A second and a half
to live and let live, or to take a life in order to save one.
A second and a half
to breathe deep and stand down, or to change everything utterly forever.
A second and a half
to make a decision which is really less a decision than a reaction, a kind
of algorithmic surge of training, street smarts, instinct, and muscle
Put it this way: a
police officer at a rapidly deteriorating scene has roughly three beats of
an adrenalized heart to determine whether probable cause exists to use
lethal force, and then to use it or not.
Stipulate the fact
that very few police officers will ever be forced--or feel forced--to fire
their service weapon in the line of duty. And yet on any given day, routine
traffic stops go south, garden-variety domestic calls escalate, and
desperate or aggrieved or unstable men and women put others in harm’s way.
train constantly to prepare themselves for the unforeseen, but the rigorest
session on the firing range will never be able to duplicate--and can only
vaguely approximate--the flukes and frenzies of human behavior. For that
reason the Town of Chesterton’s insurance underwriter, Bliss McKnight,
recently made a firearms training simulator (FATS) available to the CPD, an
interactive Shoot/Don’t Shoot digital technology programmed with scores of
scenarios requiring officers to judge the imminence of a specific threat and
All of the CPD’s
officers were run through the FATS, as were Town Council Member Emerson
DeLaney, R-5th, and--at Police Chief Dave Cincoski’s invitation--a
Chesterton Tribune reporter, the latter of whom learned a bitter lesson
about the burden of police work.
The FATS works this
way: video scenarios, screened against a wall, are controlled by Assistant
Police Chief Dave Lohse via laptop; the reporter, armed with a Glock
semi-automatic pistol linked to the laptop, is brought into contact with a
variety of agitated subjects who may or may not be armed themselves, who may
or may not be inclined to force an officer’s hand; every discharge of the
reporter’s Glock is recorded and scored for playback, with misses
color-coded in green, non-lethal hits in yellow, and lethal
The FATS is nothing
at all like an arcade game. There’s nothing entertaining or exhilarating
about it. From the moment the reporter slams home the Glock’s magazine and
racks its slide, he feels a responsibility he doesn’t want and a rush of
adrenaline he didn’t expect. He also feels self-conscious and sickly
anxious, at least as fearful of taking someone else’s virtual life as he is
of losing his own.
Lohse, for his
part, preaches the gospel of position: at all times the reporter needs to be
aware of the space, of his distance from a subject, of the proximity of
civilians, of possible angles of withdrawal, of the available locations of
cover. Lohse also instructs the reporter to narrate his own actions as a
scenario unfolds, how he makes contact with a subject, what he tells the
person, where he moves and why.
Scenario No. 1
In the first
scenario, the reporter and his partner exit their squad car to make contact
with a suspected drunk driver. From the passenger’s side of the squad, the
reporter watches as the driver abruptly backs into his partner, knocking the
officer to the ground. The driver then exits his own vehicle and--clearly
unarmed, brandishing only his fists--charges the reporter. Shocked by the
speed at which events have devolved, shocked too by his own genuine panic,
the reporter shoots the subject dead.
ticks off the reporter’s probable career-ending mistakes: he failed to
increase the distance between himself and the subject, failed to assume a
more tactical position behind the squad car, failed to blade his body to
accept the subject’s attack, and failed to holster his weapon and deploy
instead his non-lethal baton or pepper spray. The reporter, in short, simply
failed, and a man who should’ve been subdued and arrested in short order is
on his way to the morgue.
Scenario No. 2
In the second
scenario, the reporter performs a traffic stop on another suspected drunk
driver. Standing behind the open door of his squad car, the reporter is
surprised as the subject immediately exits the vehicle and--staggering,
obviously under the influence of alcohol or drugs--announces that he’s in
possession of a handgun. He then announces that he’s going to remove it from
his jacket pocket, prompting the reporter to draw his side arm and order the
subject to the ground. The subject ignores the instruction or perhaps
doesn’t hear it and continues to fumble for the weapon. Suddenly the subject
drops into a shooter’s crouch and takes aim at the reporter, who
unhesitatingly fires, killing him. Only then does the reporter discover that
the addled man was unarmed, that his hands were empty, that no one was ever
Given the totality
of the circumstances, Lohse explains, a subsequent investigation could
conceivably find that the reporter had probable cause to use lethal force.
Even so, Lohse is tactfully adamant that the reporter not only flat-footed
the scenario but was insufficiently attentive to the facts on the ground.
His first mistake: failing to increase the distance between himself and the
subject by taking a cover position behind the squad car. His second: failing
to notice--as a replay of the video only too clearly shows--that the subject
was pointing his finger at the reporter, not a handgun.
Scenario No. 3
The third scenario
opens in a high-school library, where an irate teenage boy armed with a
knife has cornered three other students at a distance of approximately three
feet. The reporter, his side arm drawn, feels no threat against himself and
informs Lohse that he’s moving forward and sideways, to take the hostages
out of his line of fire. Then, from a position behind a low bookcase, he
attempts to engage the boy. In response the boy makes a lunging sweep of the
knife in the direction of his hostages. No one is hurt and the reporter is
satisfied the feint was only a demonstration. In the next instant, however,
one of the hostages attempts to flee and the boy promptly stabs him in the
belly. Only then does the reporter shoot the boy, reluctantly and--in
For in making the
threatening gesture, the boy signaled both his intent and--at such close
quarters--his ability to harm his hostages: sufficient probable cause, so
far as Lohse is concerned, to have used lethal force. Should the reporter
have deployed his Taser instead? Not unless he’d been accompanied by a
partner who could have kept the boy covered with his or her side arm, Lohse
says. Tasers are extremely valuable non-lethal tools, Lohse says, but they
are known to misfire or malfunction and in any case their stopping power is
nowhere near certain.
A lesson learned: a
police officer’s decision not to shoot can be as disastrous as the one to
There’s no way
around the suspicion that the FATS deliberately stacks the deck against a
police officer. But then that’s the point. Sometimes there are no good
choices, only hard ones and harder ones. The reporter does succeed in
negotiating several other scenarios more successfully. In two cases he
persuades knife-wielding subjects to drop their weapon without incident. In
another he saves the life of an innocent bystander a moment before she’s
stabbed in a back alley by a schizophrenic, but at a high price, by his
taking the schizophrenic’s life.
The reporter leaves
the CPD chagrined and shaken.
Nor was he the only
civilian run through the FATS to come out the other side feeling queasy.
“Participants who aren’t trained law enforcement officers were surprised by
how quickly seemingly normal or harmless situations can escalate, to the
point where both lethal and non-lethal uses of force may become necessary,”
that’s precisely the value of FATS: the real-time interactive simulation of
unpredictable threats. “FATS gives officers a unique training experience
that can’t be duplicated using regular firearms training at the range,” he
said. “It especially helps the department tailor future training sessions to
broaden officers’ ability to use the available tools and to enhance their
understanding of how to appropriately respond to use-of-force scenarios when
That’s why Town
Manager Bernie Doyle--who has a law enforcement background
himself--specifically worked with Bliss McKnight to bring FATS to the CPD.
“I knew how effective it would be not only for recurrent training for
officers but for Town Council members and the media to see just how little
time an officer has to make a judgment call,” he said.