My heartbeat rose and my body tensed immediately as I saw the suspect.
Holding a gun was a new experience for me. Chasing a man and yelling for him to get down on the ground was equally foreign. Why couldn’t he just listen?
“There is no one else with me,” yelled the man as he hid behind a shelf. “I’m alone.”
But I didn’t lower the gun. I kept it raised, anticipating he would try to attack the second I let my guard down. But I was wrong.
The man came out slowly with his hands up, and I breathed a sigh of relief. He went on his hands and knees, and for a moment, I felt that I could lower the weapon clutched in my shaking hands.
BANG! A second suspect popped out from behind the shelf and began firing his weapon at me. Caught off guard, I attempted to shoot back.
The problem? With no experience holding a gun and my body as stiff as a board, I did not press the trigger hard enough.
I would have died if this had not been a simulation.
“The key here was the man said that he was alone,” said Kelly Busey, the Gig Harbor police chief. “This almost always means that someone is with him.”
I had been given the opportunity to participate in a “Shoot, Don’t Shoot” simulation at the Gig Harbor Council Chambers on Oct. 1.
The simulation puts participants in a difficult situation police officers can face. I was given two scenarios on a garage-door-sized projector screen. I had to decide within seconds whether the best option would be for me to shoot, or don’t shoot.
I don’t consider myself a confrontational person. I avoid conflict if I can, and can be naturally timid when it comes to difficult situations.
Needless to say, participating in a shootout simulation was far out of my comfort zone.
As Busey informed me, my decision had to fall under an objectively reasonable standard.
“What would a reasonable officer do in the same situation?” Busey said. “Did the officer act reasonably given what he knew at that moment?”
Before participating, I had the luxury of seeing others go before me, including Mayor Kit Kuhn and council members Michael Perrow and Jim Franich. Whether this helped because I got to see examples of what I could expect or hurt because of the intense buildup, I did not know. Maybe it was a mixture of both.
“Generally, it was overwhelming,” Perrow said after his experience. “Things happened very quickly and I felt tunnel vision. I struggled to react quickly without overreacting. I have an even greater appreciation for the challenges police officers face when dealing with volatile situations.”
Added the mayor, “It was an eye- opener to see how quick you had to make a decision.”
“Most times our officers don’t need to confront decisions like that,” added Kuhn, “but when they do, they have a matter of seconds to make a life-altering decision.”
Finally, it was my turn.
I stood in front of a projector screen as a video played portraying two difficult situations. Immediately I felt my heart rate rise.
The first scenario was hard enough, and I wound up dead.
The second scenario gave me a first-person view of what looked like a man breaking into a vehicle using a tool. That prompted me to yell to the man to put the tool down, and to my surprise, he obliged.
I told him to put his hands in the air but the man said he wanted to get his ID out of his back pocket. As he put his arm behind his back I raised the gun instinctively, and he quickly pulled out a wallet. This quick motion looked like he had a gun, but luckily I chose not to shoot, realizing it was a wallet the instant his hand moved from behind his back.
Again, my body was tense, and if he had turned out to have a gun, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have reacted quick enough.
One question you often hear is, “Why doesn’t an officer just shoot their leg or arm?”
“In a real all-out gun fight the hit rate is around 30 percent, maybe less,” Busey said. “You’re panicked, you’re shaking, your hit rate isn’t good. We train for the center of mass, the largest available target.”
Busey said officers shoot to stop, not shoot to kill.
“We don’t want to kill them, we want to have them stop what they are doing,” he said.
But then why guns? Why not use a taser gun instead?
“When it’s just one officer you want to equal what they have, deadly-force wise,” Busey said. “We won’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”
The Gig Harbor Police Department has only had one officer-involved shooting, Busy said. It was “versus a vehicle that was attempting to run over our officer. Nobody was hit and nobody was hurt.”
Overall it was an eye-opening experience. Each moment was situational, which made it extremely difficult to decide on the appropriate action.
No, an officer is not always in the right for shooting an innocent civilian just because of fear.
But what this simulation did do is give me a stronger appreciation for the difficulty of their career, and the quick, logical decision making skills needed in order to be an officer or first responder.
“This is way way way harder than the average person sitting on their couch says it is,” Busey said.
As for me, I’ll stick to sitting behind a laptop.