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Published: Monday, 3/1/2010

Fate hangs by split seconds: Exercise lets reporter learn training with gun is no game

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Reporter Bridget Tharp encounters an armed man played by Officer Patrick Bergman in Decision Alley. Reporter Bridget Tharp encounters an armed man played by Officer Patrick Bergman in Decision Alley.
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I have never held a gun before. Now, I'm target practice.

"Ready. Totally pumped," I said, lying, of course, as Toledo Police Sgt. Mike Gilmore took aim at me before an audience of police and local professionals.

I knew that shooting a firearm was part of the deal when I accepted the media invitation to participate in police scenario training in the firing range at Scott Park District Station. After the unusually high number of officer-involved shootings in 2009, police arranged the training to put the public in their shoes and learn how they feel when threatened.

But dodging bullets? This was not what I expected.

The first scenario - being shot at by a man with remarkably good aim - felt frighteningly like gym class. I was the last to volunteer. The sergeant warned participants of the pending gunfire with a morbid cue: "I'll kill you."

Several in the group exercised amazing dexterity in lunging under the paint-tipped bullets, while others augured my own experience by suffering at least a few neon-colored wounds. Two green freckles stained my bullet-proof vest before I effectively got the heck out of the way.

It got worse.

The next scenarios involved me actually shooting a gun. There was the scene that involved the aftermath of a shooting, with two officers pretending to be struggling over a body. I knew there was a reason that they taught just me how to aim my gun, but I was still shocked when one of the two flashed his weapon.

I couldn't leap out of the way before a bullet struck my vest and bounced into my elbow. I embarrassingly squeaked, not screamed, out loud. Welt Number One.

Then, there was the simulation of a parking-lot gun battle.

No cover, just bullets flying. My heart raced.

This was worse than dodge ball. Perhaps in the spirit of immature rivalry, I feel forced to call out the reporter from the Toledo Free Press - Kristin Rapin, you're a nice girl with mean aim - whose bullet struck me in my thigh and caused huge Bruise Number Two. Ouch.

But this was no game. The scene is one that might be familiar to retired Police Chief Jack Smith, who was one of several officers to confront the gunfire of Joseph Chappell - the man accused of murdering his love interest, stabbing her two children, and shooting a woman who wouldn't hand over her truck keys. The chief was among the officers who exchanged gunfire with Chappell in a West Toledo parking lot before killing him. Mr. Smith told me recently that he still relives that scene when he drives by that shootout's scene.

The training Friday forced me to consider the reality of law enforcement. I had a small taste of the stress, anxiety, and sense of responsibility that comes with handling a firearm in a threatening situation. After hours of dodging bullets and training myself to imagine that inanimate objects - like dinnerware and garden tools - can be dangerous weapons in the wrong hands, I was faced with an armed man in Decision Alley.

Decision Alley was meant to be the culmination of my training, with three opportunities to use tools other than firearms to subdue a subject.

Though my hand never left the piece in my holster, I used my words to convince the man with the rake to drop it, and used my imaginary pepper spray to force the huge imposing suspect to get his hands out of his pockets.

When confronted with the man who pointed a gun at his head, I caught sight of the half wall on the corner of the stage. Cover - and I moved toward it as I drew my weapon and called out to the armed man.

I was the only participant Friday who neither shot a suspect nor was shot by a suspect, Officer Danielle Kasprzak would tell me.

But I could have shot someone. I could have been shot. A split second could have changed my fate in Decision Alley.



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