A Lesson Before Dying

Voice Reporter Flunks NYPD'S Shoot-Don't-Shoot Test

My heart raced and my palms sweated as I gripped the rubberized butt of a modified 9mm Glock 19 pistol. That, warned a poker-faced firearms instructor, is the eerie sensation you get when you're entrusted with one of the most powerful handguns in the NYPD'S Arsenal.

Accorded this rare privilege, I was supposed to throw out all of my prejudices about the cop on the beat (even the one who chants, "no justice, no police," at PBA rallies to defend fellow officers accused of brutality), and get into his freaking mind. But no matter how hard I tried— eyes wide shut, my sixth sense kicking in— I could not think, act, or react like a police officer in Giuliani time. That cop has a brutal streak; he's the one civil rights activists like Al Sharpton say shoots to kill. His victims— Amadou Diallo, Kevin Cedeno, Aswon Watson, Nathaniel Gaines Jr., Patrick Bailey, and William James Whitfield— did not have to die.

For a while, I seemed to forget why I'd come, on that humid afternoon last Wednesday, to the department's Firearms and Tactics Training Outdoor Range in the Rodman's Neck section of the Bronx. I was one of about 30 reporters who had volunteered for, as our host, Police Commissioner Howard Safir, put it, "a behind-the-scenes look at what it is like to be faced with real-life situations where split decisions need to be made."

Sixth sense kicking in: Peter Noel (left) sizes up his target at the NYPD firing range.
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
Sixth sense kicking in: Peter Noel (left) sizes up his target at the NYPD firing range.

I thought the idea of a reporter playing cop for a day was another one of "Hollywood Howard" 's stunts to shore up departmental arrogance in the wake of a series of controversial slayings of blacks by white cops. During a Q&A session held prior to the "war games," Safir appeared to scold the media. He chastised reporters for harboring "preconceived ideas" about cops accused of firing their weapons unjustifiably at suspects. Safir implied it should not be difficult for anyone to understand why officers use deadly force, "an area of police work," he emphasized in his invitation letter to reporters, that is "often misperceived by the public and the media."

"All of you have seen TV shows in which the police or the sheriff shoot the gun out of somebody's hands," Safir said. "I think you'll find out that even an Olympic marksman don't have the capability to do that."

The commissioner's comment would have been laughable if he hadn't metaphorically put his gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Though Safir had invited us to "gain a greater understanding into the complexities of policing," that objective seemed lost when he used the event to side with the cops who killed Amadou Diallo. "I believe when the Diallo case finally comes to trial we'll know all the facts," he said. "One of the key facts will be what the police officers believed. If you believe that you're in danger, if you believe that your partners are in danger, then you react the way you're trained. And again, without commenting specifically on the Diallo case, in every tactical situation that's the driving force."

The top brass on the force were all around us. Some followed my group into the "F.A.T.S. [Firearms Training Simulator] Room," chortling, insinuating in careless whispers that our views on police brutality— especially in situations involving fatal shootings— would change after a rigorous three hours of training.

Indeed, my opinions on the phenomenon of deadly force were enhanced by the crash course.

The F.A.T.S. room conjured up the image of a crime scene as my instructor deployed me behind a steel drum that he said would be my cover in the event an encounter with a suspect turned ugly.

"This is my lesson before dying," I muttered, crouching behind the drum like I'd seen "ma niggaz" do in those gangsta rap videos depicting surrealistic shootouts with "tha muthafuckin' police."

As I practiced loading and aiming my Glock to fire center-mass at the perp, I looked over at my partner, NY1 news director Peter Landis, who seemed to make all the right moves, eager to take a bite out of crime. In addition to the Glocks, "Officer" Landis and I were given Mace and told how to use it to disable the suspect.

In the simulation, developed by the Sacramento Police Department, two cops pull over a minivan for a traffic violation. They emerge from their patrol car, shout commands to the driver— "Get outta the car!" and "Put your hands in the air!"— and walk toward the van. Suddenly the van backs up, knocking one of the officers down. A burly white motorist storms out of the van and charges the officer's partner with a knife. "Stop!" Landis commands. "Put the weapon down!" I freeze. I remember, from viewing an earlier simulation involving two other cop-for-a-day volunteers, not to shout, "I will kill you!" I can't decide whether to blow this apparent example of road rage away or kneecap him with a full metal jacket and then attempt to subdue him with the Mace.

Pop! Silence. Landis guns down the man with a single shot. I'm shaking, because in one chaotic moment, my partner may have killed John Doe. I try not to look at Landis, but I cannot turn away from what I perceive to be a poignant pallor on his face. It looks like he is going into shock. "If I'm feeling fucked up about the whole thing, imagine what Landis is going through," I think.

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