I don’t pretend to know what a law-enforcement officer goes through each day. I can’t understand the stress of knowing that, while most people view your uniform as a comfort, some view it as a threat.
But I tried to get a taste of it recently. I submitted myself to a training session with a computer simulator known as VirTra. Training specialist William Fowlke of the Utah attorney general’s office told me more than 900 officers from all agencies statewide have taken the same test.
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The difference between them and me is they have had training. But Fowlke assured me that doesn’t always prepare them for the unknown.
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Imagine the holodeck on Star Trek. I stood on a platform surrounded by large screens, armed with a holstered 9mm Glock that was modified to fire only lasers. Fowlke sat at a control panel capable of sending a seemingly endless array of situations and reactions my way from characters who appeared on the screens.
Suddenly, I was in a rural setting, investigating suspicious noises coming from a barn. Within seconds, a young girl, maybe 16, drove out of the barn on an ATV, followed by a boy about the same age on another ATV. She stopped within a few feet of me.
While I was struggling for what to say, she pulled out and knife and began yelling. “You stay away from us! … I’ll do it! I swear I’ll do it! You stay back. I’ll do it, I swear!”
While I feebly tried to talk her down, her friend urged her to get on his vehicle. She dropped the knife and obeyed him while I yelled for them to stop.
I never saw the boy’s gun. He fired six shots at me as they rode into the sunset.
Why didn’t I pull my weapon? That’s what Fowlke and Special Agent Ken Wallentine, who also had been watching me, wanted to know.
The answer was simple. I’ve read about officers shooting kids who, it later turns out, were armed with toys or even nothing at all. I didn’t want to shoot a juvenile.
Wallentine offered his perspective, tempered by years of experience. “My gosh, look at those kids,” he said. “They could be my grandkids, or maybe you know kids that age, and no, you just don’t see them as threats. But the challenge is that reality tells us otherwise.”
Two days later, my little lesson was underscored when West Valley City officer Cody Brotherson was killed, reportedly by three juveniles in a stolen car.
This is a somber time for law enforcement in Utah. Brotherson’s death was followed Wednesday by news that Utah Highway Patrol trooper Eric Ellsworth died after being struck by a car along a rural highway in Box Elder County.
This came after a weekend dominated by reports of four attacks on officers nationwide; three apparently ambushed.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund says an officer is killed somewhere in the United States every 61 hours. So far this year, 60 have died from gunshot wounds and 49 from traffic-related causes.
Policing, if you haven’t figured it out, is tough work. You might be ambushed by bad guys or run over while trying to assist someone. If you fire your weapon, your every move and thought will be scrutinized and perhaps used to further political aims. If you don’t use your weapon, people might get hurt.
And then of course there are the few bad cops who seem to want to keep the peace for only some people.
Yes, there are two sides to all life-and-death situations, but in an age when news reports linking law enforcement with death are in plentiful supply, it worth pausing to remember that few, if any, other professions invite it as a daily companion. And while critics will point to other statistics showing how many people officers have killed, with few exceptions, police don’t shoot people who cooperate with their commands.
I learned I don’t have what it takes to make the decisions they do. But I also learned they deserve a lot of respect for putting on that uniform each day and facing an uncertain future.