Split-second ‘shoot-or-don't shoot’ decisions

I’m not a cop, but I’m playing one on TV.

Why? To take a closer look at how police officers make those momentous, split-second “shoot-don’t-shoot” decisions.

In rapid-fire scenarios, there are key questions: Did the suspect have a gun? Was my life, or someone else’s life, in imminent danger from a deadly threat? And, in police-parlance, was it a good shoot or a bad shoot?

Those same questions have echoed resoundingly here since last November, when gunshots rattled the pre-dawn quiet of this neighborhood in Queens, New York. When the bullets stopped flying, a man was dead in the driver’s seat of his own car—and two of his friends, who were passengers, were badly wounded in a barrage of 50 police bullets.  The men were all unarmed.

William Bell, Sean Bell's father: That’s the thing that practically kills me every day, you know? Almost every day ‘cause he’s not here. Can’t bring him back.

William Bell was talking about his son, 23-year-old Sean Bell, a ballplayer-turned electrician just hours away from marrying his longtime fiance, the mother of his two young daughters.

William Bell: I admired him for what he was doing and about to  -- get married, raise a family the right way.

The wedding had been set for November 25th with that male ritual, the bachelor party, organized for the night before at a local strip club. Sean invited some friends and his dad William to join him.

Mike Taibbi, NBC Correspondent: Do you recall the last thing you discussed with, with Sean?William Bell: He said, “Daddy, I love you.” That’s the last thing me and him said to each other. We hugged, you know, and that was a special moment.Taibbi: He was happy.William Bell: Yeah, very much. And so was I.

But nothing would ever be the same after that. Sean’s dad left before the party ended and left before those 50 shots shattered the night along with so many lives.

Now, instead of celebrating their son’s future, William and Valerie Bell were mourning his death and wondering how and why it happened.

William Bell: No parent wants to hear that their kid is gone.Valerie Bell: Innocent man being killed for no reason at all. For no reason at all.

The five shooters were all experienced police officers.  That November night, they were all part of an elite surveillance team investigating the strip club for possible drug and prostitution violations.

But, outside the club, things got confusing between the undercover officers and Sean Bell’s group, and the cops ended up firing away at three unarmed men.

It just didn’t compute for many in the community including New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

Michael Bloomberg: I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired.

To break it down: the first officer to fire shot 11 times. Three other cops fired a total of eight rounds.  And one officer, with 12 years experience, fired off 31 shots—even pausing in mid-barrage to reload.

Whether it’s one shot or 50, any fatal officer-involved shooting can forever change lives on both ends of the gun barrel. No cop on the job will ever make a more important decision than to shoot or not shoot and that incredibly complex choice has to be made in a split second—with the highest stakes imaginable.  No do-overs and no tolerance for even one mistake.

Unless you’ve stood in a police officer’s shoes, it’s impossible to know how fast shooting situations can come at you and how chaotic they can be.

That’s why we had lead firearms instructor Scott Williams put an aging reporter through his paces at the Bergen County, New Jersey police academy.

The scenario training we sampled is considered by many experts the best learning tool available. It starts with a standard police weapon modified to fire special bullets—plastic projectiles that have soap powder in them.

Even so, they can still sting and injure, so armor is necessary.

Williams: Okay Mike, here’s your vest. All police officers wear a bullet-resistant vest.

This is the basic gear that’s used for this phase of the training, but with two additions. We added a microphone so you can hear what I hear and we added a camera atop the helmet so you can see what I see. 

Our live-action scenario takes place in this make-believe bank.  It may not be a darkened street, like the one the cops in the Sean Bell shooting faced, but trainer Wiliams says it holds similar elements: unexpected actions that demand instantaneous reactions. They’re never an easy task for a veteran cop, let alone a novice trainee like me.

Williams: You’re being sent to a bank.Taibbi: Right.Williams: There’s a person there. He won’t leave. He has no bank business, as far as the manager can tell. Taibbi: And that’s it?Williams: That’s it. That’s all you got over the radio.Taibbi: Do I go in with the weapon drawn? Or is that up to me?Williams: That’s up to you.

What dangers could be lurking just behind a door like this one?  A cop never knows for sure, but does know that his life and the lives of others he’s sworn to protect could hang in the balance.

Williams: Start scenario!

Bank scenario #1:

Bank Manager: Officer, officer. Over here.Taibbi: OK, you’re the manager? Bank Manager: I’m the bank manager, officer.Suspect rushes to Taibbi and shoots him in a barrage of bullets.Taibbi: Oh I did everything wrong there.

As soon as I enter, I got distracted. I have no chance—never even pull out my gun.

Taibbi:  I felt them a little bit. Where did I get hit?Williams: You got hit here, here, here, here and here.Taibbi: I’m dead.Williams: Yes, most definitely.

It all happened in the blink of an eye.

Williams: Did you see the suspect with the fleece?Taibbi: I didn’t even look. I should have. I, I didn’t see him.Williams: Which is bad.

My instructor said I should have ignored the bank manager and just focused on why I was there—the threat, while, at the same time, seeking out a safe zone.

Any cop with more than a day of training knows the drill:

Williams: Take yourself mentally through it to prepare yourself for it so that when it does happen for real, it’s not happening for the first time. Your mind will immediately trigger and say, ‘I know what that is. That’s a gun. That’s happened before. And I’m ready to take care of it.’

On that fateful November night, police say Bell and his friends left the club at around 4 am. And then outside, they got into a brief argument with a man who wasn’t part of their group. Meanwhile, an undercover detective, already suspicious there might be a gun inside the club, had followed the group outside and, he would later say, then heard one of bell’s friends say “Yo, get my gun.”

Concerned about potential gunplay, the undercover detective followed down the block and watched as Bell and two of his friends got into his car. The detective said he identified himself as a police officer and ordered the car turned off but that Bell hit the gas instead and clipped the cop before ramming an unmarked police van carrying other undercover officers.

Shots rang out, all from the cops, with the first salvo coming from the detective struck by Bell’s car. It was all over very quickly, under a minute, according to witnesses in the neighborhood who heard the gunfire.

The Sean Bell tragedy is what this type of firearms training is trying to prevent. Through repetition, my education was continuing.  Had I learned anything?

Same situation—a guy causing trouble in the bank.

This time, I enter more cautiously.

Bank Scenario #2:

Bank Manager: Officer, officer over here.Taibbi: You in the gray sweater. Suspect: What’s the problem?Taibbi: Police. Show your hands.Suspect fires and charges. Taibbi ducks, then takes cover behind the pillar. gun battle ensues.

Again, things move almost too fast to comprehend.

At least the second time, I didn’t bother with the bank manager this time. And although the suspect and I each received non-fatal wounds, I was able to stay in the fight this time by focusing only on the threat.

Williams: And you reacted to that?Taibbi: Yeah, maybe not fast enough, but I did react to it.

Reacting to a perceived deadly threat is essential to understanding why the five cops fired at Sean Bell and his friends, police say.

In a preliminary report, each of the undercover cops claimed that he feared imminent danger to either himself or his fellow officers. They all say they reacted to a gun that, it turns out, was never found and, Sean Bell’s friends say, never existed.

The perception of a gun, it turns out, can play a big part in pretend policework too.

Williams: Start scenario!Bank Manager: Officer.Taibbi: Both of you in the corner. Police. Police. Hands up. Hands up.Suspect: What’s the problem?Suspect rushes Taibbi with hands up.

Okay, I fired at the suspect from a few feet away but it’s the bank manager who’s grimacing... because my shot hit him in the stomach.

And it turned out the suspect wasn’t brandishing a gun in his raised hand, but a black glove.   So about my use of deadly force?

Williams: That would have been a situation where you wouldn’t have wanted to shoot. Taibbi: I thought he was threatening my life.Williams: Well, there you go.Taibbi: I would have lost that one though.  I mean, there would be a lawsuit after that one.Williams: Will the defendant please rise.

Remember, soap powder bullets, no actual danger and everyone gets to walk away safe. Still, in only a day of this training it was plain to see how hard these split-second decisions can be, how narrow your vision is, and how you literally don’t hear or remember what you or anyone else might have shouted.

bAuditory exclusion, alright?  Something that we’ve learned from combat.  People in combat tend to not hear things, right?

In the Sean Bell case, conditions were far from ideal. It was dark when the undercover detective, in plain clothes, tried to stop Bell’s car. And remember, although he reportedly identified himself as a cop, what could Bell or the others in his car really see or hear?

Besides the black of night, Bell’s friends said later they feared for their lives. All they knew in the confusion of the moment was that there was a man brandishing a gun coming at them for no apparent reason.

Could both sides have been right in believing they were reacting to a deadly threat?

And, from my own brief experience on bank patrol, was I right when I made what turned out to be a wrong decision and shot at the unarmed suspect?

Taibbi: I saw him turn toward me with something that I thought was a weapon. It’s not, it’s a glove. What should I have done at that point?Williams: There’s no what "you should have done." You perceived that that was a gun. So in your mind, you did what you thought was right. You shot that person before they had a chance to shoot you.Taibbi: And yet, as we’ve seen from the decisions and court cases in the past, a cop just can’t say, “I thought it was a gun.  I thought my life was in danger.”  That doesn’t automatically get him off the hook.Williams: It will probably never. It will probably never work.

What does work, at least to a point, is this live action scenario-based training.  Even for an old rookie... and even in less than a full day of it, I got better.

I recognized the need to find cover, and in this case of hostage-taking, holding my fire until I know the hostage is safe, and then firing my weapon only when I know the bad guy is a real and imminent threat.

Taibbi: This training has really evolved.  I mean, in the old days, “Stop or I’ll shoot,” that doesn’t work anymore.Williams: That doesn’t work anymore. There’s no more warning shots. We need realistic training. There’s no substitute for this training.

But real cops don’t get second-chances in the situations they face on the job, and when they make mistakes real lives can be ruined.

And what about the five veteran New York City cops in the Sean Bell shooting? Ironically, in all their years on the force, none had ever fired his weapon in the line of duty before.

Not one of them, not once.

But that no longer matters. Their legacy is bound to be those 50 shots and the death of an unarmed 23-year-old on his wedding day.

Taibbi: You know that these guys are going to be thinking about it for the rest of their lives.William Bell: They should. They should. ‘Cause I am. I’m hurting for the rest of my life.

Three of the five officers have been indicted: two were charged with first degree manslaughter and one was charged with reckless endangerment. All three officers have pleaded not guilty. No charges have been filed against the strip club where Sean Bell held his bachelor party.