The goal here isn't accuracy, like at a target range; it's control.
"We want to teach officers when to shoot, not only how to shoot," said Capt. Mark Fisher, commanding officer of the firearms-training unit. "We want to make sure they follow department policy, but we are also trying to judge their judgment."
I've shot guns before. Hell, I've even fired an Uzi that was owned by a friend in Williamsport, but I've only shot at targets, never at people.
"Are you going to be the po-po?" one instructor asks me as he suits me up with a vest and a codpiece. He hands me and my partner, another reporter, our helmets and our guns — real 9mms with the barrels replaced so they shoot only rounds filled with colored soap.
Fisher tells me that about two-thirds of the recruits that come through the academy have never handled a firearm. They get 17 days of firearms training to learn.
"Females are the best students," he says. "They tend to be more open-minded and patient. They will listen more and take direction."
My partner and I are told that the situation we're going into is a felony car stop and that we should be aware that the occupants, who are instructors acting as bad dudes, could have guns.
"You're going to walk a mile in our shoes," Fisher says. "Stick together, communicate with your radio, check your weapons and don't split up to chase the bad guy."
As soon as we get out of the cruiser, one of the three bad guys fires at my partner and our car, I just can't tell which one. I start yelling the only thing I know from TV:
"Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands!"
I can't hear anything over the men's screams, my partner's and my own. As I approach the driver's-side door, the front-seat passenger reaches across the driver and shoots me twice in the vest. I return fire by shooting past the driver. I hit the passenger once in the head.
My colleague, who was watching from the observation room, later tells me I celebrated by pumping my gun up in the air, an act that the recruits said is not advised.
It's only when we are debriefed that we learn the scenario was modeled after the one Sgt. Stephen Liczbinski faced on May 3, 2008, when he lost his life in the line of duty.
My stomach drops and I get goose bumps.
As I try to process that in the observation room with the recruits, I can't get the flag-draped coffin in the corner out of my eye. It's there because the department's honor guard trains at the facility, but as one instructor says, it also serves as a subliminal message.
"It has an ‘Oh s---' value," he says. Fallen officers are never far from the mind here. The footpaths are named with green street signs that read "Liczbinski Avenue," "McDonald Street," "Skerski Road."
So far this year in the city, there have been 30 police-involved shootings, four of which ended in fatalities. Thirty times an officer has dealt, in reality, with what I will only ever deal with in a simulation.
I know that as a reporter, I can ruin someone's day — including a cop's — with the words I write, perhaps even cost someone a job. I do not take that lightly.
I could never imagine embarking on a career in which the decisions one makes carry even greater consequence — such as a judge who can sentence a person to life or a police officer who, when forced, can take one. I've thought about it often, the heavy responsibility of those professions, but it wasn't until Tuesday that I realized just how quickly cops have to make those decisions.
As we left, Fisher said he hoped we took just one thing with us:
"The next time you sit down at that computer to write about an officer who made a mistake, maybe you'll think a little harder about how difficult these decisions are."
There's no maybe about it.
Reach Stephanie Farr at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-4225. You can also follow her on Twitter @FarFarrAway and read her blog "Philly Confidential" at www.phillyconfidential.com