Shoot or don't shoot: Police reporter takes test

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Editor's note: George Hunter is The Detroit News local law enforcement reporter.

Detroit — The man jumped out of his truck and stomped toward me, waving his arms and cussing. I never saw his partner in the passenger's seat until he whipped out a gun and blew me away.

I'd make a crummy cop. My mistake during a simulation of an apparent routine traffic stop shaved points off my score in a police video training session. In real life, there's no room for such errors.

Police shootings have dominated national headlines recently, with officers often coming under heavy criticism for using deadly force. One of those was the April fatal shooting in Detroit of an armed robbery suspect by a federal agent who was a member of a multi-jurisdictional task force.

Police insist civilians don't comprehend the split-second life-and-death decisions they're sometimes forced to make.

To get a better understanding, I underwent the "shoot/don't shoot" training given to Detroit Police. The session at the department's Training Center was lighthearted at times — I felt silly hollering, "Sir, get back in your vehicle!" to a video screen — but the intent was serious, since the artificial situations are quite real for cops on the street.

The Milo Simulator is a large-screen video display that presents more than 150 scenarios designed to teach officers when and when not to shoot. A .40 caliber Glock, retrofitted with a laser, is used to fire at the video bad guys — if necessary — before they shoot first. Sometimes a citizen quickly reaches for a wallet or cellphone. Sometimes it's a pistol.

RoboCop, I'm not. I was gunned down during traffic stops, a domestic violence run, and inside a school.

Bad aim was partially to blame, but in most cases I failed because I'd relaxed my guard — something police say they don't have the luxury to do.

"Officers always say there's no such thing as a routine traffic stop," said Lt. Keeth Williams, commanding officer of the Training Center. "Every time you encounter someone, you have to assume they're going to pull out a gun and start shooting."

After getting myself killed a few times, I felt compelled to draw my pistol whenever I approached a car or doorway. In real life, officers can't do that, since the driver they pull over is most likely a peaceful citizen whose brake lights are out. But there's always the chance he's an armed wanted murderer who'll do anything to avoid going to prison.

Even during a simulation, it's disconcerting imagining anyone you encounter might suddenly turn violent. How do police heed that fear without being uptight or authoritarian when dealing with citizens?

"That's one of the toughest things we have to do," said Officer Joel Dobis, who was attacked last year by a woman wielding a rusty razor, suffering injuries to his face that required extensive reconstructive surgery.

"You never relax," said Dobis, of the 12th Precinct. "The day you get used to it is the day you should stop being a cop. I give people the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect, but also I'm watching everything they do: Their hand movements, body movements. If their hand goes toward their waist or pocket, I'm ready to draw (my pistol)."

Too late

Although the training environment was simulated, there was a measure of stress facing situations that required hair-trigger decisions — and a sense of failure when I made the wrong moves.

That's what happened in the school shooting scenario. If I'd acted just a second earlier, the girl would have lived.

I edged through the virtual hallway, pistol-first, past the scattered virtual bodies. My trigger finger twitched when a group of screaming students suddenly rushed from a classroom. Clearly, the gunman was inside.

When I made it to the doorway, I was startled he was so close, his rifle aimed at a kneeling student, who wailed and begged for her life.

In the split-second it took to wonder whether to shoot the man or try to negotiate with him, he fired off a round and the girl tumbled to the classroom floor. After I took down the killer, I lowered my gun and contemplated my fatal mistake — and a second gunman barreled through a doorway and opened fire, wiping me out yet again.

"When an officer is killed, it's usually because he let his guard down," said Lt. Charles Flanagan, who has worked in several capacities, including heading Special Operations crews in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, and the former Narcotics Section.

Flanagan said he's been shot at several times. In 2007, he said he killed a man who lunged at him with a butcher knife.

"I was backing up a crew on a domestic violence case," he said. "The woman met us outside and told us her ex-boyfriend had broken into her house and beat her. He was still inside."

Flanagan said he and another officer approached the front door. "All of a sudden, the guy pulls the door open, holding a butcher knife over his head, saying, 'I'm going to kill you.' I said, 'drop the knife or I will shoot you.' I backed up three steps, but he keeps coming at me. He was in attack mode, so I shot him twice in the chest.

"He didn't leave me any choice. It was suicide by cop."

Going home

Detroit police once had a major problem with officer shootings. The U.S. Attorney's Office last year ended federal oversight of the police department, which began in 2003 so the department could avoid massive civil rights lawsuit alleging, among other things, widespread instances of excessive force.

When the decision was made in August to dissolve the federal consent decree, U.S. officials said the department had improved in several areas, including use of force.

From 1995 to 2000, Detroit police officers fatally shot 47 people; from 2009 to 2014, there were 18, said Assistant Chief James White, who was in charge of revamping use of force policies and practices to meet federal guidelines.

The department is required under the agreement to provide annual use of force (UOF) training to all recruits, officers and supervisors. The training, according to the federal monitor's 2003 report, must include, "proper UOF; decision making ... examples of scenarios faced by DPD officers and interactive exercises that illustrate proper UOF decision making, including the use of deadly force."

The training must discuss "the circumstances in which officers may draw, display, or point a firearm, emphasizing (that) officers should not draw their firearm unless they reasonably believe there is a threat of serious bodily harm to the officer or another person; the danger of engaging or pursuing a subject with a firearm drawn; and that officers are generally not justified in drawing their firearm when pursuing a subject suspected of committing only a misdemeanor," the report said.

An officer from Dobis' precinct last week shot an alleged drug dealer who reportedly brandished a semi-automatic pistol. The 21-year-old man was struck in the buttocks.

"The officer did everything by the book, and he got to go home that night," Dobis said. "That's what it's all about."

(313) 222-2134