I can think of several incidents where homeowners have been shot after being mistaken as the bad guy by responding officers. There is a recent case with good video and documentation so I chose it as an example of what can go wrong.
June 14, 2019, in Greenville, South Carolina
The incident begins just before midnight when the Sheriff's Department dispatch center gets a call from an alarm monitoring service. The representative of the monitoring service tells the call center that they received an activation inside a residence. There is some confusion as to the nature of the activation.
Initially, it is believed that it is some sort of panic or intrusion alarm. Later we find out it is an accidental medical-alert type, panic alarm activation from inside the residence.
Around midnight, a single officer arrives on the scene and heads up to the front door. The front porch is well lit and there are clear sidelight windows on either side of the front door. The officer rings the front doorbell and likely knocked on the door based on the homeowner's initial, spontaneous statement.
The officer is on the porch approximately 5 feet from the door when a figure is seen through the left sidelight window of the door. It is clear that the person inside has a firearm in their hand. At this point, the door is closed and there is no verbal communication between the deputy and the person inside the home.
Things Continue to Snowball in a Bad Way
The officer shines his flashlight at the person inside. The deputy says it is at this point the person inside points the gun at him. The officer draws his firearm, moves to the left side of the window seeking cover, as he fires two rounds at the person inside.
The video isn't completely clear on if the homeowner pointed the gun at the officer, but the homeowner doesn't seem to refute the officer when he says that he shot him because he [homeowner] pointed a gun at him.
After backing up to what the officer believes to be a safe place, he shouts commands at the homeowner. It is here where the officer finds out that the person he shot is the homeowner, and the homeowner finds out that the person he thought was a prowler, is a deputy.
The homeowner will survive his injuries and the deputy is cleared of violating any department policy or statutory law.
Please avoid the temptation of assigning ultimate blame to one party or the other. That has already been determined, and no amount of moral outrage heals gunshot wounds. The correct thing to do is to focus on what happened and what can be done better in the future.
We can't control what law enforcement learns from this incident, but as armed homeowners, we need to identify things that lessen the likelihood of this happening to us.
What Can We Do About Our Response?
First, do you have a monitored alarm or medical alert system? If you do remember that an accidental activation can happen and law enforcement officers (LEO's) can be dispatched even if you haven't spoken with the monitoring service. Additionally, officers can go to the wrong address or can be dispatched to the home based on a neighbor's observations.
I can remember responding to several calls in the middle of the night from citizens who said their neighbor's door is wide open and they are concerned. So even if you don't have an alarm, don't rule out the fact that an officer has come to check on you.
In this case, the front porch was lit, but the homeowner still couldn't identify the deputy. The deputy's use of his flashlight likely made it difficult, if not impossible for the homeowner to identify him as a deputy. So it doesn't mean overhead lights on the porch ensure proper identification, but it's reasonable to conclude that they can help.
The homeowner came to the door with the gun exposed in his hand. This may seem like an appropriate way to approach the front door. Especially if you hear knocking or the doorbell rings in the dead of night. Even without sidelight windows around your door, LEO's still may see you walking to the door, a firearm in hand.
The LEO may not be on the porch, rather off to the side looking through a front window for movement. I am not blaming the homeowner for approaching the door this way, however, it factored into what ultimately happened.
This is one of the reasons I do not advise sneaking around a dark house with a firearm. If you hear someone pounding on the door, your response probably doesn't have to be surreptitious. Having the firearm drawn and behind the back or in a holster is less likely to be perceived as a threat by an officer, and still provides a fast response if necessary.
Also, remember you don't have to go directly to the door. You can stay in a place of safety, observe the front door and communicate, which I'll cover below.
Lighting is your friend. Sure, turning on an inside light illuminates us, but I think in context it is a benefit. I have looked at hundreds of cases where guns were used in and around homes. What I have found is that absent something like premeditated murder, bad guy's don't knock on doors and then shoot people through the closed door or adjacent window. Gunfights that occur at the threshold are usually a result of the homeowner trying to close the door after initially opening it to see who was there.
On the flip-side, there far too many instances of people shooting family members accidentally. The reason is almost always that they couldn't identify the person they were shooting at because it was too dark. We must identify what we are going to shoot at, and statistically, that person at your door is likely to be someone who doesn't need to be shot. It pays to give yourself time and light to decide who you're pulling the trigger on. Ideally, I have a lit hallway in front of my front door and I am observing it from a safe place. If someone does gain entry I can identify them as a bad guy, vs my child unexpectedly coming home to visit from college or getting home late or all the other reasons non-threats are shot.
All of these things are small things that, if done differently may have had a factor in producing a different ending.
A Simple and Effective Way This Could Have Ended Differently Would be to …
For the deputy, continuous announcements indicating he was an LEO may have caused a different response from the homeowner. This isn't to say that anyone pounding on your door and claiming to be an LEO should cause you to drop your guard. But if there was some confusion as to who was outside, 2 minutes and a 911 call would have likely done the trick.
The homeowner doesn't lose any tactical advantage by announcing loudly something like “I am the homeowner, I have a gun. I don't know who you are and I am calling 911. Don't come into my home.” He could do this from a position of cover inside the home and wait for any response from the person outside.
In this case, he had another person in the home who could be calling 911 while this unfolds. If you are the only one home, having 911 on the line while you're issuing commands can only help. Ultimately the verbal communication between the deputy and homeowner and identification should have occurred before the shooting, not after.
Don't forget that video doorbells/cameras are not expensive and are a great tool. Often you not only see what is going on outside your door but can communicate with anyone there. I use these and think they are invaluable.
Again, this article isn't to assign blame here or there. And you may believe that you should be able to walk around inside your home with a firearm in any manner you so choose. You would be absolutely right, but it doesn't matter much to your family if you end up being shot and killed by mistake.
We can't control other people's actions, so we can't rely on everyone else to do what is right. We can control our own actions and do whatever we can to choose to do those things that are beneficial. Your armed response to that, middle of the night, knock at the door should be worked out now, and not when the incident presents itself.
If you're interested in learning more about how you can better defend yourself and your family inside your home, check out our Complete Home Defense course that is available for download or DVD.
I have decided to include the Critical Incident Community Briefing video which includes the video from the deputy's body-worn camera. Be advised that there are several instances of vulgar language and the homeowner's injuries appear on the video.