The Truth Is Out There
2021 Police Sniper Utilization Survey Available
By Derrick D. Bartlett
What is the average distance of a police sniper shooting in the United States? The generic answer to that question, for at least the last 30 years, has been “around 70 yards.” It has been stated as fact in sniper schools, articles, books, and conversations around the country. When pressed for a source of this information, most people have credited “the FBI’s statistics.”
When the American Sniper Association (ASA) was formed in 2000, one of the first orders of business we decided on was obtaining a copy of those statistics to see how current they were, and to perhaps do our part to update them. We were somewhat amazed to discover the FBI didn’t collect information or statistics specific to police sniper shootings. The report so many snipers, instructors, and authors had been quoting and relying on was, in fact, a myth.
Realizing this information had never been collected, ASA seized upon this as an opportunity to impact the sniper community in a beneficial and positive way. We initiated a project to gather statistical data about police sniper use of force engagements. We developed a survey form that asked the questions we felt were of most interest and importance to sniper teams and administrators. We established the parameters of our survey field regarding the agencies to be involved, time span to be covered, and types of engagements that would qualify as “sniper” shootings. Then, using the labor of a group of dedicated volunteers, we went to work.
Survey Methodology and Criterion
The U.S Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics was asked to provide a current listing of agencies from around the country that maintain a SWAT team. The DOJ’s annual report, “Law Enforcement Management Statistics, Data of Individual State and Local Agencies,” provided an alphabetized listing of 897 agencies to contact.
To call or write each SWAT team, we also needed a listing of each agency with general information about them. The National Public Safety Information Bureau annually publishes the “National Directory of Law Enforcement Administrators,” which provides a complete listing of local, county, state, and federal agencies from around the United States.
Agencies outside of our initial contact schedule were made aware of the survey process through presentations made by ASA personnel at tactical conferences, sniper schools, seminars, and competitions, nationwide. After advising them of the survey and explaining our goals and objectives, interested attendees were given survey forms to complete. Notifications were also made on our website, and in SNIPER, the Snipercraft quarterly newsletter.
Articles explaining the survey process and its goals and objectives were published in several major tactical and law enforcement magazines. As a result of reading the articles, agencies contacted ASA to request forms. By monitoring national news and wire services, we have been made aware of sniper-related incidents occurring around the country during the survey periods. In these cases, we follow up by directly contacting the involved agencies to obtain information.
The result of this dissemination process was that, although our initial contact pool was limited to agencies known to have SWAT teams, many agencies beyond the scope of that group voluntarily participated in the survey after direct contacts with ASA personnel. This, in turn, has led to a more comprehensive and complete survey of tactical teams around the country, by reaching additional teams that would not have been included.
After the data collection phase of this project was completed, time was invested in verification of the information gathered. Many of the agencies contacted in the initial phase were contacted again to clarify vague or conflicting information. Hundreds of additional man-hours were spent searching newspaper archives in attempts to find story details about most of the documented incidents.
This project was ambitious at the outset, and proved arduous in the execution, but we were proud to finally produce the Police Sniper Utilization Report. This report was a significant accomplishment and is unprecedented in its scope. A comprehensive study of the use and effectiveness of police snipers in the United States exists for the first time in history.
The finished product is not a dry recitation of numbers and boring bar graphs. Instead, we have compiled data and relevant anecdotal information, which will prove useful in understanding how snipers have been employed over the past three decades. Beyond knowing the average distance of police sniper shootings, you will find other, more important, operational information. For instance, the longest and shortest distances encountered. The breakdown shows how many have occurred in daylight, as opposed to low light. You will see how often shots have passed through intermediate barriers, as well as how many have passed through their intended target. Many more operational circumstances are recorded and quantified here, as well. The data in this report gives administrators, snipers, and team leaders a clearer picture of real-world sniper operations. It has also helped dispel several misconceptions about snipers. We hope this information will assist you and your SWAT team leadership in structuring training, buying equipment, and planning deployments.
Highlights and Lessons Learned
Only shots that were the result of “a deliberate long rifle shot, by a person assigned to the sniper position, against a designated human target,” are recorded as a sniper shot. This excluded shots by patrol, entry, or perimeter officers, or shots taken with handguns or sub machineguns. It also excludes shots on animals, cars, or other objects. We did receive report forms detailing shootings in these categories.
- To date, we have collected reports of over 450 police sniper shootings, occurring between 1984 and 2020.
- Not surprisingly, the .308 has been the most common caliber used by snipers. Others employed have included .223, 30-06, 300WM, and .338.
- Contrary to common beliefs, less than half of the persons shot were struck in the head. Most suspects were hit in the body or their extremities.
- Much of traditional sniper training has been limited to prone, bipod, 100-yard shooting drills. A fact verified by the report is sniper shootings are likely to be done from a variety of distances, and seldom from a prone bipod position. In fact, documentation shows nearly half of the snipers have had to utilize standing, sitting, kneeling, squatting, and improvised positions. Hopefully, this knowledge will inspire teams to incorporate position shooting into their training programs in the future. It certainly removes the most common excuses to avoid doing so.
- Nearly 98% of the recorded police sniper shootings have taken place at distances inside of 200 yards.
- Night-vision equipment has played only a limited role in actual shootings to date. However, there is a demonstrated need for teams to purchase and train with night vision. Nearly 45% of the shootings documented occurred during low-light hours.
- We have documented dozens of instances where two or more snipers fired simultaneous shots at a single suspect. However, none of the reports received recorded sniper engagements on multiple suspects.
The Real-World Sniper
There is nothing contained in this report that could be viewed as detrimental to law enforcement agencies. Since no agencies or persons are identified in the report, it will not expose any participating agency to future litigation. Therefore, we aren’t overly afraid of it inevitably making its way into the hands of attorneys. However, the report carries with it an implied warning for every agency reading it. We have clearly documented what snipers are facing in real-world operations. Knowing what snipers are really doing should become the framework for buying equipment and designing training to prepare your team for the realities of the job. From this day forward, if a team chooses to do otherwise, they do so at their peril. This report will help quantify the standards all teams will be expected to meet. Every sniper, on every sniper team, needs to read these reports.
A Living Document
The survey remains a work in progress. We know as soon as we finish collecting available data for a specific timeframe, others will have occurred. Still others have gone unreported in our prior collection attempts. We continue to hope agencies that initially balked at participating will be convinced of the legitimacy of the project after seeing the series of reports.
Nothing contained in it is meant to critique or second-guess the actions of any of the snipers or agencies represented in this document, and it is not presented that way. It is important the tactical community does not shy away from taking a critical look at its history and pay attention to the lessons waiting to be learned. Where applicable, we have identified learning points found in specific incidents. In most cases, the responsible sniper team provides them. Others are drawn from objective analysis of the facts of the incident. The report narrative also contains training recommendations based on those lessons learned.
In the tactical world, information has incredible value. Ours is a profession involving split-second decisions that can save lives, and reliable information can literally make the difference between life and death on an operation. However, information is useless unless it is shared. What is contained in the report is information agencies have agreed to share with the rest of the tactical community, with the hope that it will make your job safer and easier. If you learn nothing else from reading the report, we hope you will come away with an understanding of how important it is to share your experience with others.
Although the latest report is completed, the process is not. This is meant to be a living document. We encourage agencies to help us maintain current data by reporting any sniper-involved shootings to the ASA, as soon as it is practical. We understand the issues raised by ongoing investigations and pending litigation. Our need is for statistical information. The information requested on the survey form is basic, non-judgmental details contained in an incident report. We don’t need investigative information that could be subpoenaed or otherwise used in a civil case. The individual officer or agency involved is not part of the database and neither is identified in the final report. Most agencies around the country routinely provide Uniform Crime Reports to the FBI. What we are asking for is the same sort of diligence in reporting any sniper-involved shootings that occur in your jurisdiction. All data and information collected will be considered sensitive and will not be distributed to the public.
A Sniper Utilization Survey Form can be found on the American Sniper Association website, www.americansniper.org. If you have any questions or would like information on how to receive a copy of the report, please contact ASA at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 863-385-7835. Limited copies of the 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019 Editions are still available.
Derrick Bartlett, President, American Sniper Association, is a 28-year veteran of law enforcement. He retired from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, where he served as a SWAT/sniper. Twenty-two years in special operations have provided him with opportunities to train with several elite units and renowned instructors. Derrick is a founding member and the current president of the American Sniper Association. His peers respect him as an authority in the field of police sniper operations and training. As the managing director of Snipercraft, Inc., he has provided instruction for snipers and supervisors for hundreds of police agencies throughout the United States. He is a committee member of the NTOA Sniper Section. He is the author of the books, Snipercraft: The Art of the Police Sniper, Staring at the Crosshairs, and Riding the Recoil. His articles on police sniping have been published in numerous national magazines.