Deadly Force

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.

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Robert Nelson