicable to the armed citizen because it involved a police officer, I can clearly see an armed citizen potentially doing the same exact thing under the same circumstances, with the same exact legal consequences, but with a concealed carry handgun, not a rifle.

Unforeseen Casualties

So, where’s the problem?

The problem—from my perspective as a firearms instructor and expert witness and taking the side of the plaintiffs for sake of argument—is that the LAPD likely trained officer Jones to perform exactly as he did, resulting in the result we saw. In watching the video, officer Jones fired three shots in under a second, start to finish. And if the suspect had been standing still and facing officer Jones, in all likelihood it would’ve turned out fine, as all shots likely would’ve hit the suspect. But, the suspect was sideways at the instant the shots were fired, and he was moving, bent over and starting to fall down as the shots were fired, resulting in at least one miss.

Was the outcome the fault of officer Jones? Not if he had been trained to shoot a multi-shot burst in those circumstances.

I bring this up because I see this occurring all the time in police training. I own a shooting range that leases time to local police agencies, and while I don’t normally observe their training, I certainly listen to it. It’s not uncommon to hear this exact type of shooting sequence with extremely rapid fire (such as three shots in less than a second). And while the AR-15 rifle doesn’t recoil all that much, it does recoil, with that recoil exacerbated by a poor hold on the gun.

You see, the AR-15 also has what looked like an ACOG optical sight mounted on top of the carrying handle. To sight through that optic mounted that way, a person must raise his head, resulting in a poor if non-existent cheek weld—a good cheek weld being a necessary component to shooting rabidly and accurately.

Additionally, shooting that quickly was not called for in that scenario. A single, well-aimed single shot with appropriate assessment would’ve resulted in the same outcome (suspect down, not assaulting anyone), and Orellana-Peralta would be alive today. And at that distance, could’ve been accomplished in the same if not faster time.

If I were a plaintiff’s expert in this case, I’d be delving into the LAPD training protocols and see if officer Jones had received recent training in shooting at moving targets. It’s likely not. I’ve yet to see a police agency address this very important facet of firearms training.

Way back in the mid-1980s, I was the police firearms instructor for a small (six-person) department, and our training then had consisted of standing on a firing line and shooting a police qualification. Then, I learned of the Federal District Court Case Popow v. Margate (Popow v. City of Margate, 476 F. Supp. 1237 (D.N.J. 1979).

In that case, it was found that the City of Margate was likely culpable for a civil right violation, for failure to train. The Court stated:

“The only continuing training was shooting instruction approximately every six months at a range in Atlantic County. However, there was no instruction on shooting at a moving target, night shooting, or shooting in residential areas. Margate is almost completely residential.”

The Fine Training Line

This case will come down to an issue of training. If the LAPD has been training their officers on moving targets, in rapidly evolving, stressful circumstances, then they likely will avoid being found negligently culpable in this case. And if officer Jones can prove he was simply following his training, he too will not be held culpable.

But if the LAPD wasn’t training their officers to meet contemporary risks found on the street and wasn’t teaching officers that every shooting situation was different and a three-shot burst wasn’t the standard response when shooting the AR-15 rifle, then they have a problem.

The plaintiff attorneys are already circulating, ready to swoop in and file suit.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2022 CCW special issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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