Armed and Dangerous

Beneath the carport of a perky yellow house, his body lay motionless at my feet, still bleeding but already dead. And as if mimicking the last beat of his heart, mine suddenly swelled with the rush of ultimate justice, then instantly drained with the realization that I probably didn't have to shoot the man. I mean, it's not as if he'd stolen my plastic Halloween pumpkin.

It's impossible to unfire a bullet, of course, but it didn't make me feel much better that nobody was asking me to. I was stunned and appalled by what I had done. Worse, I was haunted by imaginings: How would I be feeling if my gun had fired a real bullet, rather than a paint pellet, and if the man who had fallen at my feet had really died, instead of pretending to?

My life-and-death situation was actually a simulation, an opportunity contrived by the Orange County Sheriff's Department, ostensibly to allow a reporter to stand for a moment in the shoes of a deputy. During the morning of Oct. 21, they wrapped me in protective gear, handed me a pellet pistol and an inert can of pepper spray, and sat me in a patrol car parked on a fake street laid out in back of the sheriff's training complex in Orange. They assigned me and a female partner to investigate a report of a man who'd been sighted snooping around a yellow house. Less than a minute later, I'd killed him.

He was a transient, or appeared to be, pushing a shopping cart piled with rags. He was mentally ill, or seemed to be, speaking incoherently. He seemed nervous, behaved unpredictably. The instant I saw him, I pulled my gun. I ordered him away from the shopping cart. He began to comply. But as I approached, he returned to the cart, ignoring my commands to stay away. There we stood for a few seconds, a few feet apart, me shouting orders while he continued to fumble through a blanket. I saw him grab a stick. I realized it was a knife. He made a quick movement. I dropped him with a single shot to the chest.

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Nobody accused me of acting improperly. In fact, when I lamented my hasty actions to Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, he excused me. "What you did is a natural reaction," Carona told me consolingly. "That's the reason we put our deputies through all our training—to counter and avoid the natural reactions that people in law enforcement must deal with every day."

But what I learned was less about what it's like to be a cop than what it's like to carry a gun the way most people do—without training, procedures, experience and continual practice, filled with fear or rage or arrogance mixed with half-baked notions about the protection or power or rights it represents. The way Pete Solomona might have felt when he fired his .357-caliber Magnum into the head of a Buena Park 17-year-old he thought was stealing a plastic pumpkin trash bag. What rang truest during this simulation was how different I felt—and how differently I acted —than if I hadn't been carrying a gun.

"You may have gotten a little too close to the man a little too soon," one deputy advised me tactfully. Exactly. With the gun, I felt authorized—almost compelled—to move boldly and to resolve the problem quickly. The options were reduced to my way or the eternal highway. No negotiations, no retreat, no consultation with anybody else.

Not even my partner. Throughout the brief showdown, I'd basically disregarded her—and what turned out to be a display of much better judgment. She hadn't even drawn her gun. I hadn't given her time to squirt the can of pepper spray she had clutched in her right hand. Oh yeah, the pepper spray—I'd forgotten all about that. It was still in my pocket.

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