Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Just the Facts, Ma'am - #33

Fans of Sky Marshal Story (all five of you) may enjoy hearing about a comment I received from “anonymous” who complimented my story telling but questioned my facts.

Specifically, Anonymous said that his research (personal experience or bar chat – he didn’t say which) indicated that it was U.S. Marshals who conducted the preflight passenger screenings back in 71-72 not Sky Marshals or what they call Air Marshals these days. So – ipso facto – my relating that I was part of the crew that conducted pre-flight screenings was untrue.

Wow! I guess that would make me a liar.

I suspect that Anonymous hadn’t read any of the blogs where I mentioned that the exploits I was relating were based on my actual, personal and real life experience, and that – except for the names of many of the individuals – everything described is true to the best of my memory. In point of…fact…the events I’ve related happened over 35 years ago and I don’t claim to have perfect recall. Furthermore, if I knew how to write fiction this would be a much more exciting blog – certainly there would be more sex and gun play.

I don’t know about all other U.S. Airports, but at SFO, where I was based, the Customs Security Officers in uniform conducted pre-flight passenger screenings the entire time that I was in the Customs Service. Initially, it was done with pat-downs and later with the first magnetometers when they showed up.

Anyway, just to assure any of you who might like to see evidence that I really was a Sky Marshal – a.k.a. United States Customs Security Officer – in 1971-72, here is an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in – I believe – October of 1972. I was interviewed by the paper after I had given notice that I was leaving Federal law enforcement to work at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City. My departure also prompted a really ugly interview with a Bay Area TV station during which they tried to make it sound like I had been told to shoot stewardesses.

Oh, and by the way, when I was flying a Sky Marshal I also carried the credentials of a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal, an agent of the FAA and a piece of paper describing me as some sort of enforcer of the International Treaty prohibiting air piracy signed in Japan in 1970, all of which I mentioned in an earlier posting.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Shoot to Kill - #32

The circumstance depicted in the cartoon above never happened to me or any other Sky Marshal (aka Air Marshal) I flew with back in 1971-72, but the possibility that it might was the main reason we were on planes. 37 years ago the rules of engagement were simple: shoot whoever attempts to hijack the plane.

Of course, we were taught “arrest techniques” but the confines of an airplane cabin, the (then) unprotected cockpits, and the awesome possibility that innocent folks would instantly become hostages to armed zealots and/or maniacs demanded that a Sky Marshal take any halfway reasonable shot. By “halfway reasonable” I mean to say any shot that could be made with a 2”-barreled gun in a wildly chaotic situation.

These days it’s routine for the media and public to Monday-morning quarterback every police shooting. With 20-20 hindsight, pundits and community activists will pick-apart all the “possible” scenarios that the officer could have explored before pulling the trigger. Of course, in the actual event, the policeman had a lot on his mind while he was being menaced by the assailant. In a crisis like that your body actually begins to limit audio and visual input so you can focus on the threat. More about that later.

Though Sky Marshals 37 years ago were given a fair amount of firearms training, it was almost all concentrated on hitting a target. Personally, I received no indoctrination to the mental and situational chaos that would likely accompany a hijacking scenario. I’d seen near panic seize the passengers when a plane’s plumbing failed, or when we were stuck in a seeming endless holding pattern while trying to land in the middle of a monsoon, but I’d never been involved in a real-life, face-to-face shootout, so I had no idea what happens to one’s perceptions when someone else is shooting at you.

A couple of years ago I was enlightened…

The local police in Petaluma, California, the town where I’ve lived for the past 14 years used to sponsor and operate a citizen’s “academy,” a 13-week long course whose goal was to inform and sensitize local folks with the complexity, intensity and demands of police work. Over the semester of the program we were exposed to everything from training practices, forensics, SWAT procedure and the K9 program. One of the sessions was conducted at the Police Academy and put each of us in a simulator where we were confronted with video recreations of typical police scenarios.

One by one the members of the class were put in a dark room with a few random objects that resembled stage props in some avant garde theater. There was a partial wall, a block the size of a washing machine and a short column – all of which were painted the same dark grey as the walls of the room. At one end was a floor-to-ceiling screen that received a movie projected from the opposite side of the room. Wired into the screen were sensors that recorded the “bullet strikes” from the high-tech replica pistols each participant was given. You could choose between a replica 9 millimeter Sig Sauer or Berretta.

Once the student was in the simulator, the light dimmed and the screen showed a reenactment of some situation that would warrant a police call, for example, a report of domestic violence. The purpose of these scenarios was to train candidate officers in the proper level of response necessary to gain control of the situation without going overboard or caving in. Behind the scenes a training officer manned a computer with the option of choosing from a number of variations for each scenario. He could make the people on the screen aggressive or compliant as he judged of how effective the student was at dealing with the scenario.

The whole thing was designed to feel real - so much so that some members of my Citizen’s Academy class quickly became overwhelmed by the reenactments. At the end of each person’s turn the training officer would replay the video and point out what could or should have been done.

When it was my turn they handed me the gun and started up the video, which took me into a call at an apartment where some young people had been drinking and carousing. The scenario had me approach a closed door, announce my presence, request entrance, go inside the apartment and attempt to settle the kids down. Once I was inside the apartment, the most aggressive of the kids began to challenge me, and I had to back him down. I guess the training officer thought my manner was sufficiently authoritative because the aggressive kid settled down and the training officer selected a “compliant” conclusion to the scenario. It was nothing more than a few minutes of dialogue but it did indeed feel real.

Then training officer asked me if I’d like a more interesting situation. Like an idiot I said, “Sure,” and before you could say “officer down” I was at a traffic stop on an inner city street. Perceptually I was standing about 20 feet behind a beat up sedan when the driver’s door flew open and man in gang attire leaped out and began to fire at me. I emptied the clip into him – at the end achieving a red dot on the screen which indicated I’d shot him lethally – before I reflexively ducked behind a projecting wall. The whole thing took place in less than a minute. The police officer who was assigned to our class turned to my class members and announced mockingly, “That’s what we call ‘spray and pray.”

After they turned the lights up I got to see the playback on my scenario and that’s when I noticed that not one but two men had gotten out of the car. A second gangbanger had jumped out of the passenger side, run to a tree on the parkway just behind where the stopped car and had been blasting away from behind the tree while I was shooting his buddy. I was so focused on the threat in front me that I didn’t even see the second guy shooting at me. Of course, that was the point of the scenario, and had I gone through such training I would have learned to do it differently.

I came away from the experience, and the Citizen’s Academy, with a renewed appreciation for cops who have to make split-second decisions that will be painstakingly dissected – often with an anti-police bias - for years after, and for the fact that in almost two years as a Federal Sky Marshal I never had to make such a decision.
© Stephen Rustad, 2008