I went to the office of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF) in Alexandria, Virginia, last week to see what it’s like to be a police officer. The fund is a non-profit organization that provides financial and legal aid to police officers. It recently purchased one of the shooting simulators that police academies use to train cadets.
The idea was to run some reporters through the simulator to show them the sort of split-second decisions that police are sometimes forced to make, and how officers are trained to make them. It’s not a bad idea, resting as it does on the axiom that most Beltway reporters’ opinions on guns are inversely proportional to their experience with guns.
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I was there with Charles Cooke from National Review. Bryan Patterson, a use-of-force instructor for police cadets who worked for more than 30 years on the Fairfax Police Department, gave us a rundown of the legal standards that dictate when police can use force.
Then we took turns standing in front of a large projector screen that displayed one of more than 500 different live-action scenarios, from "active shooters" in school hallways to an irate woman complaining about her parking tickets. The scenarios have branching options, depending on what actions you take. For example, if you fail to talk some of the irate people down, they will bum-rush you. And you are supposed to give verbal commands, although I restrained the urge to yell, "Get down on the ground or I’ll blow your f—ng brains out!"
We were armed with a can of mace and a Glock, both refitted to shoot harmless lasers that the projector screen would pick up. Patterson gave a brief summary of what kind of call we were responding to, and then the projector began playing the scenario.
In my first scenario, I was supposed to be backing up my partner as he approached a shifty-looking guy who suddenly pulled a pistol and gunned my partner down. Partners had poor survival rates in the scenarios.
"You bastard," I muttered. "He was a day away from retirement." I shot the gunman in the back as he ran for cover.
I logged serious time as a kid with video games like Duck Hunt, Area 51, and Time Crisis, not to mention Big Buck Hunter as a beer-sopped twenty-something. I’m comfortable shooting actual guns, too. So whenever an armed robber or gun-wielding maniac popped on the screen, muscle memory kicked in and my pistol snapped on target. It was as familiar as jumping over a green turtle shell in Mario.
But the purpose of the simulator is not to be an avenging angel of pixelated death. It is supposed to teach officers how to make decisions and not get caught off guard.
In another scenario, a man didn’t take well to my presence and began threatening to "whup my ass." This went on for half a minute or so, despite my firm verbal commands to chill out, before he leaned over and grabbed a mean-looking knife off of his living room table. While I dumbly fumbled for the pepper spray in my pocket, he explained how he was going to carve me up.
"Did you see the knife on the table before he picked it up?" Patterson asked me afterward. I shook my head. It turns out Big Buck Hunter isn’t the best situational awareness development tool. Patterson said the average time it takes someone to close a distance of about 20 feet is about two-and-a-half seconds.
That scenario sobered me up a little bit and convinced me that I had no interest in joining the police force. In January, police officers in West Valley City, Utah, shot and killed a man who they say grabbed an eight-inch butcher knife from his car. And late last month, police in Longview, Texas, shot and killed a mentally ill 17-year-old girl who reportedly threatened officers with a knife. The latter case has also drawn some national headlines.
The simulator programmers keyed up some harder scenarios for Cooke. In one, he responded to a suspicious guy in a parking lot who held something that looked like a gun. The guy bolted when he saw the police and ran over to a car of loitering teenagers, where he appeared to steal their car. Cooke raised his gun but hesitated. The man peeled out of the parking lot.
"What if he just had a cell phone in his hand?" Patterson asked. Replaying the video, we couldn’t clearly see what he was holding. "What if those were his kids skipping school, and he was just yelling at them?" It seemed unlikely, but who knows?
And that’s the crux. In the space of a few seconds a police officer is supposed to—if he or she is thinking clearly—run through a complex flowchart of questions to decide if it's legal and ethical to use lethal force.
Is the force being applied in the course of an arrest or the defense of the officer or others? Is the officer in "imminent jeopardy," as defined under the current legal standard? Does the suspect have the intent to harm, as well as the ability, means and opportunity to do so? If the suspect is fleeing, does the officer have probable cause that the suspect was involved in a violent crime and could harm others?
The margin for error here is unforgiving, and the window to act is small. Fail to act, and you or someone else might die. Act too soon or with too much force—or even act within your authority—and you open yourself up to criminal charges and civil lawsuits.
The legal defense fund points to cases like Shaun Cowley, a West Valley City, Utah, police officer. In 2012, Cowley and his partner stopped 21-year-old Danielle Willard in a parking lot. According to the police account, Willard refused to roll down her window or cooperate. Cowley was walking back to his patrol car when Willard threw the SUV into reverse and tried to run Cowley and his partner down. Both officers opened fire, killing Willard.
Nineteen months later, the Salt Lake District Attorney indicted Cowley for second-degree manslaughter. According to the state’s own expert witness, Cowley had two seconds to react to the situation. A judge dismissed the case in October, but Cowley had racked up $100,000 in legal fees before the trial even began, according to the LELDF.
For every case like Cowley’s, which itself has several wrinkles and niggling questions, police skeptics can point to numerous other incidents where cops appear to react with unnecessary force and where there is little accountability.
Late Friday, Fairfax County dumped 11,000 pages of documents on the fatal 2013 police shooting of John Geer. Adam Torres, the officer who shot Geer, said he had suddenly dropped his hands toward his waist, possibly to grab a weapon. However, among the newly released documents were three eyewitness accounts from fellow officers contradicting Torres’ story. According to them, Geer still had his hands up when Torres shot him in the chest without warning.
The public seems to give cops the benefit of the doubt. A Reuters poll released earlier this month found three-quarters of Americans approve of the performance of their local police department, including 56 percent of African Americans, though one-third of respondents also said police routinely lie.
"The current discussion will die down," Ron Hosko, the president of the LELDF, said in an interview. "Will there be a cop somewhere who does something obviously wrong again? Yup. But that doesn’t define our world."
Maybe. Still, after spending a simulated afternoon making life-changing decisions that span mere, unfathomable seconds, it seemed unavoidable to me that the debate over police accountability will be going on for some time.