Law & the Courts

Why Do the Police Shoot Unarmed Suspects?

Activist Jarrett Maupin confronts a suspect in a police training exercise. (Fox 10/YouTube)
Law-enforcement lessons from the firing range.

Periodically, FBI agents have to re-qualify to carry their service pistols. When I was a teenager, a family friend in the FBI (a tremendous mensch, Special Agent Ron Barndollar)​ used to take me and my brother along to his qualification tests.

For me and my brother, this was always a big deal. We’d show up amidst a crowd of FBI agents carrying an assortment of exciting guns that they were only too happy to show off for us. A few agents would always come over to say they remembered us from our last trip, or just to introduce themselves — FBI agents tend to be very friendly. We’d sit in on a briefing by some FBI firearms instructors, who would bring everyone up to speed on FBI firearms policy. One year, an instructor announced that the FBI had decided that agents couldn’t choose their own gun lights or shotgun shells anymore. He joked that the FBI didn’t want them to have any advantage over the bad guys. He added, “Next year, they’re taking out the air conditioning.” It was a sweltering summer day, and he got a good laugh.

Afterward, everyone would head out to the range and watch the shooting.

I don’t remember exactly what the test was, but it was something like: 50 shots, split up between 25 yards, 15 yards, 5 yards, and 7 feet, with a minimum score of 80 percent. Agents waiting their turns would regale my brother and  me with war stories. Then, when all the agents were done testing, my brother and I would get a chance to run through the course ourselves — and if there was time afterward, to try out some shotguns and “assault rifles.”

This story has a point besides reminiscing about my idyllic childhood. During one trip, after all the shooting was done, we were invited to try out the FBI’s FATS machine — the Firearm Training System, a virtual-reality arrest simulator.

RELATED: The Police Shooting Debate: Misleading Arguments Obscure Sobering Truths

It works like this: A trainee stands in front of a movie screen, onto which are projected pre-filmed interactions with potentially dangerous suspects (played by actors). The scenes play out differently depending on the choices the trainee makes (different middles and ends are selected by an instructor). The choices the trainee has to make tend to boil down to shooting or not shooting. He has in his hand a gun that shoots light beams. He shoots at the screen, and the FATS machine records where the virtual bullets go.

When I was the trainee, I got killed over and over again.

When I was the trainee, I got killed over and over again. Everything happens very fast: A suspect shoves your partner, and a split second later your partner’s gun is in the suspect’s hand, and you’re dead. A suspect’s hand drifts out of sight behind a kitchen island — even though your partner is shouting at him to keep his hands up — and suddenly he’s holding a gun, and you’re both dead. A suspect charges you, suddenly, and you don’t shoot because you can’t see a gun. He has a knife in his waistband, but before you realize it, you’re dead.

RELATED: How to Address the Problem of Police Shootings

Conversely, a lot of scenarios can be resolved peacefully. People shout and scream, but they keep their hands up, and everyone lives — assuming you don’t get carried away and shoot them. The point of the FATS machine is to prepare agents for the split-second life-or-death decisions that all law-enforcement officers are inevitably required to make. It teaches something that the FBI has learned over decades of dealing with bad guys: that if someone you’re trying to arrest does something with his hands other than keep them in plain sight, there’s a good chance that he’s planning to shoot you. That’s why policemen shout the keep-your-hands-where-I-can-see-them thing so emphatically. They want to be sure that if you do something else with your hands, it isn’t accidental.

It also teaches agents to treat unarmed suspects like armed suspects until they know better. Particularly the ones who charge or attack. The fact is, there’s no way of knowing whether someone is unarmed or just pretending to be unarmed, until he’s been searched.

#share#Last year, a self-described “radical political activist” and Black Lives Matter protester named Jarrett Maupin agreed to go through a FATS-style police exercise — not using a FATS machine, but using paintball guns in a parking lot. Maupin was told to question a man behaving suspiciously. The man’s hands disappeared momentarily behind a car, reappeared holding a gun, and Maupin was “killed.” In the next exercise, two unarmed men were having a loud argument. Maupin approached them, one of the men starting walking aggressively toward Maupin — and Maupin shot him dead.

A local Fox affiliate in Phoenix filmed Maupin’s experience (you can watch it on YouTube). Afterward, one of the local reporters tried the same exercise, and got exactly the same results. The reporter asked Maupin what conclusions he’d drawn from the experience. “I didn’t understand how important compliance was,” said Maupin. “But after going through this, yeah, my attitude has changed. This is all unfolding in 10 to 15 seconds. People need to comply with the orders of law enforcement officers — for their own sake.”

#related#Maybe the answer to racial tensions and anti-police protests is for police to offer every member of Black Lives Matter a chance to take the test that Maupin took. Or maybe the police should start doing FATS-machine demos in high-crime neighborhoods, to help people understand the decisions cops are faced with. Maybe they should open FATS arcades. I bet they’d be popular.

In the meantime, though, it’s worth remembering: Policemen, FBI agents, DEA agents, et al., have a very tough job.

Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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