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Shooting at the Santa Cruz Police Department

What's the first thing you think of when you think of cops? Probably guns. But until you've fired one in their range, you have no idea what they face.

A video camera catches what looks like the most violent police shooting ever.

A man is walking away from a uniformed officer outside a convenience store and the cop takes aim and fires into the man's back. If it were shown to a jury, it would only take minutes to convict the cop.

"What do you think of that?" asks Sgt. Mike Harms, a Santa Cruz Police officer in charge of community relations, after he shows the first tape.

The 20 community members who are taking the Santa Cruz Police Department's Citizen's Academy are fishing for words or silent. It looks like an egregious crime by a cop and no one in the heart of the police station on Center Street really wants to say what they are thinking.

"Wait a minute," he says, and pulls up a second film of the same shooting from a different angle.

This time we see that the man walking away has a pistol in his hand we couldn't see in the other tape. He's pointed it at another cop off to the side and and is clearly homicidal.

If anything, the cop waited too long to shoot him, we see this time. Amazing the difference an angle can make.

Harms shows a second film, this time of a man who is told to put down a rifle and cooperates. But surprisingly he is shot in the chest by another cop.

What gives?

Again, the angle. From another camera we can see that while he put down the rifle and appeared to be peaceful, he was grabbing a pistol and about to shoot the cop. Only split second reflexes saved their lives.

Before Santa Cruz Police let us fire their AR-15 rifles and 40-caliber Glock 22 pistols, they showed us these movies to give us some insight into the life and death questions they face all the time.

They are trained to use guns, but extremely limited in when they can use them. Basically, the law says they can use them to stop someone from killing someone else; or in capturing a felon who may kill someone else. They don't shoot to wound. They shoot to stop something from happening, which means they aim for a kill zone in the neck or chest.

Even then, someone hit can pull a trigger and kill more people.

As the videos show, decisions have to be made in fractions of seconds and sometimes judging them later can be dangerously subjective.

Too often, the people judging whether a cop used a gun appropriately have never fired one, or been in a life-and-death situation. It's all too easy to Monday morning quarterback the toughest decision an officer will make.

These were some of the things the officers wanted us to see both on film and by firing guns and participating in car chases ourselves.

The Citizen's Academy, which opens a new 10-week class in July, has been an amazing experience for a group that includes a couple of security guards, teachers, principals, executives in the hospital and banking industries,  a deli owner and members of community groups such as Take Back Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz Neighbors.

Officers from the 94-person department have been remarkably candid about what they do and provided insights that contrast everything you've seen on TV or movies.

Police Chief Kevin Vogel says he wants the program to show people what goes on behind the curtain and to let them know that this is their department. It's not just a smooth public relations move; people who have taken the free course go on to volunteer with the department and at least two have been hired full time.

To apply, contact Mike Harms at mharms@cityofsantacruz.com

Some of the standout classes included driving police cars in mock chases, hearing a judge talk about how forgiving people in Santa Cruz are, hearing a teenage gangbanger talk about his brutal life on the streets shooting the guns.

Guns were a constant source of questions until we shot them. One classmate asked why police can't just shoot a criminal in the hand or the leg and make him drop his gun. Another wanted to know how gangbangers and criminals were such good shots. Where did they get their training.

The answers came on the shooting range.

The biggest lesson I learned was how much better guns are now than when I used to shoot. Back then my .22 rifle and .44 revolver kicked so hard the targets were safer than the walls around them.

These new guns were surprisingly smooth and with laser sites, it was harder to miss the target than to hit it. It's one thing to realize that cops have them, but what was frightening was to realize that gang members do too.

The gangbanger who spoke to us said all of his friends had several guns that they would buy on the street for $150 to $200 or steal.

I suddenly understood why police have had to become paramilitary organizations and why officers wear 35 pounds of gear just to get out the door safely in a shooting situation. It really is a jungle out there and the weapons have evolved into near perfect killing machines.

And while most cops would prefer to go through a career without firing their weapon, they have to train extensively to be prepared for the possibility that they need to shoot to save lives.

Kids play at guns but the minute you pick up a real one and strap it on, you realize, quoting Stan Lee, that "with great power comes great responsibility." As heavy as the weapons are, the sense of responsibility and judgement needed is heavier.

kate keesler June 15, 2012 at 06:49 PM
Brad june 21st is the date for my criminal case. as you well know i am fighting a restraining order have not seen my beloved children in over a year. emily perlin as been seen walking streets at night crying for her MOTHER. child protective service's closed the 6/8/11 case without providing visitation or any means for me to get back to my teenage daughter's. after calling a school counselor asking for help after an arguement got out of hand, never having a previous criminal record or reports of child abuse having thought i was a well respected parent & community member which i am both this case has gone under federal investigation. outrageous unbelievable how a mother was torn from her home booked jailed released never to see closure in a situation where counseling would have been the best medicine.
kate keesler June 15, 2012 at 07:00 PM
jeni sanchez the CPS worker who met with my son Jarrod & myself said this case has been closed period. i now face the challenge to rejoin the life's of my daughters through the court system. i have been forced to follow shocking rules. take anti deppressants to "help with rages" on going couseling for only myself wth no promise of seeing my girls. the therapy i am greatful for, good thing larry perlin is still insured as the fees are high the copays add up. who is larry perlin LOSD board president why does he refuse to speak to me period. attorney's battle for divorce papers to be signed by larry. the courts have MADE him provide me wth money 1st $2000.00 april 4th after 10 months on the streets no car no home no money he paid wth a check & has not paid a 2nd months will he go to jail? it is june now right? he skipped May swell as i continue to live in cheap motel 6's. how does something like this happen, i have missed an entire year of my children's life's.
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shannon mc December 03, 2012 at 10:47 PM
hey Brad..as you say Cops can use their weapons to stop someone from hurting someone else. My question is can Cops kill people who only want to hurt themselves? For instance..if someone is about to kill themselves only in the privacy of their own home with no one else their can they break in and kill the person?
Chris Jordan December 03, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Too much! Now I will have nightmares about concealed weapons in purses! :-D Prior to the class - be ye forewarned!!! LOL!

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