Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes knows how to make a point and that’s exactly what he did recently when he invited several area reporters to walk a mile in his officers’ shoes.
Barnes did so because of all the high-profile law enforcement cases across the nation lately in which citizens have second-guessed the actions of officers, especially regarding the use of deadly force. The sheriff said his intent was to give local reporters a chance to see things from a law enforcement officer’s perspective.
Barnes invited me and other reporters from print and television news outlets to a darkened training room containing a video simulator on the first-floor of the new county jail in downtown Greensboro. The reporters each had individual training sessions, since Barnes wanted the situations presented to them to be a surprise – just as they are in real life for officers arriving on the scene. The reporters who went through the training exercises were equipped with a belt that held a can of mace and a flashlight as well as a gun – all of which interacted with the large video screen that showed life-sized attackers in action. Spraying mace on the characters in the video caused them to scream and cover their eyes, and an on-target gunshot would bring them down. The reporters were instructed to talk to and interact with the actors on the screen as if these were real-life encounters.
Barnes said the reporters became very engaged in the exercise and seemed to have a deeper understanding of the complex nature of instant life and death decision-making after seeing things from a law enforcement officer’s perspective.
“We put them through the same training we go through,” Barnes said.
“Everybody had the same reaction,” Barnes added about the reporters who took part. “They did not realize what the officers had to deal with.”
The sheriff said that, in these types of situations, the body naturally gets very pumped up.
“As you saw, the training was pretty intense,” Barnes said. “I wanted reporters to have an opportunity to see how it feels. It is life or death in some of those situations and you have to make spilt-second decisions.”
Barnes and his training crew had chosen scenarios that resembled some encounters that have been in the news lately. The training classes showed the look and feel of complex dangerous situations from the perspective of a law enforcement officer who often comes up on a scene with very little information about what is transpiring. In some cases, the officer has to decide on a dime whether or not to shoot.
Barnes and other officers sitting behind a table offered the reporters advice and commentary after each engagement. When I went through my training session, Cpl. J. Page, Cpl. Del. S. Casey and Sgt. Tim Mabe were the instructors, along with the sheriff.
Some of the scenarios I faced were a suspected breaking and entering where an intruder wouldn’t show his hands, a domestic violence case with a man beating a woman and a “routine” traffic stop during which a man jumped out of a vehicle with a handgun and began firing at me.
I had used the same training simulator nine days earlier in Guilford County’s first citizens’ defense class at the Sheriff’s Department District 2 office in McLeansville, and one thing that struck me was the dramatic increase in difficulty when moving from those personal robbery or home invasion scenarios to the ones that law enforcement officers often face. The law enforcement scenarios were harder to handle by an order of magnitude. Deciding whether or not to shoot when there’s an intruder in your house is hard enough, but, at least in those cases, it’s a binary shoot or don’t shoot decision usually with few players and limited considerations. Law enforcement officers in the course of duty, on the other hand, often have to worry about protecting others from offenders, not just themselves.
For instance, in one encounter I was presented with in the training session, I went into a highly chaotic domestic violence disturbance where a man was beating a woman with a crow bar. I drew my gun on him and ordered him to stop but he didn’t comply.
There were many variables to consider. It was much different than, say, deciding whether or not to use your gun and shoot when you are being robbed at an ATM. Here were some thoughts going through my mind: What’s he hitting her with? Is it something that could kill her? Is he going to kill her by bashing in her head or simply hurt her with body blows as he’s doing now? Is there any way to stop him other than shooting him? Can he be contained with mace? And on and on.
Quick – you have a fraction of a second to process the brand new situation and act and, if you choose wrong, you or someone else could be dead needlessly. Also, you have to think this through clearly while other family members are screaming and crying. (This is all hard enough when it’s a video simulation – as it was for the reporters who took part in the exercise – but it is no doubt more difficult when the officer knows that actual human lives are at stake.)
In this case, the attacker with a crowbar sprung off the woman and ran full speed toward me and I shot him.
I was told I should have shot earlier since he was using lethal force on the woman. They said mace wasn’t enough and they pointed out that I had waited until the attacker was coming at me and my own life was in danger. As a law enforcement officer, they pointed out, your duty isn’t just to protect yourself but also to protect others.
In another situation, I was killed because I hesitated for a split second in an attempt not to unnecessarily gun down someone whose intentions weren’t clear.
In some of the situations that I had trained on nine days earlier in the citizens’ defense classes using the same simulator, the correct option was to run away in the face of threats; however, that’s not an option for officers since they are the ones assigned by society to contain threats.
Another question I faced in some scenarios is when to quit shooting.
“Shoot until the threat is over,” I was told.
Barnes said that reporters responded differently in the training exercises.
“I don’t want to say who it was, but one person we had in basically just froze,” Barnes said.
He said this type of instant decision-making can be overwhelming even in a training video.
After I went through multiple intense simulations, the sheriff said he could tell that my heart was racing and my blood pressure elevated.
One thing I realized is how little information an officer may have going into a situation and how quickly it can escalate into a deadly encounter. For instance, in one situation, a driver pulled over for an expired tag grabbed a gun as he got out of the car. It was hard to see the gun until he was shooting at me. In another case, a suspect made a sudden move and pretended to shoot me with a stapler he held in his hand. His sudden motion and the darkened conditions caused me to fill him full of lead as soon as he raised his “weapon.” It was easy to see why some people who have made any type of shooting motion at officers, even when they have no gun, end up getting shot.
Going back through the videos after the encounters, it became clear that it was much easier to judge what should or should not be done after the fact than it was to do so in the heat of the moment.
Barnes said his department takes the use of lethal force very seriously, and he added that the trauma of having to shoot someone in the line of duty can be very difficult on the officers.
“Any time my officer is involved in a shooting,” Barnes said, “I’m there and checking to see if the officer is OK emotionally.”
He said he also makes the officer call his or her wife or husband or significant other and tell them that they are OK.
“I also expedite the investigations,” the sheriff said of his department’s internal investigation, adding, “The SBI will take forever for an investigation.”
“There are four different investigations that go in a shooting and none of them are intertwined,” Barnes added, “and they damn better come out the same – if not, I want to know why.”
The sheriff also said there’s a lot of talk among citizens these days about officers helping cover up for the actions of fellow officers, but he added that, in reality, that type of thing is very rare.
Barnes has seen some up-close action in his decades of law enforcement.
“I’ve been shot at and missed; I’ve been cut up and I got beat up when I was undercover – it took three guys, and I got even,” he said.
Once, as an undercover officer, Barnes made drug buy of $80,000 worth of drugs with $200 he had collected from fellow deputies just prior to the deal. It didn’t matter if he had enough money with him because Barnes was going to give the signal for the other officers to rush in before the money would be counted. Only there was a problem and the officers couldn’t get to the scene as quickly as they had anticipated so Barnes found himself on the wrong side of a gun trying to explain where the rest of the money was before an SBI agent came up behind the dealer just in the nick of time.
“I bought him dinner that night,” Barnes said.
Barnes was no doubt referring to the agent who had saved his neck rather than the dealer who had pulled a gun on him.
Another time, Barnes had to subdue a Vietnam vet with PTSD who was shooting at cars on NC 62 and who started shooting at Barnes.
Barnes is a very big guy said he had to take cover behind a tree that was very narrow.
“I put the most important parts behind the tree,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the man believed he was back in Vietnam and was shooting at the enemy. That’s when Barnes got an idea.
“I convinced him I was his sergeant and I ordered him to stand at attention,” Barnes said.
When the man did so, he dropped his weapon and was then subdued.