It was a fake gun. It was a pretend criminal. But my anguish after shooting him was real.
It wasn’t pulling the trigger of the propane-powered high-tech cap gun that bothered me. I’d already had to reluctantly do the same to two other officers posing as antagonists Friday in a three-part officer-involved shooting simulation at the Kansas City Police Department’s Regional Police Academy.
No, the more disturbing part of the third shooting scenario they put me in was the fact that my “aggressor” had merely pointed a wallet at me.
Granted, it was in a dark room and the actor-assailant, who had just risen from a hiding place beside a bed, reached down and wielded the item suddenly. And I’d just been through two other scenarios in which I had no choice but to shoot in self-defense, so I was admittedly a little jumpy. I also took some solace from the fact that six of the nine of us ordinary citizens who experienced the one-at-a-time simulation did, in fact, shoot the actor with the wallet.
But still. It was a billfold, for pete’s sake. I felt awful, even with the chance to smile, shake hands and walk out with the guy. It was further distressing to imagine what would happen if I’d really been a cop and had really shot an unarmed man.
It absolutely could have happened to Kansas City Detective Paul Thilges. The scenario we’d just been exposed to was based on an actual incident he once faced — except that something made him pause and not shoot.
Thilges could’ve been killed himself. But the foolish fugitive whose life Thilges saved that day had no idea how close he came to dying.
I could certainly tell him.
To put yourself in a police officer’s shoes and in the line of fire, even within the safe confines of a simulation, is intimidating, humbling and eye-opening. It makes you realize how quickly officers must make life-and-death decisions. And it made me understand, if only a smidgen, how agonizing an officer’s decision to pull the trigger is.
In fact, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith says his department loses more anguished officers to resignation or retirement after having shot someone than he does officers who get shot themselves.
Bad guys and heels often force the issue, sometimes on purpose because they’re too cowardly or thoughtless to kill themselves.
Detective Thilges’ fateful but nonfatal encounter also makes you wonder: How many officer-involved non-shootings are there? How many lives and bullets and investigations and condemnations are saved by officers who do the insanely difficult in the blink of an eye and defuse an explosive confrontation?
We hear a lot about officer-involved shootings, as well we should. It’s vital to the public trust of law enforcement and the credibility of officers that their conduct be scrutinized. But the truth is, we’ll never know how many shootings are avoided, how many tragedies averted by quick-thinking — and sometimes slower-acting — officers. At their own peril, no less.
Thilges credits his instinctive, life-saving action to the kind of police academy simulations I only tasted last week, which are exponentially more intense for aspiring officers.
Most defusing of situations is verbal, of course. Retired officer Bill Conroy, now a civilian firearms instructor at the academy, says 99% of policing is communicating, most often with folks who aren’t necessarily crackerjack communicators themselves. Yet the academy has seen sharply declining communication skills among today’s young recruits, thanks to lives immersed in smartphones and tiny bursts of texted exchanges.
That’s starkly ominous. As I’ve witnessed firsthand, safe streets, especially in today’s incendiary environment, require law enforcement officers with superb communication skills.
As well as a public that has a modicum of understanding of what officers go through.