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

1 comment:

ciccolilli said...

Hi Stephen, I was a Sky Marshal, class #21. I was based in NY but was sent TDY to ATL. Flew Pan Am out of NY until we were grounded and ended up doing pre departure until July of 1974 whan I became a Customs Inspector at JFK until 2007.
Below is a letter I wrote to the editor of the Miami Herald after two new era Sky Marshals killed an EDP who ran off an incoming aircraft saying he had a bomb.
Ray Ciccolilli

It is very difficult to judge if the Air Marshal was justified in shooting or not, unless
you were in his shoes. If in his or her mind, he or she honestly felt that the action
taken was the only action that could be taken, then that has to be the end of it.
Second-guessing in these circumstances can get people killed.

But others, with good cause may have reason to question the marshal's actions. Did the
marshal know or even suspect that the passenger had a bomb? Did the marshal over react to
the circumstances involved? Not easy questions to answer unless you are the marshal? Did
the marshal's training influence his actions? A very serious question.

In 1971, I was involved in an attempted hijacking of a Boeing jet to Cuba. The individual
making the attempt said he had a bomb. He was in fact, by the time I arrived, in the
cockpit of the plane and the plane was just about fueled up for take off. He was holding
the captain of the plane hostage.

I managed to take the hijacker into custody at gunpoint and I know I was fully prepared
to shoot if he in anyway resisted. Upon announcing my identity and grabbing his right arm
with my left hand and directing my weapon towards his head, he immediately stated that he
did not have a bomb. The bag he was holding in his outstretched left arm was secured.
There was no bomb.

The next day, one of the FBI agents who took custody of my arrest, pulled me over to the
side and said, "Could you have shot this guy?" Of course, the answer would
have been yes, but I responded by saying, "I did not think it was necessary."
The agent responded by saying, "You should have shot him anyway." That was the
end of the conversation.

This may have been the result had he not been many miles away on his way from Greensboro.
But, he was not there, and I was and I did not view my job as that of an executioner.

Interesting enough, during my training, I was singled out in class for not
"shooting" in a circumstance. Some others before me were mildly chided for
shooting too soon or shooting recklessly, such as when one of my class mates said he
would just shoot right through the stewardess. He was mildly corrected that shooting
under the circumstance would have been unacceptable. I was not so lucky, after modifying
my circumstance several times; the instructor yelled out at the top of his lungs,
"We don't need you!"

The next day, I was pulled out of class and directed to see the class "shrink."
After assuring him that I understood the mission and its objectives and explaining my
reluctance to shoot under the circumstances, as they were presented, I was allowed to
return to class. To the best of my knowledge, I was the only one singled out for
"counseling" and I guess I came very close to being washed out for "not

It is possible that the "shoot mentality" in training still exists. Shoot and
ask questions later? I really do not know. But if it does.....?