Crime

Training’s snap decisions show pastors police pressures

Pastors train in use of force simulation

Bibb Mt Zion Baptist Church Pastor Paul Little and House of Hope Macon Campus Pastor Reginald Sharpe Jr. spent a few minutes taking use of force training on a video simulator at the Byron police department.
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Bibb Mt Zion Baptist Church Pastor Paul Little and House of Hope Macon Campus Pastor Reginald Sharpe Jr. spent a few minutes taking use of force training on a video simulator at the Byron police department.

Standing with a 9 mm Glock holstered on one hip and a Taser in a pants pocket, the Rev. Paul Little II followed along as a training simulator led him through a school hallway.

He’d been told that shots had been fired inside.

A police officer had gone in a minute earlier, but he hadn’t responded to a dispatcher who’d checked on him.

Little, who’s never fired a live gun, was playing the role of a cop sent in to help.

Walking past a trophy case and through the school, the pastor called out, “Officer, are you nearby?”

He heard a gunshot, a scream and a man yell “Shut up!”

Then there was more screaming. Little tried again to find the officer.

Soon he reached the room where a man was holding a gun to a student’s head. Other students sat on the ground with their heads covered. The police officer lay on the ground, motionless.

“Sir, put the gun down,” Little hollered.

In that instant, he had to decide what to do.

Little tried to calm the man down, talking to him, before unholstering his gun.

The man counted “one, two,” then shot the student. He shot the other students and shot at Little before the Macon pastor fired a shot that knocked the gunman to the ground.

Little and the Rev. Reginald Sharpe, a Macon Black Lives Matter movement supporter, each participated in three scenarios Friday during training offered at the Byron Police Department.

“It felt like real life even though you knew it was a simulation,” Little said later. “It was intense. … I’m seeing what (police officers) go through every day.”

Chief Wesley Cannon said he offered David Cooke, district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, an opportunity for his staff to use the simulator while he had it rented for his officers.

Instead, Cooke invited Sharpe, campus pastor for House of Hope Macon, and Little, pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church.

“The training goes to the heart of what it means to protect the lives of police officers and the lives of the public,” Cooke said. “Bringing these two segments of our community together will only increase our mutual understanding and unity of purpose in making a safer community for everyone.”

No redos in real life

Officers face situations in which they have to use a gun in only about 1 percent of a 30-year career, Cannon said.

“It’s hard to train for that,” he said.

The simulator the department rented projected real-life scenarios — which could be altered by using a laptop — onto a large screen. A rifle and handgun, such as the ones police carry, were connected to the system using a tether and laser technology to report back whether the guns or a Taser have been fired. After each scenario ended, the system showed where shots were fired and if they’d inflicted fatal injuries.

“In real life we don’t get to stop. We don’t get a redo,” Cannon said.

Using the simulator, there’s an opportunity to stop the action and talk about how to make the best decision.

After completing his school shooting scenario, Little was tasked with negotiating with a mentally ill woman outside a convenience store who had pulled out a knife. After Little’s failed attempts to negotiate with her and struggles to deploy a Taser, the woman stabbed a bystander who tried to help.

In his next exercise, he tried to use a Taser and ultimately fired a gun at a drunken driver who threatened “I’ve got a gun,” then pulled his hands from the pockets of his jacket as if he was about to fire at Little.

Later, realizing that the man didn’t actually have a weapon, Little said he was thankful his shot missed.

Sharpe ended up shooting a man during a domestic dispute scenario after the husband rose from his seated position on a couch and pulled a knife. The wife ran down the hall and returned firing a shotgun. Sharpe, who like Little hadn’t previously fired a gun, shot her.

Moments later, the pastor was assigned to watch a back window at an apartment complex where an “emotionally disturbed” man had barricaded himself inside.

Rounding the corner of the building, Sharpe saw the man holding what he thought was a gun. He fired his gun.

After learning that the suspect actually had a hairbrush, he said, “Y’all are making me a murderer today.”

It’s easy to be in the back seat and tell the driver what they ought to do. When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, you’re really able to feel the pressure and the split-second decisions they have to make.

The Rev. Reginald Sharpe

In his last exercise, Sharpe was walking outside an apartment complex when two men came running toward him, one chasing the other.

The first hit the ground and curled into a ball. The second man, who was holding a gun, started to comply when Sharpe told him to drop the gun, saying “I’m a cop. I’m a cop.”

The gun accidentally discharged as he put it down and Sharpe fired at him. The shot narrowly missed.

“I’m glad he lived,” Sharpe said.

‘More people need to see this’

After the training was finished, both pastors sat down with Cannon, Cooke and Byron police Lt. Bryan Hunter, who’d been controlling the scenarios.

They talked about the high profile officer-involved shootings across the country that have led to protests — and hostility — toward law enforcement.

Speaking later, both men expressed concerns about officers handling stressful situations and what effect it might have on them later in the day or week. For the pastors, thoughts — and adrenaline — from their early scenarios stuck with them as they faced the later scenarios, they said.

“I’m wondering from a day-to-day basis how that affects officers,” Little said.

The pastors said they think the public would benefit from going through the scenarios to get a better understanding of the split-second decision-making that police face on the job.

“I think more people need to see this,” Sharpe said.

As a result of the conversation, Cooke said he’s working to try to rent the simulator later this month and to lend it to the pastors for an Aug. 22 town hall meeting at Union Baptist Church on Kitchen Street in east Macon. The meeting, a follow-up to a prayer vigil held last month, is set to begin at 6:30 p.m.

Little said, “I think the public needs to see and feel what these officers go through on a regular basis. Likewise, we want to have a conversation with our context as well.”

In some cases, it could change a person’s perspective, he said.

Sharpe said the simulation helped him better empathize with officers and the stress they work under.

“It’s easy to be in the back seat and tell the driver what they ought to do. When you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, you’re really able to feel the pressure and the split-second decisions they have to make,” he said.

Just as black men and women don’t want to be stereotyped by police, people can’t “generalize and dehumanize the police officers either,” Sharpe said.

“We don’t want them doing it to us, but we also can’t do it to them. They’re fathers, they’re mothers, they’re deacons and leaders in their churches. They want to go home, too,” he said. “Sometimes they’re making the best decisions that they can with that crisis before them.”

He said he’s convinced that conversation can help the misgivings that exist in the community.

“There’s too little dialogue and too much fear,” Sharpe said.

Amy Leigh Womack: 478-744-4398, @awomackmacon

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