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Opinions of Tuesday, 17 August 2021

Columnist: John Egbeazien Oshodi

Accidental shootings: Causes, prevention and policy

File photo of a police officer File photo of a police officer

Accidental shootings by the police and other law enforcement officers have been happening in recent years at agencies, small and large, and at all levels in various countries including African countries like Nigeria.

For far too long, the rate of “accidental” shootings of civilians by the police and other law enforcement officers in Nigeria remains very troubling. The latest is the one that happened a few days ago when a teenage girl was reportedly fatally injured during a wedding ceremony in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State by a drunken official of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps who was hired to provide security.

A few months ago, in front of the old Ebonyi State Government House, Abakaliki, a police officer was reported to have accidentally shot his colleague, while servicing his gun which accidentally released bullets from its chambers, hitting the victim.

Generally, accidental firearm discharge has caused hundreds of injuries to bystanders, officers, suspects and, sometimes, they have caused deaths.

Law enforcement agencies have different terms for these shootings, including “accidental,” “negligent,” or “unintentional” discharges.

Inadequate training of law enforcement agents remains an issue. It appears that officers are most competent with their guns immediately after graduating from a police academy.

The incidents in which a gun goes off and the officer did not intend it to, could include when they are cleaning or unloading a weapon or surging with adrenaline while reacting to a call. Some shootings occur because of involuntary muscle reflexes, substance, or alcohol influence, or because the officer simply slipped.

It should be known that countless law enforcement officers safely perform their duties every day, it is a small number who are involved in accidental shootings. As such, they are preventable.

Experts have noted that 99 out of 100 times, there is nothing wrong with the gun. It’s the person carrying it.

Unintentional shootings usually lead to two investigations: one by an outside organisation to determine whether charges should be filed, and an internal review, to see if any policy was violated and punishment, such as suspension or even dismissal, is appropriate. A practice Nigeria must adopt for fairness and transparency’s sake.

Guns don’t go off by themselves, as experts have shown that they are all caused by a degree of negligence because at some point, the officer violated one or more of the four universal guns safety rules: Assume all guns are loaded; always point the muzzle in a safe direction; keep your finger off the trigger; and be sure of your target and what is beyond it.

There is a need to set standards for police/law enforcement officers’ shooting qualifications. There is a need for federal and state regulations mandating the amount of firearms training officers must receive at the police academy or once they graduate.

In some cases, accidental shootings can result when an officer is hyped up due to adrenaline, severe anxiety, under severe stress, or substance effect which can impair officers’ hearing and vision and even skew their perception of time. In some cases, drugs, or fatigue (e.g., reduced eye-hand coordination); firearm design (e.g., single- and other human mistake (e.g., skipping a safety step); result in shooting errors.

Firearm accident is not only a criminal justice issue but also a public health risk. A comprehensive approach is necessary to reduce the burden of firearm-related injuries and deaths on individuals, officers, families, communities, and society in general. Strategies to reduce firearm accidents will require psychological inputs.

Psychologists should counsel officers on the risk of being careless with firearms in the home, crowds, when around people with mental illnesses, and when the officer is under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other substances as they are known to increase the risk of accidentally harming others or oneself.

After graduation from academy, there is a need for continued and routine officers’ training, random testing for alcohol, drugs, and other substances and all law enforcement training schools should incorporate firearm violence prevention into their curricula.

Due to post-shooting traumatic reactions in many officers, psychological testing and possible psychological support or treatment should be considered, as well as evaluation for fitness for continued service as an officer. In fact, law enforcement bodies need to have a policy of sending officers for mandatory counseling and evaluation after involvement in a line-of-duty shooting or other shooting incident of any kind in order to determine the psychological impact of the shooting on the officer’s overall mental health and their ability to continue perform law enforcement duties especially in public.