Judith Coker's dead.
An insurance specialist with North Bay PAC, Coker attended a San Diego Police Foundation conference on Saturday to get a better feel for the daily lives of cops on the street. A woman with a commanding presence and confident voice, she was the first in her group to volunteer in the Fire Arms Training Simulator.
Nerves could be felt from Coker and her six new partners as lights fell in the small room and she faced a life-sized projector screen, by herself. Once she was outfitted with a standard police-issue 9 mm handgun (the guts replaced with a simulator-attached laser), detective Ken Impellizeri began the scenario-one he could change throughout the drill.
Six partners looked on as Coker pulled over a female motorcyclist for a loud tailpipe. Important details were overlooked as the woman quickly became irate, yelling and screaming above Coker's firm voice.
Coker pulled her gun when the woman began an aggressive approach. She forcefully demanded the cyclist stop and turn around-to no avail. Everything happened too quickly and Coker committed the cardinal sin-hesitation.
The biker had compromised Coker's five-foot safety zone, raising the motorcycle helmet she didn't see. Her shot was too late. From the simulator's computer, Impellizeri explained the helmet was a weapon and would have done serious damage, possibly allowing the aggressor to gain her weapon.
Judith Coker the cop would not be going home to her family Saturday night.
The exercise was part of a conference sponsored by the nonprofit San Diego Police Foundation to help explain why the San Diego Police Department uses deadly force-which is does at nearly twice the national rate.
The morning's lecturer, Sgt. Brian Goldberg, was firm and clear that gun use is the last resort, but police will not hesitate to shoot if the officer feels her or his life, or a the life of a member of the public, is in jeopardy.
More than anything, the day's events were designed to simulate that crucial two- to five-second window an officer is given to intuit a situation and respond with appropriate force.
After Coker, it was a CityBeat reporter's turn, in front of that full-sized screen, confronting a large, buzz-haired Caucasian man who didn't listen to commands and confused the situation with his erratic wandering on a two-lane highway.
When he turned his back and reached to his pant's pockets the reporter drew his firearm and demanded the man go to his knees. When the man turned and started toward the reporter-turned-cop, the reporter backed away. When the man began to charge, the reporter raised his weapon and vigorously demanded that he halt. One step before the reporter's crucial safety zone, the man's arm halfway through a striking motion, the reporter pulled the trigger. The shot was direct, the on-screen simulation stood still. The dark room fell silent. The reporter didn't repeat Coker's mistake of hesitation-he lived.
"You just killed an unarmed man," Impellizeri said from the computer. "Why did you do that?"
The morning's scenarios ranged from the FATS simulator to a typical 911 response, to a normal traffic stop and finally a domestic disturbance call-and they all poignantly showed the swiftness with which tedious situations disintegrate into stark terror.
Robert Rink, a wholesaler for Costco, was the next volunteer. He witnessed a Latino mother beating her son on a park bench. He approached cautiously; his attention stayed on the young, sitting mother. Preoccupied, he didn't pay attention to the boy's statement.
"Tiene una arma," he said-"She has a gun."
The mother pulled the gun so fast Rink nearly tripped trying to respond. He was taken completely off-guard. The shot she fired was loud. Rink returned a shot several seconds later, hitting her in the leg.
When the instructor asked why Rink ceased firing, he responded he was dead.
"Are you dead, right now?" The instructor asked.
"You have a vest on. It would hurt like hell, but you'd still be alive. You return fire until you are physically incapable of it."
Born of the post-lecture discussion were the ideas we live in a violent society that's armed to the teeth-4 million handguns in San Diego County alone, according to one stat delivered Saturday. The lasting message was that as long as police and the public are heavily armed, real-life scenarios will continue to come down to those terrifying three-second windows, and people on both sides will continue to die.
Preparing for the scenario following the FATS simulator, one depicting a 911 response to a public phone booth, attendees were given a dainty, orange plastic toy pistol that represented their weapon.
True-life officers, volunteering for the morning's activities, gave the acting-cops little more. The lack of information, disconcerting and frustrating, only added to the nerves of the situation.
"Do I hold this thing or put it in my pocket," the CityBeat reporter asked.
Looking at him closely a hint of recognition flashed in the volunteer officer's eye.
"Oh," he said, "you're the reporter, John Wayne-you probably don't even need to holster the thing."