Tuesday turned into a not-so-normal day for a reporter who’s covered just about every beat and every type of story in journalism. Nothing has really intimidated me in this business until Tuesday afternoon when I got an invite from Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber to participate in a “Shoot, No-Shoot” training at the sheriff’s office.
I spent an hour with sweaty palms, bathed in the humility of seasoned law enforcement officers watching me handle myself in potential lethal force situations. After the session, I rushed back from the Sheriff’s Department to my office at home because I didn’t want to let the emotion escape before I got to the keyboard.
On the way home, everything was in hyper detail. Like viewing a hi-def 90″ television out the window of my car, I observed things differently than I had just 90 minutes before. A group of kids walking down the street drew my attention, one had dropped his pants halfway down and walked with his friends. He had shorts on. My 60-minute session with South Iowa Area Crime Commission’s Carrie Folkerts and about five deputies, detectives and Weber, was a session steeped in sensory overload. I did a double-take on the kid just showing off with friends and realized that my senses were still in high gear.
I’ve been busted a few times on alcohol charges. No OWIs but me just being an idiot. I was arrested once for failure to appear when I was in college and did a “two” in the Louisa County Jail – two hours.
One thing I never thought about was the officers involved in my situations.
I do now.
Detective Chad Donaldson asked me how many calls I thought they get that are gun-related. “I would have no idea. I would guess a relatively small number,” I said.
He smiled and told me every call a is gun-related situation. “We bring them,” he said. One of the scenarios I tested would prove that out.
He then had me put on a velcro belt and we strapped on what I think is called a duty belt. It holds your sidearm, in this case the standard Glock retrofitted for this training, a taser, which I failed with miserably, extra clips, handcuffs, flashlights, and various other tools of the trade.
The gun was a real gun but the clip was filled with gas charges instead of bullets and the shots registered marks on a 7-foot screen that ran the live scenarios.
It was my job to “verbalize” when appropriate, taser, if and when appropriate, or shoot, if and when appropriate.
I’m sure to these seasoned officers, who have to put in close to 600 hours of training, I was a blathering idiot trying to verbalize situations. If you were to listen to a video you’d hear a bunch of “Whoa!”s and “Hey!”s, but I always had my hand on a weapon. I really wasn’t prepared for how many times I drew it. I only went through about six sessions, but real training would be filled with all kinds of scenarios from traffic stops to warrant services to active shooters. I would imagine this solidifies muscle memory, reactions, instincts, and the mind-scramble that ensues when people are not obeying instructions.
In the first scenario I came upon a dude with a knife who had two girls cornered in the house. I tried talking him down, but ultimately gave him time to lunge at one of the girls and grab her up as cover. He taunted me saying he was going to kill her and he didn’t care what I did. I tried talking him down and then the screen told me to stop and call a negotiator. It might as well have said, “Stop and call for pizza,” because I blew that one. There was about a 1.5 second time frame – upon further review – when I could have neutralized the situation. I missed it.
Sure I missed it, I’m a reporter. But in that split second I had been whitewashed with what must – not should – but must go through the minds and down through the nerves, muscles and fingertips, clear down to the heels of the feet, of these folks who walk into danger – for a salary about the same as mine. Geezus.
Donaldson broke the session down and let me in on the split-second decision making that’s built on instinct. Instincts I won’t have in less than an hour, but humbling nonetheless. The whole time he’s talking to me about reaction being disadvantageous to action. It’s not something that he just rattles off, its engrained in their minds. Think about that, reaction, in their profession is disadvantageous to action – and potentially lethal.
Is that a bit dramatic? Maybe – maybe not. We see them pulling over vehicles, stopping in our places of business to serve warrants, running investigations at vehicle accidents. That’s after they may have administered first-aid as they most likely were first on the scene.
The next scene was an active shooter in a school – no time to think here, the shots ring out before the video comes up. Without going into detail I fired several times and missed the shooter, but he retreated down the hall and, in pursuit, I realized I forgot some small training I had in Boy Scouts about exhaling and squeezing. I regrouped and he came around a corner, but I tried to recock the weapon (which apparently it does on its own). I think I got shot, but they stopped the scenario and didn’t tell me. Thanks.
Donaldson broke that session down and asked if I saw what else was in the hallway. I told him I remembered seeing two to three students in each doorway.
“Did you consider what was behind the shooter.”
“No, I just wanted to get him down.”
In the middle of discussing the importance of the surroundings, he said the other students were still in danger and eliminating the threat had to be the first priority. Any hesitation there could get another student killed regardless. My instincts were right – I just missed…a lot.
I’m not going to dump all the scenarios on you, but one stood out as an abject failure on my part. It should also be noted that never once did I eliminate a threat before someone was harmed.
Some winner had beaten his wife or girlfriend with a hammer. I saw no firearm so I pulled out a taser and tried to reason with him. He ran around the corner of the house and I pursued around a close corner, he was standing on a slab about 10 feet away, I told him to drop the hammer and he just got mad. That Folkerts girl saw I was struggling with my taser, and I think she made that man attack me. He beat me up pretty good with that hammer while I was looking down trying to figure out how to turn the taser on. Now, obviously I haven’t had any experience with these weapons, but again the point isn’t lost on how fast situations can turn ugly. It was just a matter of not even two seconds I looked down to turn it on after trying to launch it about three times as he was running at me. I looked back up and this crazed dude in a wife-beater thinks I’m a nail.
All joking aside, it really did take me back to a situation last fall when Deputy Dakota Foley had to shoot a man coming at him with a large steel meat hammer. Foley asked him vehemently to stop on several occasions, all which failed to stop Joshua Welborn’s encroachment. After shooting Welborn, Foley went immediately into first aid mode to help the man. Welborn was a larger man…would a taser have worked? It was dark and Welborn was engaged in a burglary in progress, came out of the trailer and walked down the steps with the hammer in his hand right at Foley. Foley was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting.
The session spurred a conversation about lethal force vs non-lethal force and the circumstances surrounding each one.
“You’re probably going to be on the ground at that point and then does he get your gun,” Donaldson said after watching me get assaulted with the hammer. “Maybe shoot you with it?”
We went through some more scenarios. He put a different test gun on my right side and ran a reaction scenario where he wanted to see how fast I could get the gun out. There are two safety mechanisms in place that have to be pushed and pulled to unstrap the pistol. This girl in the video assaulted another girl with a knife and then came at me. I don’t think I ever got it out. My mind was racing on what the suspect was doing and I didn’t think about how Donaldson had just told me to get the gun out.
I have always had a ton of respect for law enforcement officers, even the K9s, but I always looked at them as part of the community and what we live with day in and day out.
Maybe that’s a simplistic view, because now driving by a simple traffic stop, whether it’s Fort Madison Police, Lee County Sheriff’s deputies, or Iowa State Patrol has taken on a different meaning for me.
Maybe you, too.