Just over a month ago, I shot a man in the back . . . true story.
I will start at the beginning. When I turned eighteen it became time for me to make my way in the world. I have always lamented the fact that I was required to select the profession of a lifetime as a teenager. Feeling wholly unqualified to select the best hamburger available, let alone a career, I did what most people of my time did. I went to a job board. By job board I mean a cork board with little pieces of paper held on with push pins, or as we called them back then, thumb tacks. I remember standing in front of one at Diablo Valley College. It was rather large and fully covered with current job postings. The one that I remember most was a recruiting flyer for the California Highway Patrol.
The flyer was professionally printed and bore the logo of the CHP. To show just how long ago that was, at the time, officer candidates needed to be over six foot tall. I am only 5-10. For a moment though, I considered a career in law enforcement. I would get a gun and drive around in a police cruiser and where a cool tan uniform. What eighteen year old would be excited about guns, uniforms and fast cars? Another moment of thought reminded me of the less glamorous parts of the job. The actual policing part. I remember once being a hall monitor in school and being chided and insulted by other students when I tried to enforce the rules. No, I did not want to be the person who had to say no, or worse.
Here in Vallejo we are in the midst of a very tough conversation. Actually the entire State of California is having this conversation. Assembly Bill 392, redefining the use of force by peace officers has passed both House and Senate and only awaits Governor Newsome’s signature to become law. In the wings is Senate Bill 230 requiring regular de-escalation training for peace officers. It was recently amended by the house and is back in the Senate for a final vote before it hits the Governor’s desk. But Vallejo cannot wait much longer. A few months ago I decided to enter this conversation and learn as much as I possibly could about both sides. Soon thereafter the Vallejo Police Department hosted a Use of Force Forum for citizens to attend. Out of a population of over 120,000 only twenty people showed up.
The first part of the day we were instructed on the current law defining Use of Force by peace officers. The second part of the day we were led into the VirTra V-300 Firearms Training Simulator. (Firearms Training Simulator, I will get back to this name in a minute.) The VirTra V-300 is a 300 degree, 5 screen immersive simulator which some of us chose to experience. A short aside: My across the street neighbor, all of 5 foot 2 inches, my how times have changed, is a recently sworn San Francisco police officer. He asked me to do one thing, “Take the simulation as seriously as possible.” I did, and I discovered something in myself that I was not aware was present. I have the ability to shoot a man . . . in the back.
Let me give you a quick review of the scenarios that were presented to us. One was as a backup officer covering another officer handcuffing a suspect who must shoot the suspects brother before he stabs the arresting officer. Another was a traffic stop with an irate driver who gets out of the car yelling then reaches in to pull something out of the car. The first time it was a gun, the second time is was a phone. Time running out, I was put together with a very nice gentleman and we entered the simulator as partners. Our first scenario was a school shooting. We moved through the hallways, encountered multiple gunman and were ourselves shot multiple times. I remember being so flush with adrenaline that I emptied my training weapon into a suspect who had already shot himself in the head. We repeated the scenario, and after knowing what was to happen we still got shot and made mistakes. Before I tell you my shooting story, let me say this. If you take it seriously, this type of training is effective and I am glad that we have this device at our disposal, here in Vallejo. I will finish this thought in a minute.
The next scenario was a disgruntled employee sitting in his car, in the company parking lot, after being fired. The police were called because he would not leave the premises. His car was parked in front of the office building where he formerly was employed. His name was Aaron. I know this because I must have said his name over a hundred times during that simulation. Through the back window of his car my partner saw that he had a gun and was pointing it at his own head. With all of my filters turned off my adrenaline spiked. I kept saying Aaron’s name and asking him to show me his hands, to put the gun down, to talk to me. I was focused, intent and afraid. I employed the basic Command and Control approach. I told Aaron what to do . . . and he would not respond. After what seemed to be a lifetime, Aaron exited the vehicle with the gun at his side, and started walking toward the building. I kept calling his name, he would not respond. I never once saw his face. He never once threatened me or my partner. Imagining what he might do with that weapon, should he make it into the office building, I remember watching as my options for a peaceful solution began to wane. Like an hour glass with the last of the sand spinning through the neck. The decision became binary at that point, to shoot or not. Two more steps, I decided. One more step I breathed. Final step . . . I shot, and Aaron, a man I never met, died on the worst day of his life. I think a part of me died with him. The part that lied to myself saying, “You would never kill anyone.” I could not turn around to face my classmates and openly sobbed as the adrenaline left my body. WTF Tom? It was only a game!
I received pats on the back as I left the room, and they stung. In a casual conversation with the Chief that followed, we were asked what we thought of the day. I responded directly. “All I learned to do today was to resolve a situation with a gun.” That was not the message that the officers had intended. To be clear, I did receive the message that they wanted to send. It is very dangerous, at times, to be a police officer. Of this I have zero doubt. But, as was admitted to all of us that day, encounters such as we witnessed in the simulator, are a very small part of their interactions with the public. Why then, was the only option we were shown, was how to use a gun?
When last I wrote to you I mentioned a New Normal. One where, over time, we have asked, let me say that again, we have asked our police force to protect us and we have given them the authority and latitude to do so. Our police force abides by the law when applying the rule for use of force in the field. Of this I have no doubt. My issue is with those rules. Thankfully the State is at the point of changing those rules and giving our officers the de-escalation training that will give them more tools to keep themselves and the public safe.
To return to my earlier comments, the VirTra V-300 Firearms Training Simulator has an even more powerful potential. It is extremely useful in firearms training, but as was pointed out by the company’s representative, it has a multitude of scenarios that the operating trainer can choose from. If the trainer wishes to focus on shooting accuracy and reflex then that is what the officer learns. If the trainer encourages de-escalation engagement, then the officer’s skills in that area are reinforced. It is up to the trainers, our local trainers, as to which approach we emphasize. The tools are now available, it just takes will and leadership. City Manager Nyhoff, please consider this in your hiring recommendations for our new Chief of Police.
Until next time,