Imagine you're the first police officer to pull up to a domestic disturbance when a woman covered in blood from a visible stab wound runs out of a door on the second floor. She's followed closely by a man holding a crying baby wrapped in a bloody blanket. He's screaming at her as she passes out and falls to the ground. He sees you and tells you to "LEAVE ME THE F*** ALONE" while dangling the baby over the end of the balcony before pulling him back in order to scream at the woman bleeding out in front of you.
What do you do?
That is the question posed by the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund's use-of-force simulator. From a shirtless, incoherent man waving a knife around, to a suspicious guy walking around a quiet neighborhood, to an active shooter in a school, the simulator provided your humble correspondent with all sorts of unsettling scenarios. Each of them changed depending on how I engaged with the suspects and reacted to the situation. Did I try to talk them down? Did I go to my pepper spray when it was appropriate? Did I shoot when I should have? When I shouldn't have?
The Fund was founded in 1995 to advocate for law enforcement professionals who have come under scrutiny for decisions made under stress. They've provided over $2 million in support for around two dozen different officers accused of wrongdoing while on duty. They have also provided the law enforcement point of view to the media on controversial issues.
That's where the simulator comes in. It is designed to put a reporter in the shoes of a police officer so they can better understand what it truly means to make a life or death decision.
The simulator, located at the Fund’s Alexandria, Virginia headquarters, combines a projector with imitation weapons. When you press the top of the pepper spray can it emits a laser that tells the computer running the scenario where you're aiming. The gun functions similarly except the laser is inserted into the slide of a real Glock; every time you pull the trigger a shot of CO2 pushes the slide back to provide a realistic recoil.
But before you even get to the scenarios you have to go through a course on basic use-of-force policies and the court cases that govern them.
Those cases establish when a police officer has reasonable suspicion to stop somebody and conduct an investigation into potential wrongdoing, has probable cause to detain a suspect, and can justifiably use force, including deadly force, on a suspect who is resisting or even fleeing him. Police can't stop people at random and they can't detain them for long periods on mere suspicion. They can't shoot somebody unless they present an immediate threat to the police or those around them. They can't shoot at a fleeing suspect, even if they've committed a serious crime, unless that suspect presents an immediate threat of serious bodily harm to others.
Moving from those legal principles to reality, the job of a police officer gets even more complicated. Police are taught to make decisions on a continuum. Do I have reasonable suspicion to stop this person? Then, do I have probable cause to detain them? They're resisting me with physical force, but is it enough for me to use pepper spray or a Taser? Do they reasonably present a threat to my life or the lives of those around me? They're running: am I justified in shooting them to protect others nearby?
It is a lot to think through when you may only have a few seconds to make a decision. The fact that most police officers don't receive extensive training in the court cases that set the standards over how they're supposed to act, according to my instructor, Bryan Patterson, is a major problem, to say the least.
Now, how did I react to the domestic violence incident? I tried to talk down the attacker. I repeatedly told him to put the baby down and get on the ground. I didn't try to shoot him. Eventually he did put the baby down and get on the ground. He survived. But since it took so long for me to talk the attacker down, the woman and the baby—who had already been hurt before I came to the scene—both died.
This was my biggest problem during the simulation. When I did shoot I didn't have any problems hitting what I was aiming at. I put the active shooter down as soon as he popped out into the hallway I was walking down. I shot the raving shirtless lunatic as soon as he charged me. I killed somebody as he rolled out of a car trunk with a rifle as my partner was talking to the driver.
Not every scenario was life threatening. I let a man who appeared to have a weapon in his hand and appeared to be stealing a car go because it was impossible to tell if what he had in his hand was actually a weapon or if he really was stealing the car at all. I was also able to talk down another knife-wielding man without firing a shot.
Most of the scenarios weren't black and white because police stops aren't usually black and white, a reality that leads to hesitation and indecision. I waited before shooting a man who had wrestled my partner to the ground and was trying to steal his sidearm, I didn't do anything to prevent a woman from shooting the boyfriend she accused of abusing her, and I never risked a shot at the man with the baby wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket.
If these were real-life scenarios my hesitancy could have gotten people killed. Or, maybe, it wouldn't have. There's no way to be certain.
Should I have shot at the man who was shaking a baby after he'd clearly just stabbed a woman? Was I right not to? It's hard to say for sure, but one thing is clear: police across the country perform their jobs in these gray areas on a daily basis. They deserve good training to handle tough calls like the ones I faced in simulations. They also deserve some understanding from the public about how difficult their jobs really are.