By Beth Terrell
It looked like a routine traffic stop, but it went bad fast. One moment, my partner was asking the man behind the wheel for his license and registration, and the next, he was being held at gunpoint by a desperate man who was screaming at me to throw down my weapon or he'd kill my partner. I knew better than that. If I dropped my gun, my partner and I were both dead.
My heart rate quickened. "You don't want to do this," I said to the gunman, who was completely shielded by my partner. I didn't know it was possible to hide so completely behind another person. "You're talking a lose/lose situation here. We can still walk away with a win/win." I was lying, of course. He'd taken a cop hostage. His hand came up, a tiny target behind my partner's head. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon could have made that shot, but I was no sharpshooter. I was more likely to blow off my partner's head than to hit the bad guy's gun hand.
I didn't throw down my gun. I kept talking, trying to be rational and convincing, to say the words that would make it turn out right. Then I heard the crack of a pistol. My partner slumped to the ground, and I fired five shots into the bad guy's crotch.
"Another crotch shooter," said the officer running the simulation, and my teammates and I laughed as he replayed the scenario on the giant screen, this time with icons showing where I had been aiming my weapon (a real gun modified to fire an invisible laser that would register on the screen) and where my shots had gone. I asked if there was anything I could have said to make the bad guy give up and let my partner go. No, he said. The scenario didn't allow for that. A teammate asked if I should have dropped my weapon. No, he said. Absolutely not. I felt a palpable relief, even though the scene hadn't been real. The instructor went on to explain all the things my virtual partner had done wrong on the traffic stop, from the approach to the vehicle to his lack of concentration during the stop. ("There's no such thing as a routing traffic stop," the instructor said. "For the scenario, he had to do a lot of things wrong, but in real life, he would have followed certain procedures to keep this from happening.")
In this scenario, he explained, all the power is with the officer who has been taken hostage. In real life, he should have waited for his moment (probably when the bad guy raised the hand with the gun) and made a move that would either allow him to disarm his opponent or get himself out of the way so I could take the shot. So was there any way to win? What if I'd taken the shot when I saw the hand above my partner's head?
"That was a no-win situation," the instructor said. "You have to decide what you'd rather live with. Would you want to shoot your partner or have the bad guy do it? Neither is good, but do you want to be the one to tell his wife and kids you're the one who killed him?" As it turned out, the scenario didn't allow for shooting the gun hand (as we discovered later when Jeffery Deaver, who is an expert marksman, actually made that impossible shot to no effect), but it did allow for shooting your partner in the chest/vest so he would drop and you could shoot the gunman.
"I didn't know he had a vest," I protested.
The instructor grinned. "They almost always wear a vest." We discussed The Onion Field, one of my favorite books, a true story about the emotional fallout faced by an officer whose partner was taken hostage and killed.
We ran through a number of other scenarios, often involving hostage situations, and I managed to dispose of all the bad guys and not kill any good guys. (The feature where, if the bad guy shoots you, a little air gun shoots rubber balls at you was disabled. A good thing, since I would certainly have been killed a half a dozen times.) The simulated video scenarios, part of the FATS (Firearms Training System) session at Lee Lofland's Writers' Police Academy, took less than an hour, but I came away from the experience with a deeper appreciation of the split seconds in which real police officers must make life or death decisions. It was one of the high points of the Academy.
The rest of the weekend was equally information-packed. It included presentations by law enforcement and emergency professionals, forensic psychologists, and a forensic pathologist. There was a simulation of an emergency response to a school shooting. Throughout the weekend, there were numerous opportunities to handle the tools of the trade and ask questions of the professionals. I'll share more details about the sessions over the next few weeks.
I learned a lot at the Writers' Police Academy and can hardly wait to attend next year's event. I hope you'll join me there--but sign up early. Because of the hands-on nature of the conference, space is limited.