At this point it’s common knowledge that American police shoot too many people. The Economist theorized last year that British citizens are 100 times less likely to be shot by a police officer than we are, and that was a conservative estimate. Yet and still, while only 3 police officers in all of Britain and Wales even fired guns last year, it would seem that innocent Americans are gunned down multiple times a week. It is and has been my belief that fear is at the heart of this issue.
So when I got a call from resident activist Jessie Sponberg asking if I wanted to take part in a police use-of-force training simulation, I said “Hell yes.” And it gets better. Apparently, some anti-police activist in Phoenix was caught on Fox News singing praises to the police and urging people to obey authority after going through a similar simulation. I guess the hope was that Jessie and I – two rather outspoken critics of the police – would similarly change our tune. We didn’t, but I certainly learned some things along the way.
Even if you jock the police and feel like they have the right to be shooting at folks if they see fit, the number of unarmed men, women and often children shot by police is astoundingly disappointing. Recent examples include an accidental discharge in a Brooklyn staircase, the misguided shooting of a man on in Walmart with a bb gun, and the nearly drive-by shooting of a child at a playground. All of these examples show innocent people dying at the hands of police who claim to have feared for their lives or the lives of others, and all of these incidents – like many of the ones we see – resulted in the death of a minority. If you read the transcripts from the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson, this further cements the concept of fear playing out in the mind of a cop when dealing with an unarmed minority. At one point, Wilson described the college bound 18 year old as a bullet-absorbing “demon”.
Often, I’m told that I have no idea what police go through… That the decision making is so fast and people are so crazy that police need to be allowed to make these decisions with other people’s lives so that they may go home to their families every night. I can respect not getting murked by a crazy – I really can – but I’d like to think that the folks sworn to protect and serve the public would be better trained to handle such situations.
I won’t lie, I was so nervous going to the Clackamas County Sheriff’s training facility that I parked across the street at Toys R’ Us and walked over. The training center is also home to an armory and gun range where old white men who love guns and police hang out, and that’s not really my demographic; I’d have felt safer at a Crip Convention. One by one, Jessie, myself and Jim Ferretti from KXL went through exercises that seemed to be designed to enforce the idea that every situation was violently hostile and involved a gun.
In the first phase, I was brought into a small room where I was handed a modified Glock-17 that fired infrared lasers at an interactive screen. After some quick training with the pistol, I was put into a scenario in which I was supposed to be interviewing a suspect’s daughter about a fraud case when her hillbilly brother walks in angrily demanding that I leave. While my initial inclination was to comply and leave this man’s house, the simulation made no such option available. The fact that I stood there looking at him and not leaving apparently drove him to produce a knife and charge me, at which point I put a bullet clean through the bicep of his knife holding arm. As it turned out, the simulation does not count limb shots, so I got stabbed in the simulation. The arms instructor then explained to me that the simulation doesn’t care about limb shots because there are people who will take limb shots and still attack, going on to describe some situation in which a former military guy went nuts and killed 3 cops with a knife after taking gunfire. I rolled my eyes and moved onto the next exercise.
In this one, I was responding to an attempted suicide call where the jumper ends up attacking my consoling partner and taking his gun. The struggle made it hard to get a clean shot, but once there was room I shot dude in the balls and my partner lived. Kind of a no brainer. The arms officer seemed pretty happy with my decision making, but in real life I would have just ran up and socked dude as soon as he grabbed my partner. Again, limited options…
In the third and final video example, I was responding to a lady being difficult in a hospital waiting room. When I got there, she produced a gun and started talking crazy, she never pointed that thing at me though so I just watched her as she devolved into self-pity and shot herself dead in dramatic fashion. I won’t lie… this was heart wrenching and made me feel helpless, which I think was the point of the exercise.
After the screen play, we went outside where I was first to gear up with a fancy police holster and go through the field simulations in which we agreed not to strike any of the actors who were actually sheriffs. Equipped with another G-17 on my right hip – this one fired blanks instead of lasers – and a hunk of plastic that was supposed to be a taser on my left leg, I was first “dispatched” to investigate a man causing a disturbance at a restaurant. As soon as I walked up to him to ask if he was OK, he brandished a gun and started shooting. I saw the gun before he started firing and pushed his arm away before shooting him but he kept firing and if this had been real life, we’d both be dead. Of course, I argued, if this were real life, this probably wouldn’t have happened and if it did, there was really no way to survive that scenario aside from sniping the moping customer from the doorway before I knew he had a gun. The opening scene had its intended effect though as my adrenaline was rushing, and it became clear to me that everybody was going to try and kill me.
In the 2nd field scenario, I was called out to investigate a fight in the park. I found a guy pacing with a bloody nose and from a distance ask if he’s OK. He gets mad and tells me to leave him alone. If this were me, I’d just leave, but apparently cops are supposed to continue bugging people so I did and he then charged me. Expecting this and recalling that I wasn’t allowed to tackle him, I already had the taser in hand and motioned as if I was tasing him. The suspect then made a curious chest-wiping motion and continued to rush. I didn’t pull my gun because dude didn’t have one, and had to check myself as my instincts plead to put my paws on his nose as the instructor signaled for a stop. It was then explained to me that many criminals are immune to tasers and/or will simply “break the chain”. I’ve seen people get tased and I’ve never seen that, but I guess that the only winning option I had was to shoot the unarmed guy who’d already been beat up, because he might have knocked me down, taken my gun and shot me with it. OK…
Scenario 3 was pretty wild. I was again dispatched to a fight, only to find one man beating another with the biggest crowbar I’ve ever seen. In reality the guy would have been dead before I arrived, but I immediately drew my pistol (since I already knew the taser wouldn’t work) to try and draw his attention. The assailant immediately turned to me wielding the crowbar and I shot him dead with no hesitation.
In the final scenario, I was to investigate a man waving a gun in a park. I came across a suspicious man with a bag on a chair who was visibly upset with my presence. I asked him some questions and he started reaching for the bag. I warned him to keep his hands up and asked him to chill, but he all but dove for the bag. Gun drawn, I waited for him to produce a gun and fired before he had a chance to aim. By this point I felt like my job was to shoot people before they shot me.
Jim had similar results to me, shooting 3 of the 4 in the field but his perp with the gun in the bag cooperated (I later found out that the sheriff was supposed to listen on that one but for whatever reason he still tried to kill me). Jessie had the most entertaining run, yelling at everyone and being generally entertaining as he refused to fire his gun, tackling the actors and at one point he pistol-whipped one of the dudes. I laughed, the sheriff did not. I did notice that I – the only POC present – was attacked faster and more frequently by the actors than Jim or Jessie.
By the time we debriefed, our nerves were pretty raw, but our resolve had not changed. If anything, we explained, this training seems designed to teach police (and citizens) that shooting your way out of a situation is your best bet. When the hillbilly demanded I leave his house, why couldn’t I leave? When the guy in the park was injured and embarrassed, why did I have to push the issue? Why are tasers and non-lethal limb shots trained as being generally ineffective? Where is my club? Why can’t I call for backup?
As the adage goes, if the only tool you’re given is a hammer, you’ll probably see all of your problems as nails. Going through this training, I got an idea of the difficulty a police officer might encounter on the job; but rather than this absolving the police in my mind, it actually made me feel sorry for the poor souls being trained to see every situation as a kill-or-be-killed scenario. The sheriffs went on to explain that there is much more to this training including de-escalation and escalating weapons tactics, but none of that was made available to us for review, so it seems clear to me that the point of giving us as civilians this training was to try and scare us like they do their cadets.
As I explained to Jessie, I can see how folks might get shook and change their tune after something like this, but lightweight brainwashing doesn’t work on us because we’re not out here reacting to hashtags. Rather, our criticism of police drills down past the individual, through the culture, and down to the procedures that lead to fear and corruption, the unnecessary murders of our fellow citizens, and to a society in which street cops feel justified in being the judge, jury and executioner anytime they feel threatened. As Jessie put it, “Maybe everybody shouldn’t be a cop.”
So recant, I will not. Repent, I cannot. I do want to get me one of those Glock-17s though. #OutHere
“We got the sh!t that the government got.” – Jadakiss