Armed first with a special high-tech gun, civil rights activist the Rev. Markel Hutchins moved through a series of interactive video scenarios meant to force officers to decide in a flash whether to shoot or not shoot, and at whom.
Hutchins was at the Atlanta Police Academy for immersion in shooting policy and handgun procedures. He accepted a challenge from a WSB reporter to participate in the course because he wanted to know if the experience would change him.
Hutchins, who has led protests and news conferences for years, said he has changed his approach to police shootings after he became the one holding the gun, but it took trial and error to reach that conclusion.
In the first video, Hutchins yelled for a woman with a gun to put her weapon down. When she didn't, he pulled the trigger, the correct decision.
"Eleven shots fired. Three hits, none of them were lethal," said Atlanta police Investigator William Lyons.
"Why did you feel it necessary to use lethal force?"
"I saw her hand in her purse and when I gave the command to show me her hands she refused," Hutchins said.
"Were you justified in using lethal force?" asked Lyons.
When Hutchins said yes, Lyons asked him who he was protecting.
"Myself," said Hutchins, and Lyons agreed.
Hutchins went through another video scenario before getting to a third that showed a man arguing with a woman. Another woman is holding a gun on the man telling him to stop.
Hutchins fired off several shots in the direction of the melee.
"A whole lot going on very quickly and that's what we as police officers have to deal with," said Lyons.
Lyons told Hutchins the woman with the gun was an off-duty officer, and that some of Hutchins' shots hit her.
"You probably gave a lethal shot to the off-duty officer," Lyons said, citing Hutchins’ lack of marksmanship experience as a significant factor in the outcome.
In the aftermath, it appeared Hutchins had been trying to shoot the right person, the wrongdoer. He also became emotional about it. When asked if he was really sure who he was trying to shoot, Hutchins said, "No, at best I made some place between a head and heart judgment."
In the end, the reporter concluded his intentions were the correct ones.
Instructors explained to Hutchins the very limited circumstances in which an officer may fire at a fleeing suspect, an issue tragically underscored in a notorious recent incident captured on cellphone video.
The real-life scenario
Then, with head and heart protected, Hutchins put on police safety gear as the scenarios ramped up, moved outside and involved real people.
Lyons gave Hutchins direction, then turned him around to face three people, one armed with a hammer, another with a can and the third armed with a gun.
Hutchins fired his gun. Lyons asked why.
“I saw him draw his weapon," Hutchins said.
"But you pointed the weapon at the (other) two as well, didn't, you," Lyons said.
Hutchins did well on the first three situations, but not the fourth.
"The dynamics just changed. You just shot a guy with a hammer who is 16 feet away from you," Lyons told him. "(He's holding) the hammer at port arms. You probably would've been prosecuted for that one."
Hutchins told Winne, without question, he was moved by the experience.
He said he was changed in ways that will make him more effective as a civil and human rights activist, now able to discern issues in police shooting controversies he would not have been able to before.
"If we are going to have an advocacy community that demands accountability among law enforcement, we've got to be reasonable and understand the process," he said.
Winne asked if having a real gun pointed at him changed the way Hutchins looks at police shootings.
"Absolutely. Having a real weapon in real time pointed at me sensitized me in a way that no other experience could have to the rigors that police officers face," Hutchins said. "They want to go home to their families too."
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