Sitting calmly at her desk, looking every bit the powerful business executive that she is, the local bank president answers my partner’s questions, one after another, when her mood suddenly turns anxious.
It’s no secret why we’re here. She’s the main suspect in an FBI embezzlement investigation. Maybe she’s a gambler or an addict. Who knows for sure.
What we do know is that she knows we’re on to her.
We also know she has a gun permit.
As the questions become more pointed, more accusatory, the bank executive opens her desk drawer and reaches in.
Her voice suddenly turns hostile and, realizing my partner may be in danger, I ask her in a loud, commanding voice to keep her hands on the desk.
She refuses, and again angry words are exchanged. It’s clear something is about to happen.
That something is me. I pull out my Glock and warn her again to keep her hands where I can see them.
When she refuses, I find myself confronted with the one decision no agent wants to make – do I pull the trigger?
It’s an absolutely true story, or true in the sense that, yes, I was playing the role of an FBI agent, but everything else was simulated. As in not real, but as close to real as humanly possible.
Or, in this case, as close to being an FBI agent and pulling a gun as one can get without actually doing it.
No, I’m not an FBI agent. I’m a journalist invited to try my hand with the bureau’s Firearms Training Simulator.
It was, to say the least, enlightening.
“It puts an agent in a situation that’s as close to a deadly force situation as possible,” said Special Agent Chad A. Kaestle, principal firearms instructor for the FBI in Buffalo.
Since the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the use of deadly force by police has been in the headlines. And it didn’t stop with the gun battle that killed one of the two suspects in Boston. Since then, there have been fatal police shootings in Florida, Connecticut, Virginia and New York.
Often with those deadly encounters come reports of how many shots were fired, and to the public it almost always seems excessive.
And there’s always the question of whether the cop fired too soon. Or, perhaps even worse, too late.
“The use of force, including deadly force, never looks good to the outsider,” said Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
There are plenty of horror stories about cops firing their weapons, but few are as memorable as the case of Amadou Diallo, the West African immigrant who was fired on 41 times as he stood, unarmed, outside his Bronx apartment in 1999.
Diallo died at the scene – he was hit 19 times – and the four police officers who shot him later stood trial and were acquitted.
The officers said Diallo looked like a rape suspect they were searching for and insisted that it appeared as if he had drawn a weapon.
The gun, it turned out, was a wallet.
Police never admitted any guilt, but New York City eventually paid Diallo’s family $3 million to settle a civil suit against the city.
Even now, decades later, the Diallo shooting serves as a reminder of what can go wrong when police officers use deadly force.
It also provides a glimpse into what goes through cops’ minds as they consider firing their weapons and how their mind-sets will almost certainly be scrutinized by police, the public and the media.
“Every time we knock on a door, we’re entering the unknown,” said Holly L. Hubert, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo. “That’s why the ultimate old-school compliment to an agent is, ‘I would go through a door with you.’ ”
It’s not hard to imagine the stress that comes with going through that door or approaching that car with the tinted windows.
Yeah, it’s part of the job, but so is going home at night.
“Police don’t run. Police don’t retreat,” said John Glascott, Erie County’s commissioner of central police services. ”And these are not black-and-white situations. These are situations that develop in seconds.”
Often, just a few of those seconds can mean the difference between what cops call a “good shoot” and a “bad shoot.”
They also can mean the difference between life and death.
For those on the front lines, these incidents are almost always stressful, murky and rapidly changing.
Police officers often have mere seconds to choose between firing and not firing – a decision that can alter their lives forever.
Depending on what they do, it can mean discipline or the loss of a job, not to mention possible prosecution and public ridicule.
Even worse, if they’re wrong and hesitate, it could mean their own life or the lives of others.
Few people know that better than Thomas H. Burton, a local defense lawyer who represents police involved in deadly force cases. Burton lectures recruits at Erie County’s police academy on what’s at stake when they draw their weapons and how they can best prepare for those dreaded moments.
“I don’t want them to be so apprehensive that they’re hesitant at the moment of truth and it costs them their life,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t want them to think they have a license to use deadly force in anything other than the most extreme situations.”
In the eyes of the law, there are guidelines for when deadly force is warranted and, for cops, it revolves around the concept of “imminent threat.”
In short, if a police officer believes a subject poses an imminent danger of death or serious injury to the officer or another person, that officer is justified in using deadly force.
Sounds simple, right?
Try telling that to the cop who has only seconds to determine the seriousness of a threat.
“You can screw up a Miranda warning, you can make a mistake with evidence,” said Burton, “but there’s no taking back a .40-caliber bullet.”
When Burton talks to recruits, he tells them that at least one of them will someday sit in the big leather chairs in his law office, facing the end of a career.
“What no one sees is the hurt, sometimes tears and the gut-wrenching impact taking someone’s life has on these officers,” he said.
Glascott, who helps oversee the academy, said recruits are taught to rely on their experience and common sense, but in the end, they need to stop the deadly threat confronting them.
“One of the major jobs of a police officer is to go home at night,” he said.
Whenever there’s a police shooting, one of the first questions reporters ask is, “How many shots were fired?"
Often, the answer is a lot, and the FBI will tell you it’s because officers are taught, first and foremost, to stop the threat.
“We’re not shooting to kill,” Kaestle said. “We’re shooting to end the threat.”
Agents like Kaestle and Gregory D. Nelsen, supervisor of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in Buffalo, bristle at any suggestion that they are trained to kill. They know all too well that most deadly force encounters occur with the suspect less than 20 feet away and often armed with a knife or gun.
And even if the suspect is unarmed, agents know a gun, their gun, is in play if the suspect attacks and tries to wrestle it away.
“Until that aggressive action stops, we have to keep shooting,” Nelsen said.
It’s rare for a police officer to be found culpable in a deadly force incident and even rarer for them to face prosecution.
Even the FBI has come under criticism for what some criminal justice experts suggest is a system biased toward their own.
It’s a criticism that popped up again in May when an FBI agent killed Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen man being questioned in Florida over his connection to the Boston bombing suspects.
The bureau assured the public that it would investigate the episode, but the nature of its investigation – an internal review – left critics wondering if the outcome was predetermined.
A month later, the New York Times published the results of its own analysis of FBI shootings over a 17-year period ending in 2011 and found every single incident involving a suspect who was fatally shot or wounded - there were 150 in all – was determined to be justified.
Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha, told the Times he considered the FBI’s findings “suspiciously low.”
And Walker isn’t alone.
“Because the internal affairs process isn’t public, God knows how good a job they’re doing,” said Donald M. Thompson, a criminal defense lawyer in Rochester, of the secret internal reviews done by most police agencies.
Thompson said independent investigations are a good first step in cutting down on unwarranted deadly force encounters, but it’s not the only one.
He would like to see more videotaping of police encounters with suspects and, perhaps even more important, a change in the culture of police departments, a culture he thinks instills many officers with a mindset to shoot even when nondeadly force is preferable.
To make his point, Thompson often refers to a former client, Winston Hancock, who was shot five times by a Rochester police officer in 2003. Police said at the time that Hancock shot first – he was eventually charged with attempted murder of the officer – and that the cop was defending himself.
Thompson said it became clear during the trial that Hancock never confronted the officer and that he was simply fleeing the scene of an altercation with several other men when the officer spotted him and ran after him.
The trial jury found Hancock not guilty, and Thompson said the key was two bullets from the officer’s gun found far from the scene of the alleged shootout and in locations that discredited his version of a face-to-face confrontation with Hancock.
Changing the culture is also Topic A in Philadelphia, where the police commissioner recently asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent review into his officers’ use of deadly force.
The request came on the heels of a Philadelphia Inquirer report documenting 52 police shootings in 2012. Fifteen of the 52 people who were shot died.
“When you have as many as we’ve had, it gets people wondering if they were all justified,” Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said at the time.
Ramsey said he called in the Justice Department because he wanted to avoid an internal assessment that might be viewed with skepticism by the public. The feds agreed and began their work in Philadelphia shortly after completing a similar review in Miami, where they found a “pattern or practice” of excessive force in police shootings.
Investigators said they identified several police shootings in Miami that were initially determined to be justified that, in fact, were not.
There’s no simple solution to curbing unwarranted police shootings, but experts agree one of the biggest factors is the culture and environment officers work in.
And a lot of that starts at the top.
If a police chief has clear policies on the use of deadly force and has made it clear unnecessary shootings won’t be tolerated, they’re less likely to occur, experts say.
John Jay’s Haberfeld, who was born in Poland but emigrated to Israel as a teen and later served in the Israel National Police, thinks the other key is hiring good officers.
“If you recruit the right people, you don’t have to worry so much about supervision and discipline,” she said.
And once you hire them, give them tons of training. One of Haberfeld’s gripes about policing in the United States is the lack of preparedness.
In a lot of European countries, where the use of deadly force is less frequent, police officers undergo two or three years of training.
Here, she said, the average is 15 weeks.
“Train, train, train and train,” Haberfeld said. “We’re so quick to judge police officers but so slow to provide them adequate training.”
At the FBI, video simulations like the one involving the bank president are one of the tools used to expose agents to deadly force encounters.
By the way, my instincts were right.
The bank president was indeed reaching for a gun, though she could have just as easily been reaching for a set of documents proving her innocence.
If I had fired, would it have been luck or a righteous shoot?