Police are supposed to protect the public. But they also have dangerous jobs. After watching police officers go through a simulator in a high-tech laboratory, I decided to test my own judgment and reflexes.
The lab is located in an old warehouse on the Washington State University campus in Spokane. I'm armed with a real police issued weapon that has been modified to shoot a laser instead of bullets.
I play the role of an officer on patrol who faces everything from checking on a homeless man who looks like someone who committed an assault a few hours earlier, to a robbery at a convenience store.
The scenarios feel frighteningly real, perhaps because they're based on real cases where officers had to decide -- shoot or don't shoot? I'm surprised I feel nervous before I get my orders from dispatch via a loudspeaker. Just outside the room where the scenario plays out, a researcher is recording my responses and reaction times.
The homeless man I approach appears to be passed out or asleep outside of an old building. He doesn't follow my orders to keep his hands where I can see them, instead pulling out a black gloved hand holding a black object he waves at me. I almost shoot, but decide not to.
Dr. Lois James, a researcher at the WSU Violence Confrontation Lab, tells me afterwards that I made the right decision: The homeless man was handing me his wallet.
In the next scenario, I pull over a car with that's been reported stolen. I cautiously approach the driver and ask for his name. I tell him to keep his hands where I can see them. He responds by pulling out a gun and shooting me.
It happens so fast, I don't even shoot back. Only 20 seconds elapsed between my first steps toward the car and the robbery suspect firing his first shot. He got off five rounds in just over two seconds. I could easily be dead.
My third test involves a tense scenario unfolding at a convenience store. A caller reported it was being robbed and I'm the only officer available to respond. I walk slowly to the door with my gun drawn. I order the suspect to drop the knife he's holding.
When he charges me, I shoot, twice. My first shot grazes his jacket, the second round hits him in the face. By then he's dangerously close to me.
Dr. James tells me I did well, especially for an untrained professional. But I found myself second guessing my decisions throughout the long drive back from Spokane to Seattle.
And when I head out to do my job Monday morning, I'm grateful I carry a reporter's notebook instead of a gun.