Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Jul 6, 2022
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How police cadets learn when to fire
By Richard Hartzell |

A DISTURBANCE CALL summons police to the third floor of a housing project. The police officer rushes into the middle of the hallway, confronting two boisterous men who grapple for a pistol. “Police. Don’t move!” The combatants separate, but one of them ignores the policeman’s command and darts down the hall. The other yells at the officer, “Stop that guy. He just stole my wallet.” Instantly, the officer takes off in hot pursuit of the alleged thief, brushing past the complainant as he goes. If the policeman is T.J. Hooker, the scene will end a few moments later with a tackle forceful enough to make Randy White jealous, an arrest and the return of the wallet. In a real-life situation, the result will more likely be a dead officer, shot in the back as he rushed past the complainant.

The killing of a police officer is a senseless act, but not an uncommon one. For example, a few years ago, a Dallas Police officer pulled up to a car that was leaving a Dairy Queen. The driver apparently had forgotten to turn on his headlights. The officer’s last words to his partner were: “I’ll be right back; I’m just gonna give this guy a friendly reminder.” However, it wasn’t by chance that the driver had shunned the use of his headlamps; he had just robbed the Dairy Queen and was attempting a secretive getaway. The officer never had a chance to give his friendly reminder. He was shot dead as he approached the thief s car.

In recent times, an alarming number of Dallas Police officers have become targets for trigger-happy suspects. (Several of those suspects have also been shot and killed by police, which resulted in a recent round of hearings by the Dallas Citizens/Police Relations Board.) Working a beat has become a dangerous challenge, and in response, the Dallas Police Academy has developed a comprehensive training program that is purported to be among the finest in the country.

The cornerstone of the program is called “Shoot/Don’t Shoot.” In the tiny rooms and labyrinthine hallways of the Winfrey Point Club House at White Rock Lake Park, cadets must react to a series of potentially explosive situations. The split-second decisions involving the use of deadly force are acted out here-long before the cadet hits the streets. The lessons learned may very well save a life-the officer’s, his partner’s or that of a civilian.

The “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” program is an eight-hour ordeal that’s very similar to a patrol officer’s shift, defined by one officer as “95 percent boredom, 5 percent terror.” The day begins at 8 a.m. with an orientation session at the academy. The former program director Sgt. David James and his adjunct, Cpl. Jack Perrit, carefully outline the objectives. “This exercise is not designed to embarrass, confound or ridicule you,” explains Sgt. James, “but rather, it is formulated to meet certain objectives.” (The current direc-tor of the program is Sgt. William Buchan-an.) The cadets are told that they will be directed to make split-second decisions in volatile situations, to react to stress, to maintain control while being pushed to their limits, as well as to make self-evaluations. “You’ll learn more about yourself than could ever be taught to you,” stresses Cpl. Perrit. Several otherwise outstanding candidates have come away from the “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” experience with the knowledge that they could never deal successfully with deadly force situations, and they have had the courage not to pursue a career on the streets.

The cadets learn specifics to guide them in their forthcoming encounters. They are reminded to always maintain cover: “This is the single greatest factor in police survival.” Sgt. James admonishes the cadets not to rush the suspects, thus forcing their hands. “You’d better be able to talk to people. Verbal commands are as important as any other aspect of your work.” The sergeant pauses in his lecture, and the cadets’ respect for him rings loud and clear through the silence. Sgt. James asks a final question: “Are any of you suffering from heart trouble?” The question is repeated. “We’ve had paramedics on site, and they havebeen used,” adds Sgt. James. When he leaves the room, the tension has already begun to mount.

The academy staff hurries over to Winfrey Point. In one hour, several academy staff members must convert the lakeside cottage into a house of organized terror. The windows are curtained, and the smallish rooms seem to close in around you. Props are distributed, ammunition is unpacked (400 to 500 rounds are expended on an average day), and the roles are handed out. The academy staff members are incredibly gifted actors, based upon their ability to carry out their roles in the “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” situations. A dry run is performed to make sure everything is ready. A police observer, a lieutenant who was on the force well before the inception of the current training program, plays the role of the cadet. As the lieutenant enters the house, he wears a relaxed grin. When he emerges from the last room, sweat has formed on his brow and the grin is gone. All is ready.

At 11 p.m., the first cadet begins the long sprint up to the house. (The most dangerous police work usually begins after an officer has been under physical stress.) Upon entering the house, he (or she-about one-third of the trainees are female) receives soft protective armor, a revolver, blank cartridges and protective glasses. Although the ammunition is fake and the suspects are actors, the stress is very real.

The following are just two of the many situations faced by the trainee, followed by plausible reactions. Afterward, the correct procedure is outlined. Remember that the cadet is literally thrown into each situation; there is virtually no time to pause and regroup between situations. Remember too that the cadet is unable to either back out of a situation or to call for assistance. Now, shoot.. or don’t shoot.

“Family Disturbance”

The cadet is thrown into a room, empty except for a large chair to his left and three members of a family. The mother is unarmed, and she is screaming at the cadet for help. Just to his right, the son is wildly waving a knife around and yelling insults at his father, who stands out of his son’s reach. The father brandishes a pistol and yells insults at the cadet: “This is family business. Get the hell out of here!” (The mother screams louder.) The father says he will kill the mother in five seconds. With the gun pointed downward, the father begins to count: “One, two, three, four…”

The cadet draws his gun and remains just inside the doorway. His attention shifts between the father and son. At the count of five, he fires on the father. Unfortunately, the sound of the father’s revolver is heard first (the suspect’s blanks are significantly louder). The father is shot, but the mother is dead. The cadet drops his guard, and one instant later he is knifed by the son.

Correct Procedure:

Upon entering the room, the cadet should use the chair as cover. While he attempts to calm the situation by verbal commands, his first objective is to deal with the most im-mediate source of danger: the handgun. If the scenario continues as outlined, the decision to use deadly force is, in a legal sense, clearly defined. According to Texas law, if a suspect has the means and the intent to endanger the life of either a policeman or another civilian, then the use of deadly force is justified. In this case, the suspect has the means (the pistol) and the intent (he said that he would kill in five seconds, and he even began counting out the time). At the count of four, the cadet should fire at the husband. There is a .2-second delay (known as lag time) between the moment the decision to use the weapon is made and the instant that the gun is actually discharged. A suspect can redirect his aim and pull the trigger before the cadet can fire, thus making the decision to shoot at the count of five too late. Immediately afterward, the cadet should secure the second weapon, the knife.

“Armed Robbery”

The room provides no real cover. A longhaired, bearded man is holding two men at gunpoint. There is nothing particularly unusual about the pair’s attire; they are clean-cut and fairly well-dressed. The cadet immediately identifies himself as a police officer, and the startled gunman turns towards him as he grabs a shiny object on his belt with his free hand.

The cadet reacts in self-defense, gunning down the bearded man.

Correct Procedure

The shiny object is a badge. The bearded man is an undercover policeman who had already apprehended the armed robbers. The situation requires a steady hand and even steadier nerves.

The risk of an undercover policeman being shot by someone else on the force is a serious problem encountered in law enforcement. Indeed, on the streets, an undercover policeman is perhaps in greater danger of being shot by one of his own colleagues than by a criminal. Mark Wammac, a firearms instructor at the academy, recalled an incident that nearly cost him his life. He was working undercover at Redbird Mall, and he had apprehended two auto thieves. He had just drawn his revolver when a police cruiser drove by, and an officer burst out of the car, ready to intervene. A tragedy was barely avoided thanks to a correct split-second decision. But many other officers working undercover have not been so lucky.

THE EXERCISE TAKES four hours to complete, with the cadet spending three or four hours waiting and only three or four minutes inside the “house of horrors,” as the cadets refer to it. After completing the “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” exercise, the cadets are sequestered. They fill out a questionnaire, and then they wait. The physical and mental stress is reflected in their faces. After a while, however, a general euphoria sweeps the room, as the tension recedes. The cadets are anxious to compare notes, to talk about their experiences. “When I got through, I was so shaken that I had trouble holding my pencil in order to fill out the questionnaire,” says one cadet. Most cadets have high praise for the program. One man sums up a general feeling: “It was only pretend today, but I could have been dead in the field.” Most agree that being pushed into the rooms was the most difficult part of the exercise, proving that one of the program’s principal objectives had been attained. As Sgt. James tells them later, “You felt badly when you were forced through the door? Good! You won’t be pushing your fool head through the door in the field. Instead of rushing in and playing hero, you’ll use teamwork whenever possible. You’ll survive. Remember that if you can’t survive, you can’t serve the people of Dallas who pay your salary.”

It is readily apparent that the staged scenarios have been taken very seriously. The cadets express frustration at not being able to master every situation.

Says one cadet, “I knew better, but once, I relaxed anyway. And I got shot three times.” Other cadets chime in, saying that when they were shot, they were “angry, miffed, aggravated.” Still others stressed the moments in which they had been able to apply their previous training to the situations. “At one point,” beams one cadet, “the FTO grabbed me and said that I was doing a great job of changing left- and right-hand grips on my revolver. I didn’t even knowthat I was changing hands.”

The simulated gunplay is also taken seriously-by both the cadets and actors. A trainee who has been exceptionally effective in her overall handling of the “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” situations says that she experienced horrible anguish when she fired on the undercover policeman.

Firearms Instructor David McWilliams, a veteran who played the part of the undercover officer, was shot at least 35 times during the exercise. He doesn’t enjoy looking down the barrel of a revolver. “You get pumpea up, too, as an actor,”he says, ting shot feels uncomfortable, real uncomfortable.”

The exchange of fire in the small rooms takes place at point-blank range, and, at times, a cadet reels back against the wall or slumps down to the floor. Fire spews from the gun barrels, and clouds of acrid smoke must be cleared away by window fens. This is no place for the weak of heart.

In addition to preparing cadets for the difficult work ahead, the academy is also beginning to use “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” as a refresher course for Dallas Police officers who didn’t have the opportunity to take part in the new program. Sgt. Jacob P. Moore, one such in-service “trainee,” talked at length about his impressions. He compares the “Shoot/Don’t Shoot” experience to that of an airline pilot returning to the in-flight simulator. “When I went into the house I was really pumped up, and now I feel rejuvenated,” says Sgt. Moore.

Sgt. James stresses that the real test of the police officer comes not at Winfrey Point, but on the streets.

As he points out, the pools of blood andthe gore of severed limbs-common elements in a patrolman’s work day-can’t bereproduced in academy training. He says,”People who are hypercritical of the use ofdeadly force have never had a gun pointed atthem.”