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Officers train for last thing they want: to fire their gun

They spend their law enforcement careers training for a decision they hope they never have to make:

Take a life to save a life?

Pinellas sheriff's Deputy B.J. Lyons spent decades training deputies to do just that. Then in May, a gunman opened fire at him in the St. Petersburg courthouse and Lyons' training took over.

In an instant, he drew his .45-caliber pistol, aimed and fired.

"I can teach you to fight all day, I can teach you to shoot all day," Lyons said, "but can I mentally prepare you to make the ultimate decision?

"Without a doubt, the hardest thing to do is tell yourself, 'Oh Lord, I've got to take a life here.' "

Three times in the past week, law enforcement officers in the Tampa Bay area have fired at someone in the line of duty. Two men died, and a third survived when the officer missed.

It's a decision officers are constantly drilled on, in the classroom and in the field, from role playing to high-tech simulators.

But one of the hardest things to teach is to pull the trigger when life depends on it.

Especially their own.

"The No. 1 objective," said training expert Roy Bedard, "is to go home."

In October, a Hernando deputy killed a man who shot at his own friends. A Largo officer killed a man he believed was going for a gun — which turned out to be a BB gun. And Hillsborough deputies killed a man brandishing a sawed-off shotgun.

Just within the past week, authorities say, a New Port Richey officer shot a man who ran at him with a butcher's knife, a Pinellas deputy missed a man he thought was reaching for a gun that turned out to be a flashlight, and a St. Petersburg officer killed a suicidal man who menaced officers with a machete and a gun.

Such scenarios are part of life for law officers.

So is this: Officers aren't trained to kill. They're trained to "stop the threat," in the parlance of law enforcement. The best way to do that is "aim for center mass" — and that can be fatal.

Cpl. Jared Douds, a Tampa police firearms instructor, compared aiming a gun under duress to threading a needle in a car crash.

"They have a split-second to make a decision whether they'll see their wife or kids again," Douds said. "That kind of stress is almost indescribable."

• • •

There's another psychological factor officers must overcome to make the right decision: Taking a life is an unnatural act.

"This natural mechanism may get you killed," said Bedard, a former Tallahassee cop and firearms expert. "Training has to teach officers how to take lives."

So how do you teach that?

"Those decisions come from a constant barrage of scenarios that condition the mind-set of the officer," Bedard said. "We put them in mock scenarios long before they encounter the real one."

Officers are trained to sort through several factors, Bedard said: What is the likelihood of harm? Does the suspect have the ability to harm? Is harm imminent? And is pulling the trigger the only option?

The officer's decision will forever be scrutinized — by fellow officers, prosecutors, the media and the public.

But under case law, officers aren't judged by hindsight. They're judged by whether they acted appropriately based on the threat they perceived at the time — not whether the suspect pointed a fake gun at them.

"We need to understand what the officer knew at the time," Bedard said. "It's always easy to pass judgment when you know the end of the story."

• • •

The decision to take a life will affect the officer's life. The occupation already carries a high risk of suicide and substance abuse. A shooting can bring everything from loss of appetite to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sheriff's offices in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando all offer psychological counseling for their deputies.

"Before it was seen as more of a weakness, that someone wasn't strong enough to do the job," said Sgt. Thomas Acker, who heads psychological services for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. "But the prevailing attitude now … is that having a reaction to having been involved in a deadly force situation is normal."

Deputy Lyons still trains officers. They often ask about the day he had to take a life.

"If he had gotten by us … it would have been a massacre," Lyons said. "I don't regret what had to be done because we saved a lot of lives that day.

"I've had people say I don't think I can do what you did. My answer is, you may have to, and yes, you can."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

Officers train for last thing they want: to fire their gun 11/19/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 28, 2008 7:27pm]
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