A Lesson Before Dying


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.”

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.

Our instructors review the sequence, pointing out the mistakes in policing that might have proved deadly for the knife-wielding motorist. Apparently, Landis and I had stayed too close to the suspect who swung at us with the knife. “If you’re gonna shoot the person, you should really get outta the way— if you feel you’re gonna shoot him at close distance,” the instructor suggests.

He asks how we felt during the role-play. “I didn’t shoot because I was thinking about how best to control the situation,” I respond.

“Did you know it was a knife when he pulled it out near the vehicle?”

“Yes,” I reply. It was the wrong answer to a setup question. I should have warned Landis instantly upon seeing the knife, the instructor points out. “You gotta let your partner know,” he stresses. Then Landis offers an insight into the mind of a good cop caught in a shoot-don’t-shoot dilemma. “I wasn’t sure,” he explains. “The issue to me was I wasn’t sure what it was. But he got close enough so that I could see it.”

Landis wasn’t as trigger-happy as I thought. He’d deliberated carefully before firing. Like me, he never wanted to kill anybody. “I was concerned that if I’d shot him before, it [the knife] might have been something else,” he says. “I waited [to shoot] till I actually saw the blade.”According to the instructor, an experienced officer would have yelled at the suspect, “Don’t come near me! Stop! Stop! Stop!”

The instructor’s words echoed loudly in my ear as we broke up and headed toward a firing range. “We don’t teach people how to kill; we teach people how to stop a threat,” he said. But in Giuliani Land things don’t turn out that way. Like most blacks, I’ve long suspected that white cops, especially, don’t shoot black suspects by the rules. Before injuring or killing suspects, some allegedly have been overheard shouting racist commands such as, “Freeze, nigger! You’re dead!” or “Nigger, don’t make me have to shoot you!”

I also began to reconstruct possible scenarios that might have led to the shooting of Amadou Diallo and other victims we’ve lost to “split decisions.” They died because cops allegedly mistook an object (a steering-wheel lock, a Three Musketeers bar, keys, a beeper, a cell phone) for a gun or some other deadly weapon.

Along a dusty roadway to the firing range, I suggest to the affable Inspector Michael Collins that the department expand its “sensitivity training” to include people from Harlem,
Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and other mostly black neighborhoods. It is in these areas that residents often are viewed by white cops as permanent suspects.

A current NYPD ad campaign, in which cops are portrayed as gentle, caring role models and big brothers, just ain’t cutting it in the ‘hood, I told Collins. At least, these white cops must be sensitized to African American street culture in a way that teaches them how to distinguish between a 40-ounce bottle of beer and a gun. Assign rookie cops, I suggest, to the real training grounds— the housing developments, street corners, school-yard hangouts, barber shops, and pool halls. Remind the officers that not every souped-up black SUV with tinted windows is a dope don’s chariot. Not every unusual gait by a teenager should be interpreted as a prison-yard swagger, making him a suspect for any unsolved crime.

A working knowledge of neighborhood argot also is important. Consider this: If an officer approaches a group of teenagers, then singles out one of them for questioning, and the teen’s response, for example, is, “Why you all in ma grill [face]?” that officer should not perceive this natural reaction as a terroristic threat, resisting arrest, or obstructing governmental administration— three likely charges the teen faces for advocating his civil rights. His refusal to be handcuffed should not be
regarded as an invitation to body slam him and crack his head open with a nightstick. In addition, the officer should be able to distinguish between genuine concern on the part of the teen’s friends for his safety and a mob wanting to incite a riot.

Inspector Collins listens intently. He passes the word on to Marilyn Mode, the deputy commissioner of public information. The department, she says, already has outreach programs in some neighborhoods where cops bond with kids and role-play certain “choose-to-defuse” scenarios. Mode mentions the stellar working relationship Richard Green’s Crown Heights Youth Collective has with officers in several precincts.

I suggest that Commissioner Safir consider busing a group of adults and teens to the NYPD’s training academy. The idea would be for them to understand what goes on in a cop’s mind when he is confronted with situations in which the suspect looks like them— not like the burly white motorist in the Sacramento Police Department’s scenario. It’s the least Safir could do, I argue. And if critics like Reverend Al say that’s not good enough, the commissioner might respond, in his typically dismissive manner, “These got a lesson before dying.”