Guest Commentary

Jim Strahle: Weapons force difficult decisions for police officers


Special to The Star

People in Cleveland protest the police shooting of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old was fatally shot by a Cleveland officer in November after he allegedly pulled a replica of a gun at a city park.
People in Cleveland protest the police shooting of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old was fatally shot by a Cleveland officer in November after he allegedly pulled a replica of a gun at a city park. The Associated Press

A comment quoted by followers of the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was officers only gave him a two-second warning before firing their weapons. At this point we do not know the details of what transpired in the events leading up to their weapons being fired. Discussions about prosecutors and special prosecutors aside, it is hoped that the legal process will determine whether the responding officers were reckless in their actions.

However, one obvious question comes to mind: How long does it take a person holding a pistol in his hand to point it at an officer?

Officers going through training at the Kansas City Regional Police Academy are required to spend time in the VirTra training room. The room is encompassed with floor to ceiling video screens set in a half circle, a full 180 degrees. Each officer is given a modified .40-caliber Glock to match the weight and feel of a department-issued weapon. When the weapon is fired the screen makes a visual mark where the gun was pointed when the trigger was pulled. There are many scenarios and the operator of the system can even change the action within each scene.

For a moment, place yourself in this training. In front of you is a life-size traffic stop. You exit your patrol car. A man begins to step out of his car. You command him to remain in his car, but he continues to stand anyway. You repeat your command, “Sir! Please remain in your vehicle.” You place your hand on your holstered weapon as a precaution. The driver of the car is wearing a jacket. He puts his right hand into his jacket and — the instructor can choose — pulls out a cellphone or a gun. In the time it takes for you to decide which it is, you will make a decision that will affect many lives, especially your own.

In one scene you must fire or be shot, in the other, if you shoot, you might well have killed an innocent man.

Recruits, even seasoned officers, are often shaken to their core. Minutes after the scene, adrenalin is still flowing through their veins. The realization of the weight and timing of their decision process overcomes them. But heck, it was only training.

Can you imagine the pressure? You can do more than that. You can place yourself in the same position by signing up for the Citizens Academy, which is offered several times a year by the Kansas City Police Department. Not only will you have the opportunity to live that scene, you will see many aspects of what makes their job one of the most difficult in America.

I once watched a dash-cam video played for the Board of Police Commissioners. Officers had responded to a “shots fired” call. When they exited their vehicle the sound of gunshots rang out. The officers fired back. It all happened within 5 seconds. The fact was it was simply a vehicle backfiring.

Several commissioners asked to replay the video so they could review it again. I was thinking, “Where is the officer’s second or third chance to review the scene before making a decision?”

This is a difficult time to be in law enforcement. Time will tell if the officers in Cleveland made a poor judgment call. Mistakes are made in every job. Perhaps some of the fault lies with a lack of not giving enough information when recruiting. The average age of new officers is between 20 and 30. A high school education is required. To attract the right sort of people a little more accurate job description might be needed.

Help Wanted. May work nights, weekends and holidays. Potential danger daily. Problem-solving is a must. Wrong decisions could incur loss of job, prison or loss of life.

Jim Strahle was a civilian in the Kansas City Police Department’s media relations office until his retirement last year.