By the time I got my Glock up, it was too late.
My companion had been stabbed by a man armed with a knife.
Then the lights came back on and I happily handed over the handgun, which was only loaded with a laser and C02 magazine.
The simulation was part of a Thursday media training event hosted by the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The training was conducted at the Omaha Public Safety Training Center.
The session was designed to teach members of the news media the proper use of force by law enforcement officers. I was joined by World-Herald photographer Chris Machian and a reporter from a Des Moines television station.
The purpose of the class was to educate and inform the public through members of the news media, said Jim Balthazar, a senior ATF special agent who helped lead the session.
Omaha was one of about 50 cities where Balthazar and Paul Massock, Deputy Chief of the ATF Special Operations Division, are hosting the class.
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Massock outlined the definition of “use of force” and provided information on two cases that set the standard for when and how officers are justified in using force.
We saw videos of body cameras and dash cams that showed how quickly situations can escalate. During a traffic stop, a civilian and officers appeared calm. But 1.15 seconds after joining officers behind the vehicle, the man shot two officers and fled.
Balthazar explained reaction times, firing speed and de-escalation before heading us to the VirTra simulator at the training center. The simulator displays realistic video scenarios on multiple screens. Instructors have several options to modify the scenarios at different times.
I had never held a gun before, let alone shot, so I was surprised at how heavy it was. It took me a few tries to get the right grip.
The screen went black and I heard a garbled dispatch call “sending” me to a disturbance in a front yard. When my virtual car stopped, I saw my “partner” in the video already breaking up a fight between two men.
One of the men ran inside the house while three women stood by the porch. My partner continued to talk to the man on the lawn. The man told my partner that he and the person he was fighting with were just “playing”.
Meanwhile, the women started bickering and yelling at my partner. Then the man who had entered the house ran through the front door brandishing a knife. The women restrained him while my partner put the man on the lawn in handcuffs.
I tried to tell the man with the knife to drop it, but the order could come out in a whisper. Or maybe I didn’t say it out loud.
I thought, “Am I raising my gun? If I shoot now, do I risk hitting passers-by?
Then Knife Guy was on the move, heading towards my partner.
“Do I shoot now? What if I hit my partner? What if I hit the man who’s handcuffed to the ground?
None of my questions mattered, however, as my partner was stabbed and the screen went blank.
I am a chronic overthinker. And this situation left me frozen.
It gave me insight into what might go through an officer’s mind on any given call, especially ones where force might be required.
My classmates, meanwhile, were able to fire three rounds each. One of them shot dead a man who was shooting at them from a truck. The other shot a man trying to carry a gun into a town hall.
My virtual partner will eventually wake up, unscathed, in the same virtual scenario. (Sorry again, partner.)
But the forces of order do not have the same guarantee.
“When it comes to lethal force – law enforcement or military – it’s the ultimate pass/fail environment,” Balthazar said. “The consequences are very heavy, whether it’s being fired, being prosecuted, being criminally charged or possibly being killed.”