In the line of fire

Published 12:43 pm Saturday, February 20, 2016

Last October, I, along with staff reporter Rebecca Chappell, was privileged to spend an afternoon participating in force-on-force training with the Franklin Police Department. For the training, we were outfitted in bulletproof vests and fully armed equipment belts, including simulated Tasers and training pistols that would fire paint-tipped rounds. We were then placed in situations where officers would role-play as potential bad guys. The point of the training was to see how we would react when faced with the possibility of a physical confrontation. The experience became the basis for Rebecca’s terrific four-part series, “Behind the Badge.” It also had a significant impact on how I view law enforcement officers and the job we ask them to do.

Like many of you, I suppose, I felt I had seen just enough cop-based movies and television shows to be able to show up for the training and really show those officers a thing or two. And I did show them a couple of things, things they had likely never seen before and that are unlikely to be found in any law enforcement-training manual, unless listed under the “What Not To Do,” section. But they were good sports and great teachers, so I was able to take away some valuable lessons on the peril these officers face every day, gain insight into their tremendous drive to do things the right way, and better understand the stress that the life of a law enforcement officer creates for not just the police, but their families as well.

This week, The Tidewater News published a story about a suspect who was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer during an altercation that took place when the suspect was stopped and questioned about an attempted shoplifting in which he fit the description of the perpetrator (“Suspect strikes Franklin police officer,” Wednesday, Feb. 17). What most struck me about the story, and perhaps only because I had gone through my training experience, is that the story ended there; police officer called to the scene of an alleged crime, sees suspect that matches description, officer questions suspect, suspect strikes officer, officer arrests suspect, suspect goes to jail. The end.

We have all seen in recent years how differently this situation could have gone; officer questions suspect, suspect strikes officer, officer shoots suspect, Franklin dissolves into civil unrest. Or, officer approaches suspect, suspect reaches for pocket, officer orders suspect to show his hands, suspect keeps reaching for pocket, officer shoots and kills suspect, Franklin dissolves into civil unrest when attorney for dead suspect’s family reveals that the suspect was reaching to pull his ID card out of his pocket. In either scenario, and dozens of other potential variations thereof, the argument could be made that the officer was justified for using deadly force if he felt his life was in danger. In any event, however, the suspect would be dead, the community would be split down the middle and the police department would come under national security. The shooting officer would be vilified and, if found guilty of using unnecessary force, would go to jail. If found not guilty, would have a difficult time continuing to do police work in this community, would probably resign and then have difficulty latching on with another department for their not wanting to deal with the officer’s baggage. There would be protests, criminals would feel emboldened to confront law enforcement officers and cops would be even more hesitant to do their jobs.

And it would all be because a police officer, who puts his or her life and career on the line each and every time they leave the comfort of their home and wave goodbye to their family as they begin another shift for which they are underpaid and underappreciated, made the decision to pull the trigger in defense of his or her own life.

Sound farfetched? It’s not. The first scenario I encountered during my training exercise, found me confronting an aggressive suspect whom I was told to question regarding suspicious behavior. When the suspect was 30 feet away, became belligerent and started walking in my direction, I could feel my pulse quicken. At 20 feet when I couldn’t get the Taser out of my belt, I started to panic. When the suspect got in my face and reached toward me, I pulled out my training weapon and shot him in the belly. My heart was racing and adrenaline was coursing through my veins, even though neither I nor the training officer I shot was in any real physical danger. We were safe because trained professionals in a closely supervised training exercise were in complete control of the exercise. Even still, my survival instinct had kicked in and I wanted to walk out of that situation unharmed.

Granted, I am as far removed from being a trained law enforcement officer as one can possibly be, hours and hours of my television apprenticeship aside. But to a man, the officers involved in my training experience confirmed for me that such a visceral reaction, even in a situation where the threat of violence is simulated, is common. How then would one react when faced with the real deal?

Fortunately, the officers employed by the Franklin Police Department have been trained extensively to react with calm and professionalism even when it means, as it did in this week’s arrest, that the appropriate reaction is in direct conflict with one’s own survival instinct. It is a reaction that requires not only a tremendous amount of self-control, but also a greater understanding of the big picture; one bad decision can end a life and forever change a community in a matter of seconds. It has happened all across this country, but it has not happened in Franklin, Virginia. For that we should all be grateful to our law enforcement professionals who set out every day to do things the right way.

TONY CLARK is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is