Trigger Decisions: firearm training sheds light on life & death choices police face
(The following is a first-person account of ABC News 4's Jon Bruce experience going through firearms training with the Mount Pleasant Police Department.)
To serve and protect.
Police officers put their lives on the line every day.
Often, they are forced to react to life-threatening situations in a matter of seconds.
So when is it okay to use deadly force?
It's a subject often debated, especially in the wake of police-involved shootings, including the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by ex-North Charleston Police officer Michael Slager, and Bryant Heyward, a robbery victim who was permanently paralyzed after mistakenly being shot by a Charleston County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
But when adrenaline and fear come into play, normally clear cut moral lines, can easily blur. How easily?
I recently suited up with the Mount Pleasant Police Department for “shoot, don’t shoot training” to find out.
That meant meeting Carter Baldwin, the Mount Pleasant Police Dept.'s Training Sergeant.
Baldwin takes a tactical, almost mathematical approach to preparing his officers for life on the street. His main focus is safety.
Baldwin is tasked with teaching and transforming cadets into patrol officers arming them with the knowledge they need to be effective, but fair.
"Distance plus cover equals time," Baldwin says. "We make better decisions when we have more time to consider that decision."
To demonstrate the challenges officers face, Baldwin outfitted me with a belt, holster, and bullet proof vest. Next came a simulated pistol, almost identical to the ones used by police officers in Mount Pleasant. The only difference; it fires pain cartridges instead of bullets.
The training would consist of three scenarios, each becoming more and more difficult.
The exercises were designed to test not only marksmanship, but critical decision making under extreme stress similar to what law enforcement officers are faced with.
With my limited firearms experience, Sergeant Baldwin began with a safety briefing.
Baldwin carefully explained the rules of handling firearms responsibly.
Next it was a few test shots.
When I was comfortable enough drawing the pistol and shooting, it was time for the first scenario.
“Inside this room there are 5 targets, some of them are presenting you with a deadly force threat some are not," Baldwin instructed. “So you will make a decision whether it’s necessary to shoot. If it is, do so.”
But before the training would begin, Sargent Baldwin threw in an added stressor; 15 burpees.
The cardiovascular repetition would recreate the blood flow and addrenine rush associated with responding to an emergency scene.
The blood immediately rushed from my hands to my torso. My hands began shaking
Upon bursting into the room, I found three paper targets holding weapons.
I pulled the trigger 3 times, hitting the threats.
The 4th Target had his hands up; an obvious sign to refrain from shooting.
The 5th was holding a beer bottle. The neck of the bottle pointed toward the officer; the idea to prompt a quick decision to shoot or not shoot.
When the first scenario was finished Sargent Baldwin broke down the performance.
"Good hits on all of your targets and good decision making," he said. “You were able to see that guy is not holding a firearm. That guy is not holding a firearm. And this same guy actually is holding a firearm we engaged the right guys.”
That newfound confidence, however was short-lived.
Scenario two was designed to show just how confusing and difficult police work can be.
“Imagine, you've been dispatched to a local park for a report of a man at a local park," Baldwin said. "He’s acting erratically. He’s walking around and talking to himself.”
After ignoring several commands, the suspect threw a ball, then another.
He then pulled out a fake knife and began walking toward me.
“Sir that’s a knife," I said. “Put that down. Sir, stay right where you are. Sir, I am not going to tell you again. If you come any closer I will be forced to pull this trigger. Sir, I need you to get on your knees and put the weapon down. On your knees. On your knees. Put your hands behind your back."
My reaction - not to shoot.
But was it the right call?
“Honestly a really good job," Baldwin said. "A difficult situation. Especially since the person is not communicating with you. "When we pulled that knife out, a lot of people would have shot him right there. And he is presenting a deadly force threat at you. Is it a good shoot or a bad shoot? You gave him the benefit of the doubt which is what we encourage our officers to do.”
Baldwin says using force comes down to three factors; ability to harm, opportunity, and jeopardy.
Scenario three proved more difficult and ended with me shooting what I thought was an armed suspect, but in reality was an innocent bystander looking for help.
And while it may be a polarizing time for police officers, Baldwin says all his officers need is a little understanding.
"It's a reminder for us as police officers to be mindful to the considerations of who we police, and I think it’s a reminder to the community that we are humans," Baldwin says. "And we do care about you."
Each Mount Pleasant Police Officer receives several weeks of firearms training, reviews dozens of weeks of case studies, legal background training and yearly weapon qualifications.
From the time they are hired, it takes about a year or more of training before Mount Pleasant police are allowed on patrol by themselves.
The department has had four officer involved shootings since its inception
- February 1992
- September 1996
- August 2006
- September 2012
According to the Washington Post there were 963 Officer involved shootings in the U.S. in 2016, 17 of which were in South Carolina.
There were 48 officer-involved shootings in South Carolina in 2017.