Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Public safety

Deciding when, how to use deadly force can be tricky, lethal

When the huddle of kids in the video parted to reveal a girl sitting on a step with a gun to her head, I was relieved.

After all those thugs who needed to be shot, here was a character I knew how to deal with: Talk to her; negotiate.

Just when I thought I was making progress — putting my pistol on the floor, telling her about all the people in her life who cared — she aimed the gun at me and blew me away.

"You're dead, Dan," said Lt. Michael Burzumato, who led me through Wednesday morning's session on the Hernando County Sheriff's Office PRISim simulator.

The simulator could be compared to a large video game, but shouldn't be because its purpose is too serious: letting deputies practice how — and whether — to fire their guns.

And the circumstances that led to my visit weren't just serious, but tragic.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis had invited me to go through the training last week after awarding a Hernando deputy and a Tampa police officer the Medal of Valor for their actions in last October's shooting and killing of Inga Marie Swanson, a naked, disoriented woman pointing an unloaded pistol.

He wanted to show me how difficult it is to make life-and-death decisions when you're looking down the barrel of a gun, or at least the video image of a gun's barrel.

Sure enough, it is difficult. And I'm not very good at it.

But, really, I never figured I would be, not the way a cop is good at it. Most of you probably wouldn't be either, even if you have a gun, even if you've been to a firing range to learn how to use it.

That's because law enforcement officers almost certainly have more training with weapons than you do. They're also taught to always be on guard, to see everyone as a potential threat.

"You never know what people are capable of," said Deputy Kelly Brown, a full-time law enforcement trainer.

I don't think that way. And after running through all of the video scenes, I was glad I don't have to — that I could leave protection to the professionals.

The simulator is a dim, curtained-off space about the size of a racquetball court in a corrugated steel building behind Sheriff's Office headquarters in Brooksville.

Brown sat in a balcony, where he could project different scenarios on a large screen and choose from several alternate endings.

Burzumato stood with me, describing the scene before each video, and afterward telling me what I'd done right or, more often, wrong.

The first image on the screen was of a man in a parking lot, trying to pry open a car window with a long, lethal-looking knife. I told him to put it down, which he did. But then he pulled out a gun and started firing.

Brown, replaying the video, was able to show that the second of the laser-beam shots from my refitted Glock pistol had hit the car burglar/gunman — which I didn't think was too bad.

But after talking with Burzumato, I realized how lucky I was that a cannon that normally fires stinging plastic balls to simulate return fire was on the blink. I would have been nailed.

I'd walked directly up to the car, Burzumato said, while I should have crouched and moved from side to side. And I didn't even try to take cover behind a 55-gallon drum that is in the simulation room just for that purpose.

As time went on, I got better at moving and hiding, worse at shooting.

Entering the scene of a mass shooting, I neglected to ask the fleeing people where the gun-wielding madman might be.

After I was shot, it didn't occur to me that there might be a second. There was, and he shot me, too.

And how did I do at shooting them?

"Bam! You got the electrical outlet," Burzumato said during the replay.

"You got the elevator door ... a door frame ... there's that door frame again."

I was better off when the situation called for holding my fire. A foul-tempered homeless man, huddled under a sheet of cardboard, pulled out a dark object that turned out to be a beer bottle, not a pistol.

"You made the right decision; you didn't shoot him," Burzumato said, adding that I should have taken the initiative to pull away the cardboard.

After approaching a car full of rowdy teenagers, I also refrained from shooting a scary-looking passenger who was wielding only a cell phone.

But not firing when it's called for can sometimes be worse than firing when it isn't, Burzumato said.

That 11-year-old girl on the stairs who shot me "is now wandering around school with a weapon," he said. "What's to stop her from going into English class and smoking Mrs. Jones and 11 kids? ... And you, Deputy Dan, had the opportunity to stop it."

I'm not a deputy, of course, which is a good thing all around.

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