LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga -- I've always had respect for law enforcement officers. That's just the way my parents raised me. I've spent over 30 years of my career covering crime, reporting on the good things police do and sometimes the bad.
On Friday, I had an opportunity for the first time to take a training course on the use of force. The Gwinnett County Police Department opened their training center doors for me to go through the same training every one of their officers goes through.
That training included simulations of scenarios where an officer has to make a split second decision whether or not to use force. I participated in two of those scenarios.
The first was a simulation video. Most of you gamers know what I'm talking about. Anyone who has ever used a driving simulator to get your drivers license also knows. It's very similar.
I have a gun. a replica of the Glock handguns police carry. It has the same feel, almost the same weight and trigger response of a real police issued weapon. Don't ask me technically how it works, but suffice it to say, when I shoot at a large TV screen it's like shooting on a video game.
In front of me the scenario plays out: I'm a second police officer riding in a patrol car when we spot a familiar face to law enforcement. It's a habitual violator and we know he has an outstanding warrant. We pull him over and he gets out of his pickup truck. My partner gets out of the patrol car and confronts him while I get out of the passenger side and stand by the side of the patrol car.
The suspect isn't cooperating and at one point tells my partner that his 11 year old daughter is in the truck. They continue to argue and at one point the daughter opens the passenger side door of the pickup truck and steps out holding a rifle.
I draw my gun and order her to drop the weapon. "Put the gun down young lady!" I repeatedly yell while she points the gun at my partner and then at me. She keeps yelling "Leave my Daddy alone, he hasn't done anything."
By the time I know anything, she pulls the trigger and kills my partner, then swings the gun towards me. That's when I react. I shoot her. I kill her. I kill an 11 year old child.
But as sad and emotional as that was for me, even in a simulation, I should have shot her sooner, when she first raised that gun after getting out of the truck.
Then my partner would still be alive. I should have killed the child before she fired a shot. Because when she pulled the trigger, it was too late. There is no "action-reaction" as the trainer tells me.
Imagine that. Imagine if I did shoot her before she had a chance to shoot my partner. Imagine the questions I would have faced, questions that should always be asked: "Why did you kill a child? She wasn't going to shoot. What if the gun wasn't loaded? What if it wasn't a real gun? How would I explain it to her family? How would I explain that to my supervisors and the GBI who conducted a follow up investigation. How would I explain that....to the media.
There was no winning for me. And that would have been something to live with for the rest of my life. For many police officers it would have been the end of their career.
Second scenario, no video, real life in a gym: My dispatch tells me I have to respond to a scene. A man has a knife and he is threatening to kill himself. That's all I know.
I arrive at the scene and sure enough, there's a man acting belligerent, but I don't see a knife. He starts chiding me: "Why are you here? I didn't do anything"
I tell him "Sir, I don't want anything to happen, please calm down." "Sir, please turn around and put your hands behind your back."
After much coaxing the suspect complies and turns around and I relax. But before I know it he pulls out the knife and charges at me. Now, again, I have a gun. This one shoots soap pellets. The officer who is playing the suspect is wearing a padded suit so that the pellets don't leave any welts.
I fire several rounds at the suspect, but before I can get any off, he's on top of me and I go down with him on top. Reality? Only one of my shot hits him, in the left shoulder. It probably wouldn't have stopped him if it was real and I would have at the very least suffered severe knife wounds.
My mistake? I should have had my gun drawn right from the moment I approached him. A knife is a lethal weapon and I should have confronted it with lethal force. Had I had the gun out, I would have been able to fire sooner when he attacked me and probably avoided getting stabbed.
But again, I would have had to live with the fact that I killed a man. And again, I would have had to face all the questions: Why didn't you shoot him in the leg, or shoot the knife out of his hand? Well, I couldn't even hit him with a lethal shot when I was aiming center mass as I was trying to get out of his way.
Look, understand, I only had one day of training. Recruits have hours after hours, days after days, weeks after weeks. And training continues throughout a law enforcement officer's career.
I'm just saying, I have a clearer picture now. I have a deeper respect.
You can follow Kevin on Twitter @kgrowson