Nath: Walking in a cop’s shoes
The suspect drew a knife from a side pocket. He stood, less than 20 feet away, shifting his weight from side to side, brandishing it at me. I was armed, but I didn’t want to shoot him if I didn’t have to.
Then, suddenly, the suspect charged, the knife held out in front of him.
I didn’t think. I didn’t even instruct him verbally to stop, as I had been told to do. I just reacted.
I drew the gun holstered in my jeans and pulled the trigger. The shot hit him in the chest.
Then it was over. The police officers around me, including the one still wielding the fake knife, whom I had just shot with a harmless plastic pellet, were all laughing at me. I must have screamed like a girl at some point during the use-of-force simulation.
The Citizens Police Academy isn’t what I expected. I suppose I pictured six weeks of long evenings, power point slides and droning sergeants explaining the importance of a well-trained police force. I didn’t expect live simulations forcing me to make the decision between someone else’s life and my own. I didn’t expect to tase the chief of the Silverthorne Police Department (he was wearing a protective suit). And I certainly didn’t expect to find myself questioning my own assumptions about law enforcement.
The press likes to think of itself as the fourth estate – the last check on government and law enforcement agencies. Often, when we write stories regarding the use of force, we do so with that mindset: The public always, has a right to know. I believe that has been the thought process, and the sense of responsibility, behind the many stories that have appeared in the press in Denver in recent years on excessive-force incidents and lawsuits involving the Denver Police Department.
The Denver media was not wrong to print and broadcast those stories. The public does have a right to know what is happening, particularly when what is happening involves agencies funded and lawsuits paid with tax dollars.
But we, as reporters, follow stories like those coming out of Denver over the last few years, as reporters. We do not always understand the perspective of the officers involved in those stories.
What the Citizen’s Police Academy is teaching me, besides how to use a Taser, is that for cops, things aren’t always as simple as they seem on the pages of a newspaper. In real life, when someone is charging you holding a knife – even a knife you know is fake – it’s scary.
As a job, law enforcement isn’t for everyone. Police officers don’t make millions. They work bad hours, long shifts and national holidays. And, on any given day, they might get shot. Or stabbed. Or barfed on by a drunk driver. They live with the stress of knowing, whenever a call comes in, it might mean confronting a mentally unstable person with a knife. And for them, that knife probably won’t be plastic.
They say you shouldn’t criticize someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Through the Citizen’s Police Academy, I’ve walked only a few feet (OK, stumbled a few feet – away from the crazy guy with the fake knife) in the shoes of Summit County’s law enforcement officers, but it was enough to make me stop and think about perspective and about right, wrong and shades of gray.
Certainly, law enforcement in this country isn’t perfect. Sometimes cops, with all their training, make the wrong decisions. But, ultimately, I’m still glad they’re there. They make those hard decisions and face those terrifying situations so the rest of us don’t have to.
Caddie Nath is a reporter at the Summit Daily News. Reach her at email@example.com.
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