I had been in this situation before. Last time I got a call about a mom and a young daughter arguing in a park, I nearly got my head blown off. I mean, you arrive and see a young woman sitting calmly on a park bench with a purse and you assume you'll be having a nice little chat and everything will be fine. You don't expect this lady to pull a .38 from her purse and start shooting at you. But that's exactly what happened the first time. And my gun stayed holstered the whole time I ran for my life.
So the second time that situation arose, I was thinking about that first incident. This time as I walk up, I hear the girl tell me, in Spanish, that her mom has a gun in her purse. So I approach with my gun drawn, and, sure enough, the mom reaches quickly into her purse.
I have my finger resting on the trigger even though I always keep my finger on the trigger guard -- department policy, and a good policy at that. And when I see her pulling something up out of her purse, I think about the first time and I think about what her daughter had said and the trigger just goes.
I mean, I pulled the trigger, I did it, but it wasn't like I totally intended to pull the trigger. It was like all these thoughts and the fear of being shot at again and screwing up again sort of twitched my finger before the object was completely out of her purse.
"Mr. Nelson, could you please tell the jury what the object was?"
Yes. It was a driver's license.
"Can you please tell the jury what happened because of this little twitch of your finger?"
I shot the woman through the heart.
"Yes, fine shot, Mr. Nelson, right through the heart of this little girl's mother, right through her heart as she sat on a bench in the park where she had taken her 7-year-old daughter to play. A mother murdered for showing you a driver's license. "
But, you don't understand. I understand it was horrible. But it was a horrible mistake. I didn't mean to do it. I'm not a cold-blooded killer.
"Oh, I think all the citizens here understand plenty, Mr. Nelson. No further questions."
"Oh, crap, Randy! I thought she was pulling a gun! Idiot, idiot, idiot. You got me." I turn back toward Sergeant Randy Force of the Phoenix Police Department. "What's that? A $10 million suit?"
"Probably more," Force deadpanned.
"Can you display my shot record for me?" I ask the simulator technician. "Please tell me I missed her."
The tech guy clicks his mouse. The frozen image appears on the wall in front of me. A smiling woman, Hispanic, mid-30s, sitting on a park bench, hand on her driver's license, a quarter-size red circle on the middle of her aorta.
"Nice shot," the technician says. "You definitely killed her."
"Well, there I did it. Ruined a few lives, cost the city a few million."
"That's why we have this simulator," Force says. "You make your errors here where nobody gets hurt."
Hopefully. In theory. It's a good theory. It works most of the time.
Indeed, statistics show police-involved shootings have dropped dramatically since the 1970s, thanks in large part, police academy trainers say, to new technology such as this Firearms Training Simulator, the FATS machine.
Here, in this glorified video game at the police training grounds at the foot of South Mountain, you are put in the middle of life-or-death situations. Split-second decisions -- shoot, don't shoot, they call it. Every Phoenix officer must pass this test before going to the street.
I got nine out of 10 correct, an "A" by academic standards. I killed most of the right people and didn't kill most of the wrong people. I didn't shoot at moving cars, through tinted glass, I didn't shoot the two guys with knives because they weren't close enough to cause me harm before they dropped their weapon.
I shot the bank robber and the guy pulling a gun in his car. I shot that guy through the belly three times because if I shot him through the temple, I probably would have killed his passenger, too. They were all good kills. And Sergeant Force and the technician admitted they were impressed. I was feeling pretty cool.
And then I didn't shoot the apparently nice lady on the park bench who whipped out a gun on me and fired. I didn't technically fail that because it was a sucker punch.
"I'll let you try that one again," the technician told me.
And so the scene ran again and it looked exactly the same, except that this time, it wasn't a gun that the lady was pulling from her purse.
Sucker punch again? No such thing in police work. Only two critical mistakes. I carried preconceived notions and my finger was on the trigger. So the nice mommy with the driver's license was dead by my hand.
And that's all that matters. And that's all that should matter. We are operating with only the highest standards now -- A-plus or nothing. Anything less means the death of an innocent, something I've been more than willing to bitch about in this column in the past.
I asked to take the test because, once again, Arizonans are hotly debating another police shooting. It seemed appropriate to have at least some clue as to what officers see and feel before they decide to pull the trigger.
You know the scenes already.
A 15-year-old Mesa boy pulls a knife at his home and tells his parents he's going to kill himself.
The parents call police. Mesa police arrive. The kid, all 116 pounds of him, makes a move toward the three police officers in the cramped doorway of a small ranch house.
One cop fires his Taser stun gun. Here the stories diverge. The boy's parents say the Taser caused the boy to drop the knife and fall to his knees. The cops say the kid was still coming at them.
The cops shoot the boy, who is Hispanic, 10 times in the torso. An investigation begins. The parents get an attorney. It looks extremely bad. Hispanic kid, black and white cops. We'll know more when the investigation is finished. Then we'll question if the investigation was valid.
At this point, the bottom line is this: We don't yet know if the three officers acted within police policy and state law.
If the boy was still coming at them with the knife, and the boy was within 21 feet of the officers (a decades-old police standard for use of deadly force), the officers had every right to shoot him.
If he in fact stopped, they were horribly remiss in shooting him. And beyond what is legally considered a justified shooting, the cops still may have screwed up by the standards of the best veteran cops, by the standards, perhaps, of a jury. It was a small person with only a knife. Couldn't they have retreated, pulled their nightsticks, something other than shoot 10 bullets into the boy's chest?
And once again, this past weekend, Mesa cops shot someone armed with only a knife. This time, it was a woman, a suicidal woman, cops say, but still just a woman with a knife.
Maybe these guys actually fit that stereotype of the rogue, racist cop. Maybe they were carrying preconceived notions you just can't carry when you're a cop. Maybe they were too fearful to be cops, maybe they were too violent to be cops. We don't know yet.
All I know for sure is that these horrible, life-ending, life-altering decisions were made in a split second. The boy and woman were doomed in a split second. And the cops and family members will agonize over these few split seconds until the second they themselves die.
The only other thing I know for sure: I failed the same FATS test those three officers had to pass to get on the Mesa force (they have nearly identical training to that of the Phoenix PD). I shot a woman with a driver's license at 30 feet, not a guy with a knife at what apparently was about 15 feet.
And it was easy. And it seemed absolutely right in that split second. And even though it was just a video-game mistake, a couple cop buddies told me later, the memory of my cyber-misdeed will probably stick with me for years.
And so will the sickening what-ifs, the cascade of imagined personal and legal consequences.
All for a split-second decision doing a job I took for crappy pay because I wanted to help people.
This is why cops play the video games. This is why trainers in the Valley keep trying to improve those video games. They make them more real, more complicated. Phoenix PD has even begun training with a hopped-up version of paintball. You feel a bit of pain when hit. You don't like it. You come to fear it. Your adrenaline flows. Your motor skills and creativity collapse the first few times. In time you see more clearly, think more clearly. Complicated life or death situations become old habit, routine, the unexpected becomes expected, those split seconds move in real time. This is why cops train hundreds of hours in these ranges.
And while shootings in Mesa and Chandler occupy our thoughts about police and their guns, Phoenix PD is quietly pushing toward what would be an amazing feat for a department its size:
So far this year, no Phoenix cop has shot a person who wasn't armed with a gun. In all the cases so far this year in which police were confronted with knives or pipes or other non-firearm threats, they have successfully subdued the suspect with non-lethal Tasers.
"You might want to buy stock in that Taser company," Force jokes. "It's making a huge impact on the dynamic of these confrontations. It's taking it to the point where guns are only being used when guns are involved."
Except it didn't work in Mesa. Something went wrong.
And Force knows that something somewhere someday will surely go wrong in Phoenix during one of these foggy split seconds.
Some cop will blow it and ruin several lives.
Some cop who screwed up just like me.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.