This is a great article. I wish more reporters would take this step. Great job to Phila PD for taking the time to run the reporters through the FATS program. Hopefully it will give them some idea of what it's like to face danger like cops do every day.
Jill Porter: For cops, in life, shooting is real
Philadelphia Daily News
THE WOMAN is drunk. She comes out of the house holding a huge knife.
She has already slashed her boyfriend in the neck and now she's waving it at me.
"Drop the knife," I demand, as she screams about the indignities she has suffered. She's close enough to rush me and stab me before I can react.
"Drop it," I command.
To my relief, she flings the knife onto the lawn. Then she reaches into her back pocket.
Am I in mortal danger? Is she reaching for a gun?
I stand there, pointing my gun at her.
Should I shoot?
It wasn't real. It was a simulation, part of an exercise at the Police Academy staged for the media yesterday by the Philadelphia Police Department.
The point was to show "how much time you have to make a decision whether to pull your weapon or not," said Deputy Commissioner Charlotte Council.
The training exercise, mandatory for police recruits and every officer who fires his or her gun in the line of duty, involves a volatile scenario unfolding on a wall-sized video screen called a Firearms Training Simulator (FATS).
In my case, the incident involved a domestic dispute with the knife-wielding woman.
There are more than 200 scenarios - including an agitated man menacing police with a machete while holding a baby and a driver firing a shotgun with bystanders in the background.
The scene unfolds as you face the screen holding a department-issue 9 mm Glock modified into a laser gun. You have seconds to decide whether the confrontation requires deadly force.
"It tests marksmanship and judgmental abilities when faced with critical incidents," said Capt. Mark Fisher, head of the academy's firearms-training unit.
"Any mistake they make, it's better if they make it here than on the street."
The recruits are debriefed and evaluated at the end of the sessions about whether they made the correct choice. Some scenarios have different outcomes.
The Police Department has been widely criticized since officers shot and killed three civilians last month, including one on New Year's Eve when an officer fired into a crowded rowhouse.
Mayor Nutter has ordered Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey to lead a "complete review and analysis" of department policies on the use of deadly force.
But many police resent anyone who questions their split-second, life-or-death decisions from the safety and accuracy of hindsight. Recent columns I've written that were critical of the police have even incited some readers to call me a cop-hater. So I asked the department last week if I could do the FATS exercise. The department invited all the media to do so.
I stand in the darkened room, pointing the gun.
I make instant assessments of the woman who's reaching into her pocket.
Her ire is directed at her boyfriend, not me. The boyfriend, who'd run out of the house holding a towel to his bleeding neck, warned she had a knife. Surely he'd know if she had a gun.
Although she'd stabbed her boyfriend, he'd more than likely drop charges. Nothing suggests she'd shoot.
It took 5.2 seconds from the time she came out of the house until she reached into her pocket - although it seemed much longer.
I held fire.
She pulled a bottle of booze out of her pocket and took a long slug.
I'd made the right choice.
It occurred to me that police make those right choices day in and day out with no recognition. It's only when they make the wrong ones that they come to our attention.
The experience was enlightening. It gave me newfound respect, as it was intended to, for the judgments cops have to make in unstable moments.
But police are trained extensively in firearms and deadly force. I'm not a cop. I don't have what it takes, not an ounce of it.
And when a cop makes the wrong choice, there has to be accountability, no matter how much we understand the cop's dilemma.
To say so doesn't make you a cop-hater.
Firearms instructors Paul Coates and Robert Wagner ran the scenario again for me.
This time, the woman pulled a gun.
I fired. The first two shots missed. The second were nonfatal injuries.
But she'd already shot at me several times. I was no doubt wounded, if not dead. *