"Shoot or don't shoot?" was the simple question with the impossibly difficult answer.
It was asked by Baltimore County officer Henry "Butch" Himpler, a senior firearm instructor at the world-renowned shooting range in Timonium, MD.
The situation? A man with a knife faces four police officers in front of a popular shopping district.
A crowd builds, standing behind the officers who have their guns drawn. The officers repeatedly implore the man to put down his weapon. Bystanders join in the pleas. A concrete trash container stands in the middle of everything, obstructing the view of the man's legs and knife.
Officer Charles Smothers takes one shot and James Quarles, an unemployed, soft-spoken 22-year-old father from Baltimore, falls over.
The scenario really happened. The incident took place at Lexington Market in 1997, sparking commentary around the country about whether the officer should be charged for using excessive force after Quarles' death.
Bottom line, in the eyes of the police, Smothers did what he was trained to do.
"If you wait for the absolute, for the answer to everything, and it's a bad guy," Himpler said, "you've waited too long."
The oath by which officers swear to protect their community is one carried out by training, instinct, policy and a set of scientific absolutes for situations when everything but an absolute exists, he said. The velocity of a bullet, for example, and an officer's reaction time can make all the difference in the world.
It is arguably one of the most demanding jobs in the world.
The Baltimore County firearms policy takes up two-thirds of a page and has established notoriety for a reason, said Himpler, who has helped craft it over his 29-plus years with the department. It’s the model policy used by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
I learned the policy in the first of the two classes from the Baltimore County Citizens Police Academy on live fire and calls to service—a class that was as enlightening as I anticipated. I'll never look at police work the same way again.
To the range I went
Colonel Kim Ward of the county's community resources bureau started off the night with a reminder of what we were in for.
"This is one of the most exciting parts of the Citizens Academy," she said, "and also the most important."
Through a series of demonstrations, Himpler, range master Sgt. Rich Moelter, and other officers allowed me to practice my reflexes and try out the range's brand-new scenario software.
I learned that human beings are designed to reach their maximum speed--about 10 miles per hour--in two strides. It also takes a quarter-second to see and a quarter-second to shoot. It means one’s reaction is destined to be a life-changing half-second behind another’s action.
It’s why the man with a knife--about 14 feet away from the officer who shot him-- was an imminent threat, Himpler said.
“We train our officers to operate under stress,” he said.
In one scenario, my slow reaction amounted to being stabbed by a suspicious man lurking around a quiet neighborhood. In another, I shot a man who was guilty only of reaching in his pocket for his wallet.
Himpler, with his 23 years on the shooting range, spouted an array of astonishing facts throughout the training which students were required to take before practicing live shooting in the indoor range. For example, only 19 percent of shots fired by police officers in the United States hit their target, while qualifying for the department requires at least 70 percent success. Also, it's standard operating procedure for police to aim to kill, shooting a target's "center mass," or a person's chest—rarely do they attempt to shoot an arm or leg to keep a suspect alive.
A condensed version of the Baltimore County firearms policy is as follows:
When to use a firearm:
- In self-defense from death or serious injury;
- In defense of another person;
- When all reasonable means have been exhausted to stop someone with the potential to injure others from fleeing;
- When an officer is on foot and a vehicle is being used as a weapon;
- To dispose of or humanely destroy an injured animal;
- During training and qualification rounds at the department or any other approved facility.
Prohibitions from using a firearm:
- From a moving vehicle, except when someone is using another car with deadly force;
- To fire warning shots (They do land somewhere!);
- To call for assistance, except in extreme emergency.
Police departments with lengthier policies tend to get themselves in hot water if ever a dispute should go to court—and also confuse their officers, Himpler said.
“You think you can understand when we can and can’t shoot?” he asked at the end of his presentation.
We all nodded in agreement.
“Exactly,” he said.
My first and last shots
My experience as a student allowed me to handle the .40-caliber Sig Sauer county-issued handgun. I've never shot one, aside from a .BB gun I got this Christmas, in my life.
Range master Rich Moelter reminded me that the gun would kick up with much more pressure in the first shot than in the shots after. I squeezed my hands around the gun and fired, again and again, as quickly as I could while he instructed.
“So, what’d you think?” Moelter asked.
I've never been an extraordinarily graceful human being and decided the feeling of my hand being controlled by a deadly weapon is one I can live without.
“That’ll probably be my first and last time,” I responded.
Nevertheless, next week should be just as good: We're heading to a compound containing near-real-life scenarios, including a fully-staged gas station and bank.
If you attended Tuesday's class and have photos, please upload them to this article using the 'Add photos' button under the image.