Law Enforcement Snipers – Asset or Liability



Reducing Liability Exposure through the use of Select Personnel,

Professional Training and Superior Weapons Systems

By Mark V. Lonsdale

    While individuals and agencies give serious consideration to selecting sniper rifles and equipment during the development process, the same level of consideration is not given to the importance of professional instruction and training. Even when equipped with the best sniper weapons systems, deploying snipers who are unskilled or poorly trained could not only lead to tragedy, it could open an agency up to charges of negligence and the resultant costly litigations.

However, in this modern litigious society, even the best training and equipment does not shield an agency or individual sniper from years of litigation. Case in point – the FBI incident at Ruby Ridge, in August 1992, when the wife of Randy Weaver was shot by a highly trained HRT sniper. This questionable shooting was the result of modified rules of engagement that were issued to the FBI snipers before they deployed into the woods around the Weaver cabin.  After reportedly being approved and signed-off by headquarters the snipers were instructed that, “if any adult in the compound is observed with a weapon after the surrender announcement is made, deadly force can and should be employed to neutralize the individual. If any adult male is observed with a weapon prior to the announcement, deadly force can and should be employed.”

This was tantamount to a “shoot to kill” order as opposed to the standard use of deadly force in “defense of life only” shooting policy used by most agencies. The result was years of investigation, litigation and finger pointing most of which focused on the sniper when it should probably have been directed at the bureaucracy and command personnel.


Another problem is the failure of command to understand or appreciate the capabilities of the snipers. Military snipers have suffered under a long history of being misused by commanders unfamiliar with their unique abilities, and there are cases where law enforcement snipers have been assigned to traffic duty and outer perimeter by equally uninformed incident commanders. Even though a sniper element can be deployed in a variety of roles on tactical operations – for example, as part of the assault group, perimeter security, or prisoner reception – snipers usually have very specific tasks to perform. These are primarily centered around observation & reporting and, if necessary, engagement of a target with precision fire.

Whether police or military, the snipers operate under a set of conditions that leave very little room for error. Mistakes can have tragic results, so any deficiencies in equipment or training will prove to be a major liability exposure for the individuals and agencies involved.


Every aspect of sniper operations, from command & control to equipment and training, must reflect currently accepted national standards and procedures for the judicious use of deadly force in a long rifle capacity. The days of sending out some minimally trained deputy with a deer rifle to serve as SWAT sniper are long gone. Any damage to person or property, resulting from that officer’s actions, directly or indirectly, will have the ambulance chasing lawyers licking their lips in anticipation of their day in court or a fat settlement check.

Before an agency gets into the SWAT or sniper business, the administration and command staff should be prepared to commit adequate time and funding to professionally train and equip the team. Black tactical uniforms and submachine guns do not make a SWAT team – even though many smaller agencies continue to deploy all-volunteer SWAT teams and snipers, with little to no administrative or financial support, and equally weak standards and training.

Developing a professional tactical capability requires significant financial commitment on the part of the agency, not just for the initial equipment purchases but also for professional basic training, weekly team training, operational overtime, a suitable training facility, and considerable amounts of ammunition.

The following represents several of the more obvious potential liability exposures for an agency utilizing snipers.

Potential Exposures:

  1. Unqualified or poorly trained long riflemen (“Hughie and his deer rifle”)
  2. Sub-standard Selection & Qualification Requirements, or no written standards at all
  3. Sub-standard Initial Basic Training
  4. Inferior Weapons Systems more suited to hunting than tactical operations
  5. Inferior Ammunition that is not “match grade”
  6. Poor Inter- and Intra-team Communications
  7. Lack of Training Time (One morning per month is not enough)
  8. Lack of frequent Documented Training
  9. Lack of Written Policies, Procedures (SOPs) and Rules of Engagement (ROE)
  10. Undocumented Individual Qualification Shoots (if any at all)
  11. Unrealistic Training usually under ideal conditions on a 100-yard target range
  12. Unrealistic Targets (Bullseye or benchrest targets at 100 yards)
  13. No Through-medium Shooting (Windows / Glass doors / Barricades)
  14. No Moving Target training
  15. Unscientific approach to Equipment and Ammunition Selection and Testing
  16. Lack of Critical Decision-making Shoot / No Shoot Drills & Scenarios


Over the past decades we have had “assigned snipers” turn-up at STTU sniper matches with the cheapest ammo available, no data log books, and virtually no basic marksmanship training or skills. They had received no formal training before being assigned the sniper’s slot on the SWAT team, and the only practice they had had consisted of 20 rounds per month, at 100 yards, from a bench-rest or prone position with a bipod. They seldom if ever trained in low light conditions or at night; never under less than ideal conditions like wind or rain; seldom at close-proximity hostage-taker targets; and never through a glass window into a realistic structure.

The concept that training must replicate reality, within the bounds of safety and reason, is not new in either law enforcement or military. Further more, in wrongful-death litigations, failure to document satisfactory levels of performance under a variety of realistic training conditions, can only serve to damage the reputation of the sniper team, the agency, the city, or the county that employs them.

Sniper Urban


A well-trained, competent sniper team can be a significant asset on most tactical operations. Two advantages of deploying snipers are that they should be able utilize their stalking and concealment skills to move undetected in a scouting mode; or neutralize a treat at long-range before exposing the assault rescue team to hostile fire. In addition, because of their specialized training, equipment, and long-range optics, snipers can supply the following:

  1. Scouting & Reporting
  2. Stronghold / Breacher Intelligence
  3. Suspect Descriptions / Observations
  4. Constant up-dates on the Situation
  5. Approach Commentary & Security for the Assault Element
  6. The Long Range Option (one well placed shot)
  7. The Low Light / Night Option (if equipped with night vision scopes)
  8. Superior Penetration on Barricades (heavy caliber .308 Win. or .300 Win Mag.)


There are also several limitations to the use of long rifles in a traditional law enforcement sniper role – one being that they are of little value on operations that take place inside buildings  where the inside distances are too short for the powerful optics and heavy calibers. To compensate, snipers equipped with light caliber scoped carbines such as the M4/AR15 can be deployed to dominate long corridors or large rooms, conference halls, and warehouse storage areas.

Snipers are not the solution to all of the problems confronting an Incident Commander. There are times when snipers cannot, or should not be deployed. Before deploying the sniper element, there are still several factors or limitations that must be considered. These include:

  1. The distance from the nearest cover to the stronghold or suspect location
  2. Suitable field of observation or fire from the snipers’ position
  3. The ability of the snipers to observe the suspect’s movements
  4. The snipers’ difficulty or inability to relocate quickly in a fluid tactical scenario
  5. The potential for over penetration on soft targets or thin walls
  6. The agency’s policy and rules of engagement in engaging suspects known to be dangerous but not immediately threatening life
  7. The fact that executing the Sniper Option will still require an immediate follow-up assault to secure the safety of the hostages
  8. The time and budgetary obligation to ensure that snipers receive frequent specialized, documented training and qualifications


Apart from the fact that a sniper’s bullet cannot be called back, and the results are often terminal, the SWAT or Sniper Group commander should keep the above points in mind when considering the sniper option. Most tactical operations benefit from the deployment of snipers in some role, but an in-depth discussion as to the advantages or disadvantages of snipers for each particular scenario is beyond scope of this article.

It should be remembered that the snipers are just one of many “options” in the incident commander’s proverbial toolbox. The tactical decision process of where and when to deploy the sniper elements will be made by the Incident Commander and/or the Sniper Group Commander. However, in many cases, since the snipers will often have the best picture of the unfolding situation, it will be up to the individual snipers to “advise” the command element on how they could be best utilized once he or she has moved up into a position of advantage.

 Sniper Counter Sniper by Mark V Lonsdale


Sniper training is structured around the two primary roles of the sniper:

  1. Precision medium to long-range rifle shooting
  2. Surveillance and intelligence reporting

In shooting, the law enforcement SWAT or hostage rescue sniper aims to stop with certainty the life-threatening activity of the target (subject). This is often achieved with one well-placed high-velocity round to the target’s head, heart or spine from 50-150 yards – a very different situation to the high-speed, close-quarter, self-defense gunfights of the street cop.

To have the sniper skills and confidence to execute this type of shot requires many hours of disciplined training and coaching. When considered in light of all the other job-related skills of the sniper, it becomes apparent that an effective sniper program is one that requires time, energy, and dedication on the part of the snipers, and financial commitment on the part of the agency.

A basic military sniper school will usually run at least six to eight weeks and the FBI was sending their HRT snipers through the 8-week Marine Corps Sniper School at Quantico, just to lay the foundation for future training.

In contrast, the average law enforcement sniper school is usually concluded in a barely sufficient one or two weeks – since that is often all the time and funding that an agency has allocated for training. The only reason that a basic police sniper school can be condensed into two weeks is that there is virtually no long-range shooting, range estimation, wind reading, or prolonged stalking exercises, as found in the military schools. Training concentrates on short to medium range shooting, reporting skills and positive target recognition.

A “basic” school is exactly what it implies – merely a basis or foundation for future training and experience. It is not possible to fully train a sniper from scratch in one or two weeks, especially a special operations sniper tasked with complex hostage rescue scenarios. So, to reduce the need for longer sniper programs, and to maintain the efficiency and intensity of the training, it is essential that the instructor have good raw material to work with. This requires a professional approach to the selection of sniper candidates who already possess above average marksmanship skills. Further investment training should be for those who have demonstrated a genuine aptitude for the mission.


The topic of sniper weapons systems is a separate discussion, but sufficient to state here that even the best-trained snipers, if issued sub-standard weapons or ammunition, are a liability to the department or agency. Similarly, top-of-the-line sniper weapons that are not correctly set-up, maintained, and zeroed are also a potential liability. In both cases, and particularly on operations, a totally justified shooting or in policy use of deadly force could easily become a wrongful death when a high-velocity round, intended for the hostage-taker or terrorist, misses and hits the hostage, or over penetrates into an innocent by-stander. This is where the “weapons system” approach is so critical to sniper training and operations. The rifle, the optical sights, the scope mounts, the ammunition, the accessories, and the shooter must all come together as an effective and consistently accurate shooting system.


Military snipers log shooting data as an aid to shooting, but law enforcement snipers must also document practice sessions and qualification shoots for legal record and to off-set liability exposure.

The data log is a collection of the shooter’s experiences and performance, of his or her rifle and optics, that has considerable impact on the sniper’s decision-making process when planning or anticipating a shot. There are several factors that can affect the accuracy of a weapons system and the cold-shot placement in particular. When any one condition changes, for example the type of ammunition, angle to the target, air temperature, elevation, or even lighting, the bullet can strike off of the intended point of aim. By logging data from all training sessions, under a variety of conditions, the sniper will develop a database that will better prepare him or her to anticipate the changes in bullet impact with the changes in range, equipment, shooting location, or environmental shooting conditions.

Armed with this information, collected over a period of time, under varying conditions and in several locations, the sniper will begin to better understand external ballistics and gain the experience to be a more consistent shooter. The sniper data logbook will also give a record of the rifle’s accuracy, or loss of accuracy, and an indication of when a new barrel may be justified.

From a liability standpoint, a detailed and professionally maintained data log will attest to the training and experience of the sniper, should his or her skills or equipment be called into question after a shooting.


There is no great secret to becoming a competent professional sniper – it simply requires an understanding and familiarity with the weapon system and regular disciplined training. This requires both time and ammunition, so an agency must allocate adequate time and funds for training or there will be significant exposure.

However, in a dangerous field such as tactical operations, particularly when dealing with armed suspects who do not play by the rules or adhere to the standards of law abiding citizens, the issue of liability can never be completely negated. It can however be significantly reduced. The following is a summary of the key points to off-setting liability as it relates to sniper deployment:

  1. Deploy only Trained & Qualified Snipers
  2. Adhere to Selection & Qualification Standards
  3. Establish written Policies, Procedures (SOPs) and Rules of Engagement (ROE)
  4. Seek Professional Basic Sniper Training
  5. Invest in quality Sniper Rifles, Optics and support equipment
  6. Budget for adequate Match Grade Ammunition
  7. Invest in quality Tactical Communications
  8. Require regular, disciplined, realistic Training with Reality-based Scenarios
  9. Document all Training & Qualification Shoots
  10. Run periodic full-mission-capability FTXs that incorporate all tactical assets and critical decision-making Shoot / No Shoot Drills for the Snipers

A final word of advice to the snipers out there: Pass this paper up the chain-of-command to your commanders and administrators. They may then see the light and allocate additional funds for training and better equipment, thus reducing their liability exposure.


About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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