How N.H. police make split second decisions to determine if a gun is real or fake

  • Can you tell the difference between the Concord police issued 40-caliber handgun and the two fake BB guns? The two fake guns are on top. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Can you tell the difference between the Concord Police issued 40-caliber handgun and the two fake BB guns? The two fake guns are on top. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/13/2016 11:40:36 PM

If it sounds and looks like a gun, that doesn’t mean it’s real.

If it’s hot pink or lime green, that doesn’t mean it’s a toy.

If the barrel is capped with an orange tip – the telltale sign of an imitation gun – it could still be lethal.

Police officers are forced to evaluate whether a weapon is real or fake under exceedingly varied and often dangerous circumstances that require split-second judgment calls. The answers are seldom black and white, and guessing wrong can mean the difference between life and death for either suspect or officer.

Throughout the country, police have shot – and sometimes killed – people whom they mistakenly believed were armed with a real firearm, when in fact they had pellet, BB or Airsoft guns.

In Peterborough this summer, a Michigan man was shot and killed by Greenfield’s police chief after running a stolen car off the road, telling officers to shoot him and pointing a pistol at the officers. Authorities recovered a BB gun near the body of Lane Lesko, 19, after he suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the neck.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office ruled that Greenfield police Chief Brian Giammarino was justified in shooting Lesko.

As three officers converged on Lesko on June 21, he held a gun in front of him with both hands, “military style” as one witness described. He pointed it at the officers and fired it in their direction. Each perceived the gun differently, they told the attorney general’s investigators. 

State Police Trooper Scott Tracy said the gun did not sound real when Lesko fired. It sounded muffled, maybe like a BB gun. He shouted to the other officers, “It’s Airsoft!”

Peterborough Cpl. Craig Edsall could not identify the type of gun. It didn’t have any muzzle flash or smoke when Lesko fired it, but its sound made him think it could have been a .22 caliber handgun. Edsall also heard Tracy shout out the gun was an Airsoft.

Giammarino said he was directly in Lesko’s sights and that Lesko was firing the gun when he returned fire. He said he felt like he was out of options because Lesko never complied with orders to lower the gun. Lesko acted like it was real, and Giammarino thought it was real. He never heard Tracy shout, “Airsoft,” he said.

The three officers, each from separate departments, had differing evaluations of Lesko’s gun, which raises the question: How are officers trained to identify a toy gun from a real gun?

While their use-of-force training includes discussion of the issue, there is no required course on fake firearms, said Capt. Mark Bodanza of the state Police Standards and Training Council. That’s because there is no cookie cutter answer, no yellow brick road for officers to follow that guarantees a safe outcome and their return home to their families.

The information police share on weaponry is more of a guide, and isn’t always reliable because criminals can – and do – alter guns, Bodanza said.

Despite the easily identifiable orange tip found on Airsoft guns, owners may remove it to make it appear real. If the gun is real, people may paint an orange tip on the barrel to give the appearance that it’s a toy. Real guns can be coated in the owner’s favorite color. Fake guns can be purchased in different colors.

So many variations of realistic replica toys exist that unless an officer has the luxury of holding the gun up close to analyze its components for a few minutes, there’s no way of knowing if it is fake or deadly, said New Hampshire State Police Lt. John Marasco, who heads the recruitment and training division. That’s why officers’ annual use-of-force training, which includes life-like simulator scenarios, is so important to keep officers on their toes and able to reasonably assess a perceived threat on the streets, he noted.

Franklin police Chief David Goldstein agreed: “The reality is if we don’t know that they are fake, and they certainly look enough like the real thing, I guess I’m going to throw the question back on you and members of the public: What do you expect us to do?

“The real question is why are people carrying these things in public?” he asked.

Assessing the threat

Toy guns aren’t new to the market, but how they are used has changed and blurred the lines between imaginary play and reality. The original Daisy air rifle was first manufactured in the 1880s, and kids have been playing cops and robbers for more than a century.

The problem, officers say, is that play guns went from toy stores to sporting goods stores to the streets. Today, toy guns aren’t used only for recreational play; they show up in home invasions, robberies and standoffs with police.

“We rely on the common sense of people not to display guns at us, or you run the real risk of getting shot,” said Keene police Lt. Shane Maxfield.

Maxfield explained that when someone acts aggressively toward a police officer, that officer has only a millisecond to make a decision – and it could be a fatal one.

“This isn’t a $5 dollar blackjack bet. Your life is on the line.”

He described the guns – fake or real – as just tools, and said it’s how people handle those tools, especially in the presence of police, that makes the difference.

“People need to act smartly when they’re dealing with armed people – both the police need to act smartly and the citizens need to act smartly when they’re dealing with us,” Maxfield said.

When someone displays a firearm, officers don’t use only that one fact to guide their decision-making process for how to respond, said Concord police Lt. Tim O’Malley. Also important is the person’s mannerisms, how he or she is responding to police and holding the weapon, as well as the perceived danger to officers and others, he explained.

Marasco echoed that point, saying the onus falls on the gun owner, who is perceived as an immediate threat if in a shooting stance.

“The officer may not have time to ask questions, and even if that person responds, by the time you figure out they’re lying to you, it’s too late,” he said.

Retired U.S Army Staff Sgt. Josh Dagnese said he decided when he bought the Village Gun Store in Whitefield in early 2014 not to sell Airsoft guns with the real firearms. He said he does have a couple of BB and pellet guns, but does not market them to just anyone.

“There’s nothing wrong with Airsoft, but there’s a time and a place,” Dagnese said. “People shouldn’t be walking around with it and pretending like it’s the real thing.”

Dagnese, who has three young children, said he teaches them the difference between play and real guns. He said kids of responsible gun owners know the difference, and that he communicates basic messages, like telling his son to pick “his toy gun off the floor” and not “his gun.”

Firearms safety for kids is key because it’s those lessons that inform their behavior as adults, he said. It’s when people don’t use good judgment and act poorly that they get themselves into trouble – and sometimes killed, Dagnese said.

Other New Hampshire gun shops – ones that sell fake guns and others that don’t – declined to discuss concerns over realistic replicas and the market for them.

Sig Sauer, a gun manufacturer whose U.S. headquarters is in Newington and training facility is in Epping, sells both the real thing and air guns that shoot pellets.

Sig Sauer Academy’s Vice President Adam Painchaud would not comment on the differences between the company’s products.

“I don’t think we have an interest really in discussing that,” he said.

Finding common ground

As officer-involved shootings come under increasing public scrutiny, especially in those where race is at play, New Hampshire’s law enforcement agencies say education about the issues and transparency are vital.

That’s especially true at a time when people today seem more willing to challenge authority, including police officers and their decisions. That shift is very much a national one, and New Hampshire isn’t immune to it, said Pittsfield police Chief Jeffrey Cain.

“Police are more hypervigilant, more so than in years past. There’s a greater perceived threat out there and then you add in all of this new technology,” Cain said. “It becomes a real safety issue if officers are in the position that they need to decide real or not real.

“I would hate to have a law enforcement officer be shot and killed because he was delayed in his response and trying to determine if that was a fake or real gun.”

O’Malley expressed similar concern, saying no officer wants to shoot and kill, and that doing so is that officer’s last resort. He said an officer’s grief is magnified when he or she learns after the fact that the person had a toy and not a real gun.

Addressing these issues and the fallout are never easy, but Cain said he feels that mutual respect and understanding can go a long way. If members of the public learn about the situations officers face, that can foster increased understanding, he said.

“It’s a better avenue than banning and restricting things,” Cain said.

Other police supervisors agreed that legislation doesn’t hold the answer, but, some said, a well-written law could help.

Maxfield said the solution might be even simpler.

“This world needs more common sense, in my opinion, and that’s not something that can be legislated,” he said. “It’s not necessarily that there’s more guns out there or fake guns out there. I think it’s a cultural shift that we’re fighting against.”

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