The Star-News - June 7, 2002

Is that a banana in your pocket?


Here's an experiment you can try at home.

Find something harmless you can use to represent a gun. A banana might do the trick. Arm your spouse, lover or work colleague with, say, a plastic spoon or something equally harmless to represent a knife. The objective is to find out how quickly you can pull the banana out of your pocket and make an aimed shot before your accomplice can run up and stab you with the spoon.

Some of us had an opportunity to try this out at a special evening class run by Chula Vista Police Department as part of what they call the Citizen's Academy. But the police don't use plastic spoons and bananas. Their purpose-built training aids include plastic knives and replica guns that fit nicely in a regulation holster.

It became immediately obvious that even a distance of 21 feet is barely enough for a cop to defend himself or herself against a suspect who refuses to comply with the reasonable instruction to stand still and who chooses instead to charge at the arresting officer.

On a subsequent evening, the class convened at Miramar College, where the regional police academy keeps a sophisticated system called FATS (Fire Arms Training Simulator).

The FATS device is basically a movie screen linked to a computer which is controlled by an instructor so that various scenarios unfold differently depending on how the live participant responds to the situation.

In one example a woman sitting on a bench produces her driver's license when asked for ID. The same scenario plays a different way when suddenly it's not a driver's license: she's firing a gun at you.

The device amply demonstrated that The Star-News' editor would make a lousy cop. There was also an opportunity to explore the theory, espoused by armchair quarterbacks, that a cop should aim to shoot the suspect in the foot. Even given a unique privilege of living through the same experience several times, and with the sure knowledge that the suspect in question is a legitimate target, the participating citizen failed to shoot the suspect anywhere, let alone the foot.

Anybody who thinks cops get paid to be shot at is mistaking the police department for the military. Cops in Chula Vista earn decent salaries. But no amount of money can make it worthwhile for a cop to lay down his or her life for the community. Nevertheless and this is a disturbing fact some of them will.

Cops do have a duty to protect themselves against violent criminals in order to protect the rest of us. At the very least, a cop has to prevent himself or herself being knocked out by an attacker who would proceed to gain possession of a police firearm and then become an even greater danger to the community.

Now let's step from cozy theory to the chilling reality. Not long ago, a National City cop arrested a thug who delivered the following threat: "When I get out, I'm going to kill you. I'm going to kill your kids. And I'm going to rape and kill your wife."

On his way to jail, the same loser said, "I'll have the information back on the license plate real soon and it's going to happen."

At least two National City policemen have been named as targets by criminals who intend to have them killed. Undermanned, and always outgunned, the NCPD warns all its officers to take circuitous routes when driving home from a shift.

Chula Vista police are alert to the idea that the would-be cop killers in National City aren't necessarily going to distinguish a National City unit from a Chula Vista black-and-white that happens to be working in the neighborhood.

On Tuesday this week a National City cop was in his car doing some paperwork when a parolee emerged from a still moving Ford Contour and reached to the area of his waistband saying, "I'm going to kill you."

We can't playback this scenario on the FATS. The cop managed to fire several shots, two of which injured the parolee whom, it turns out, was unarmed.

Now put away your banana and maybe write your local police department to show your support.