An eye-opening lesson through simulated firearms training

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Helen Ubiñas, in a potentially violent situation at the training facility. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer

I JUST SHOT a man.

I may have shot him three times, I can't remember. Everything happened so fast.

The call came in as a "domestic," one of the most dangerous calls for law-enforcement officers, and by the looks of this one, I get why.

The woman who called police is in a panic. The man is stumbling in and out of the kitchen with a bottle of booze. Everyone's talking at once. I'm confused.

"He just got out of jail. He's been drinking. He's already hit me, and he has a gun," she says.

"Ma'am, could you please give me a minute and just stand there . . . ?" I plead. "Sir, Sir, I'm going to need you to come out where I can see you."

Am I talking too much, I wonder? Should I have my gun drawn?

Suddenly the man is back in the kitchen, but, wait . . . what's in his hand? Is that a gun?

Boom!

I shoot, and then I just stand there, shocked, and hating SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel a little.

He invited me to SEPTA training headquarters for simulated deadly force training. He calls it "response-to-resistance" training, to better reflect that officers shouldn't be the aggressors when trying to defend themselves against resistance.

I knew it would be eye-opening. Being a cop is tough. And that's only reinforced in a small room inside a building at Broad and Lehigh where transit Officer Robert O'Brien serves up one stressful simulated life-and-death scenario after another.

I get shot way more often than I shoot. But Nestel promises that's not why he brought me in.

"This isn't about how difficult it is to be a cop, it's about what we're doing to try and change what's been happening," he says. "The Department of Justice says some percentage of police-involved shootings involve unarmed persons. They're the victims. That's unacceptable, it's totally unacceptable, and so what do you do about that?"

If you're Nestel, you don't shrug and say this isn't an issue for the transit police. In the last 25 years, SEPTA has had 23 police-involved shootings. By comparison, a recent Justice Department review found that Philadelphia police were involved in an average of nearly 50 shootings a year since 2007.

"We haven't had a problem with it . . . But I want to make sure that we don't in the future, so I want to give our officers the training to make them better at decision-making, and that's what we're doing. Is it in reaction to the national incidents? Yeah, because when I read those stories, I think, 'What can I do to make things better? What can we do to keep this from happening?' And response-to-resistance training is something we can do."

In addition to yearly live-firearm training that improves shooting skills, Nestel recently decided to have SEPTA officers go through simulator training throughout the year to improve their decision-making.

Beyond continuous training, Nestel wants people to know that plenty of cops are taking these deadly incidents as seriously as the people who have taken to the streets to demand justice and reforms. Plenty of cops see the need for change.

Sometimes change comes after the feds intervene. Sometimes it comes as a small battle won in a raging war for justice.

None of it comes fast enough for the families and communities affected.

But change is slowly coming, even when we seem to take two steps forward and one giant leap back. Have you seen the recently released photo of two white Chicago cops posing with a black man as a hunting trophy?

Take Cleveland.

The white Cleveland officer who climbed on a hood of a car after a chase in 2012 and fired repeatedly at its unarmed black occupants was acquitted of manslaughter. But days later, in a deal with the Justice Department, the city agreed to 105 pages of reforms, including a police force that better reflects the demographics and use of de-escalation techniques rather than force.

That's change.

Take Philadelphia.

The still-unnamed police officers involved in the 2014 shooting death of Brandon Tate-Brown during a routine car stop were cleared of wrongdoing. (And - please, Baby Jesus, let this be a joke - Bigtrial.net, a website run by the Beasley law firm, reported that there's going to be a parade down Broad Street for six Philly officers acquitted in a federal corruption trial.) But . . . another DOJ report issued 91 recommendations in reforming the city's deadly force practices.

That's change.

Take Nestel, who is forever thinking about ways to improve relationships between his officers and the people they serve, from small cards to change kids' perceptions of police officers to training and retraining his officers.

"There's no confusion about the fact that people are frustrated with the police and especially with police use of deadly force. We wield a tremendous tool and that is deadly force, so when I send a cop out, I want to be sure that he or she is using the appropriate level of force. I want to make sure that we are protecting the public in the best way possible."

That's change.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

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