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To shoot, or not to shoot – a tough call

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There was a time when I wanted to be an FBI agent – the kind you see on TV.

Always cool, calm and collected as they look over crime scenes, do cool stuff with their guns and chase down bad guys. You know, the heroic type.

So I naturally jumped at the opportunity when asked if I would do the FBI Media Challenge, a chance for local reporters to go through shooting simulators and crime scene analysis at the agency’s Albuquerque headquarters.

Crime reporter Matthew Reisen prepares to take aim during a shooting simulator during the FBI Media Challenge on Wednesday at the agency’s headquarters in Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

What I didn’t expect was my coworkers’ immediate amusement at the idea: placing wagers on the number of civilians I would accidentally shoot as my editor went out of his way to ensure that a photographer would be on hand to capture any humiliation.

I shook off their lack of confidence and set out to prove myself. The results were mixed.

At FBI headquarters, we were led into a room with a large projector covering the far wall. On a table was a camouflage tactical vest, a helmet, pepper spray and two handguns with pink slides – signifying their lack of deadliness. In one corner lay a large dummy that no doubt has been on the receiving end of countless blows by those eager to join the FBI’s ranks.

Reporters watch as FBI Crime Scene Specialist Susan Garst demonstrates the proper technique on how to lift a fingerprint off a vehicle during the FBI Media Challenge on Wednesday at the agency’s headquarters.

Before we started the shooting simulator, Agent Jack Howard talked briefly about the rules of engagement for deadly force and about how critical it is to stick to policy or the playbook in such situations. Failure to follow those rules could lead to a lawsuit or worse for a “bad shoot.”

And with several journalists on his turf, Howard seized on the opportunity to admonish us to get all sides of the story in the aftermath of such incidents and not just trust one source. With the recent case of an off-duty FBI agent fatally shooting an out-of-state veterinarian inside Nexus Brewery, it was hard for me not to read between the lines. In that case, the Albuquerque Police Department filled in what blanks they could – a woman called 911 saying she was being stalked before showing up to Nexus. A man police say was armed with a gun followed her inside and at least one off-duty agent opened fire and killed him.

It’s tough to get both sides of the story when the FBI won’t talk about such incidents – even two months after the fact. But I shrugged off the urge to speak up. It wasn’t the time or place.

“You have to make that decision whether to shoot or not,” Howard said. “That’s what we do everyday.”

He said two important factors to consider is whether it’s “necessary and reasonable” to open fire. And, with that, we were off.

During the simulations, we would stand in front of the projector screen holding the gun with the pink slide and Howard would choose different scenarios to take us through, switching up the difficulty. The videos were shot and narrated like public service announcements from the ’80s, and the setup reminded me of playing Duck Hunt as a kid. Instead of cartoon ducks flying across the screen, it was a fugitive holding a woman hostage, a terror suspect fleeing through a back door and a man beating his pregnant girlfriend in a hospital walkway. It was up to us to decide if, and when, to shoot.

During one simulation, I tried to save a gas station clerk by shooting the man robbing her at gunpoint. He moved at the last second, and I shot her three times square in the chest as the robber ran off with the loot. The room fell silent aside from a few chuckles at my blunder, before Howard said the clerk would’ve been dead or “well on her way.”

During another simulation, my partner and I came upon a fugitive working on his car in the garage. When the suspect tried to attack my partner with a screwdriver I opened fire, hitting my partner in the arm. But, possibly in an attempt to save me some humiliation, Howard said he may have lived but probably would’ve gotten reassigned.

However, not all hope was lost.

In most of my simulations, I was able to take out the bad guy and even let a few get away when deadly force wasn’t necessary.

After each encounter, Howard grilled me. Did my partner and I announce ourselves as law enforcement? Was the man holding a gun or cellphone, and was I sure? Could I have tried negotiating with the suspect before shooting him? Was I confident in my actions?

I found it hard to answer many of the questions – and I wasn’t dealing with a real life or death situation.

As a crime reporter, I am constantly on the other end of these conversations, and trying to get to the bottom of a law enforcement shooting or some related matter.

It was humbling to walk in an FBI agent’s shoes. Now if only I could get the FBI to walk a mile in my shoes, trying to get both sides of the story after an agent shoots and kills someone in a busy Albuquerque restaurant. In my experience, the FBI is one of the more difficult law enforcement agencies to get information from. And if an agency doesn’t provide information, all I can do is report the information I do have. I owe that to my readers.

As for my colleagues, they will probably only remember the motherless family of the poor gas station clerk and my ill-fated partner’s shattered arm, but I know, when all was said and done, the majority of those bad guys would rue the day I came knocking on their door.

Knocking on doors for this gig ain’t so bad either, though.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Matt Reisen at 823-3563, mreisen@abqjournal.com or follow him on Twitter @MReisen88. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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