LAGRANGE, Ga. — A fundamental tenet of police training in the United States is that officers who fire their weapons in response to a deadly threat should always aim for "center mass," generally the chest. That's the biggest target and so the easiest to hit. But a bullet that finds its mark there is likely to kill.

The police chief in this picturesque Deep South town says there’s a better approach. Louis Dekmar, who has run the LaGrange Police Department for 26 years, is training his officers to shoot for the legs, pelvis or abdomen in situations where they think it could stop a deadly threat without killing the source of that threat. Doing so, he believes, could make a difference in the more than 200 fatal police shootings nationwide every year that involve individuals armed with something other than a gun.

“Every time we avoid taking a life,” Dekmar says, “we maintain trust.”

The chief’s “Shoot to Incapacitate” program has drawn interest from academics who say it merits further study. In the national law enforcement community, however, it has elicited harsh, widespread criticism.

Other police leaders in Georgia found the idea so controversial that they made it a focus of their annual conference in August, flying in nine experts to discuss the pros and cons. One group’s executive director will soon release a position paper advising departments throughout the state not to follow Dekmar’s lead.

While such a policy might be supported by the public, explained John B. Edwards of the Peace Officers Association of Georgia, most agencies would find it impossible to implement. “It’s opened Pandora’s box,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Dekmar has championed the unorthodox in LaGrange.

In the late 1990s, he instituted mandatory audio recordings of officer-citizen interactions. In 2004, he began sending his entire force to crisis intervention training so that everyone would know how to de-escalate encounters with people affected by mental illness. In 2009, he purchased body cameras for his officers, and in 2017 he made national headlines for apologizing for his agency’s role in a 1940 lynching — by all accounts, the first time a Southern police chief had done so.

Town leaders have consistently invested in the department during his tenure.

“We’re very proud of the work Chief Dekmar has done here,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said early this month. “He’s a professional with high standards, and we fully support his effort to explore new options.”

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The basics of deadly force training in U.S. law enforcement have not changed for decades, though the practice once termed “shoot to kill” now is called “shoot to stop the threat.” The prime goal is to keep officers safe.

It was in Israel during a 2004 police exchange that Dekmar first saw how agencies elsewhere practiced shooting beyond center mass to incapacitate suspects — aiming for areas of the body like the legs and hips. He was intrigued but thought the idea would never work in cities back home, partly because so many Americans have guns.

Over the next decade, though, he traveled to other countries and learned about similar policies that allowed police to shoot at nonvital areas in certain circumstances. By 2019, amid continued upheaval over police killings in the United States, Dekmar decided to look more closely at the approach for LaGrange. His training sergeant was dubious.

“I thought, ‘This is stupid,’ ” Joshua Clower, 40, recounted recently, standing beneath a canopy of pines on the agency’s gun range. He had hoped the chief would drop the idea, but when that didn’t happen, Clower grudgingly began research, mostly seeking to debunk it. He called a respected doctor in town who thought the strategy had promise. He reviewed police shooting videos that showed chest shots did not always immediately stop a threat. Some people were able to keep advancing, while those hit in the leg or pelvis usually couldn’t.

Though specialized units such as SWAT teams already used this tactic, Clower could find no department that applied it to line officers. Over 12 months of research, he and Dekmar looked at data on the approximately 1,000 people fatally shot each year, a disproportionate number of them Black. In roughly a quarter of cases, they had held knives, screwdrivers or other items that might have given officers more time to maneuver. Those were the instances Dekmar wanted to address.

The two men assembled a 503-page document titled “LaGrange Police Department Incapacitation Shots,” and a training team created a program that included classroom instruction, videos of police shootings, various scenarios and firearms testing at a gun range. To pass, officers had to accurately place 80 percent of 20 shots to various body parts on color-coded silhouettes.

The department began training its 94 officers in February. Clower, now a convert, stressed the intent was to provide each with a backup option for threatening situations — one less likely to cause death. This wasn’t about Annie Oakley-style sharpshooting, he said, just a shift of aim if an officer had to take a shot. It would never be required policy, he added.

The skepticism was near-universal initially. Attitudes have since changed.

“We need to try new things,” said Bryant Mosley, 31, one of LaGrange’s few Black officers, who has degrees in psychology and counseling. He decided to go into law enforcement after George Floyd died last year under the knee of a Minneapolis officer — specifically to help transform law enforcement — and he joined Dekmar’s department because of the chief’s reputation as an innovator.

“This is change,” Mosley said. “And change makes people uncomfortable.”

In late September, the town had its first police-involved shooting since the training began. Officer David Horseman, 29, confronted a man wielding a machete downtown, first firing his taser and then, when that proved ineffective, raising his gun in his other hand and firing.

According to the department, the man was hit in the abdomen and legs. Horseman remembers targeting his pelvic area and planning to “walk” the bullets up toward his chest as needed.

“He fell to the ground before I got to center mass,” Horseman said, “and that’s essentially what saved his life.”

The officer went home that night grateful for the outcome. “I don’t want to be the reason anyone dies,” he said. “I want to be able to say I did everything I could to prevent that.”

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LaGrange, population 31,000, is anchored by a pretty town square and columned antebellum houses. It’s about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta in the middle of the Bible and football belts, and people want to know what church you attend and what team you root for. The local newspaper prints a daily Bible verse below the weather forecast.

Dekmar grew up in Oregon, spent the first 10 years of his police career in Wyoming and was hired as La Grange’s top cop in 1995. He doesn’t like the term “law enforcement” and instead tells people he works in “police services.” Less than 10 percent of what officers do results in arrest, Dekmar notes, and he says police should emphasize their role as helpers. What elsewhere would be called a SWAT team is an “Emergency Services Unit” here.

The chief has a no-profanity rule, a relative rarity among police departments. Cursing in front of a member of the public will get officers a mandatory day’s suspension and lost pay. And he doesn’t like officers wearing sunglasses while interacting with the community.

“It’s intimidating,” said Dekmar, who at 66 is trim and polite. Despite three decades in Georgia, he still has little trace of a Southern accent.

He tells his officers he has their backs, as long as their intentions are good and they follow his policies. “I can’t talk pretty enough to cover for bad officers,” he said.

In a community that today is 51 percent Black and 42 percent White, Dekmar has participated in some of its town-funded efforts to address race. During a trust-building program, he became friends with teacher Ernest Ward, a former president of the local branch of the NAACP, and Ward often served as a go-between for Black residents and the chief. When complaints of police mistreatment arose, Ward said the chief was always quick to invite him over to view body-camera footage of the interaction.

“If you call him and say there’s a concern, he stops immediately and looks into it,” Ward said. “He’s earned the trust of this community.”

Dekmar’s initiative has not been controversial in LaGrange, yet the response from national law enforcement circles remains mostly negative and sometimes brutal.

“This bird brain chief is going to get someone killed,” one person wrote on the department’s Facebook page.

A neighboring police department posted a link there to its own recruiting video and told officers it was hiring: “Come to an agency where you are appreciated, valued, respected, and are able to do your job.”

Two months ago, Dekmar was in the hotel banquet room when those assembled experts critiqued his program for more than two hours before an audience of 150 officers. Several on the panel dwelled on the reality that cops are usually bad shots in stressful situations. Various studies place their hit rates between 20 to 50 percent.

Eric Daigle, a former officer and attorney who is now a law enforcement consultant in Connecticut, said that “shoot to incapacitate” adds even more complexity to situations in which officers must react quickly to protect their own lives. In that moment, he said, the policy forces them to decide whether their most deadly weapon should be used in a less deadly way.

“One thing we know for sure is that’s too much for a human being to process in a split second,” Daigle said. Best to keep it consistent and simple.

Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina, had a different take. Though he has gone through the LaGrange training, he remains hesitant about it and especially uncertain that it would work for other agencies.

Policing in the United States remains highly localized, he noted: “Policing in a democracy means that a community gets to define what ‘good’ policing looks like, and that definition may vary a bit from place to place.”

Still, he isn’t dismissing what Dekmar is doing. After controversial police shootings that end in death, people often ask why an officer couldn’t have shot the person in a leg or arm. Departments are quick to recite a litany of reasons. Stoughton wonders if it’s time to reexamine those.

Preservation of human life should be the highest priority in policing, Stoughton stressed in an interview after the conference, and that alone should cause leaders to examine LaGrange’s policy with an open mind.

“Sometimes policing is its own worst enemy,” he said. “Chief Dekmar is very comfortable with his base of support locally, and that gives him the freedom to challenge the policing status quo. He’s willing to be disruptive.”

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