Paighten Harkins: Utah police let me watch their training. This is what I saw.

“Shots Fired,” a collaboration between The Salt Lake Tribune and the PBS series FRONTLINE, gave viewers an unusual look at what new officers learn.

(Abby Ellis | FRONTLINE) Salt Lake Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins takes a photo at the scene of a police shooting.

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I’ve spent my career reporting on the justice system. I’ve done ride-alongs with officers. I’ve talked to them at crime scenes. I’ve followed them as they shopped with kids around the holidays. I’ve reported stories when they were accused of using excessive force.

A close family member led a law enforcement agency in Oklahoma. I’ve had other relatives join the ranks. I’ve had a few convicted of crimes.

I thought I had a well-rounded understanding of a police officer’s job. But over the past year, police in Utah allowed me and filmmaker Abby Ellis to witness something few outsiders get to see: police training.

Those scenes from the documentary “Shots Fired,” a collaboration between The Salt Lake Tribune and the PBS series FRONTLINE, resonated with people.

Utah’s Peace Officer Standards and Training, known as POST, believes in what they’re doing. So much so they let me and Ellis watch with the camera rolling. Then POST Director Maj. Scott Stephenson talked with our team at length, acknowledging that to an outside observer, some parts of the training may look like “we’re just training people to shoot,” but adding he believes their techniques are legitimate and necessary.

POST wasn’t the only group that let me watch. The Utah Fraternal Order of Police invited me to a training. The Utah Attorney General’s Office let me make use-of-force decisions in a virtual simulator. Last month, I attended and participated in mental health training with Davis County law enforcement.

Since they let me in, I thought I should let you in, too.

Observations on observing

In the documentary, there are plenty of shots of me watching scenarios play out. Even when the trainer is asking cadets if they could “kill a kid” or “shoot a grandma,” I look neutral. No expression. People have asked, what I was thinking?

The plain answer is I was trying to take in what I was seeing, what trainers were saying, how cadets received the information. Later that evening, when Ellis asked me what I thought, I struggled for what to say.

I thought about how I had felt the role-players portrayed mental illness in a way that was borderline insensitive, with some scenarios focused on people who see dragons and were soothed into compliance when officers convinced them their prescribed medications weren’t actually dragon eggs.

(Abby Ellis | FRONTLINE) Salt Lake Tribune Paighten Harkins watches cadets train at the Utah POST academy.

Fast forward a few months and doctors told my family that my grandmother has schizophrenia, and I realized some of her delusions were similar to what I was seeing officers respond to. For her, the pills weren’t dragon eggs, but poison.

The number of training scenarios involving shootings also stuck out. I wondered if this experience was what cadets expected when they signed up and I wondered if it made them more scared than they’d been before.

If you watched the film, or read my recent story on fear and police shootings, you know that POST defended its focus on high-risk, low-frequency scenarios.

They’re not the only ones. When I went through a police training simulator at the Utah Attorney General’s Office, I asked Training Director Scott Carver if this exposure to so many worst-case scenarios might make officers more afraid than they need to be.

“No, we have not experienced that or had that feedback from them. In fact, just the opposite,” he said. “They feel more confident.”

Others in law enforcement aren’t so sure.

Randy Shrewsberry, executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, reviewed our footage and said this sort of fear-based scenario training focused on the “possibility of an action versus the probability of an action.”

He said it’s like the “old saying that if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”

Pulling the trigger

Trainers at the A.G.’s office helped me put a holster on my hip, handed me a Glock that fired a laser instead of bullets, and said to stand behind a series of taller-than-me computer screens that wrapped around me in a semicircle. I was told to talk to the virtual people how I’d normally talk, and remember that the world is what’s beside me and behind me, not just what’s in front.

I successfully de-escalated a 911 call about a man who was “causing a disturbance and talking to himself.” I was so busy talking to him, I didn’t hear dispatch telling me he had a knife. I did not unholster my gun.

Next, I responded to a house after someone called 911 and hung up. When I walked through the doorway, I saw a man with a gun pointing it at a woman tied to a chair, yelling something about killing her. I shot him. I didn’t announce myself. I didn’t ask him to drop the gun. I stood, stared and considered the hours of police training I’d witnessed. Then I shot him in the head.

Afterward, the trainer asked if I noticed the baby crying in a carrier on the counter behind the man I shot. I didn’t. He asked why I chose the head.

I said, “I thought that would be the surest way to make him dead.”

”Paighten, you’re amazing. Exactly right,” the trainer said. He pointed to an area on the screen that showed a dot where I’d fired through the virtual man’s skull.

Had I fired into his chest or shoulder, the bullets would have gone through and struck the baby I hadn’t noticed. Plus, firing into the head, the trainer said “turns off the computer.”

“So we don’t have a sympathetic reflex, he doesn’t put the finger on the trigger, and,” the trainer said, “she lives.”

It was also OK that I didn’t give a warning I was about to fire. Utah law says officers “should” give one “if feasible.” In this case, the trainer told me, the threat to someone else’s life was so imminent, it wasn’t feasible for me to give any sort of command.

Since then, I’ve gone to a few more training sessions. The Utah Fraternal Order of Police invited reporters to a training titled “Why’d You Stop Me.” This demonstration made officers confront how they sound to a person they stopped. One of the trainers wore a shirt that said, “Your badge should have a heartbeat not an ego.”

At crisis intervention training, I put on headphones and listened to audio that tried to replicate what a person who hears voices hears. Then, police trainers asked me to do basic tasks, like recall a series of items, or a scene description from a dispatcher.

These two sessions sought to teach empathy — and a reform bill passed last session increases the number of hours police spend learning about de-escalation tactics and how to respond to people in mental health crises. One of the goals is to reduce shootings.

But I can still hear the call-and-response from trainers to cadets at the POST academy.

(Abby Ellis | FRONTLINE) Salt Lake Tribune Paighten Harkins looks at the memorial to Utah officers killed in the line of duty between training sessions at the Utah POST academy.

“We go home,” POST training Sgt. Scott Lauritzen said. “Those that we’re dealing with will go home if they choose to, right?”

Now, when I interact with police, I’m conscious of my hands. I move and talk just a little slower. I try to exude harmlessness.

I also try not to reach into my pockets because I’m aware now that my slim, black voice recorder could very well be mistaken for something lethal. And because I’ve seen how police prepare to make these split-second, life-or-death decisions, and know the law gives latitude to officers making them, an officer would most likely be acting within the law to shoot me if it was mistaken for a weapon.