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Shoot, don't shoot? A split-second, life-changing decision

Sheriff's Office invites News4Jax reporters to see if they would pull the trigger

STARKE, Fla. – To take a life or possibly lose your own -- it's the most critical decision an officer has to make. It's also one of the most difficult in an environment where every second counts.

The issue has been in the national spotlight in recent months because of police-involved incidents like the shooting death of Michael Brown and the take-down death of Eric Garner.

RELATED: How police-involved killings have shaped culture 
BEHIND-THE-SCENES IMAGES: Shoot, don't shoot scenarios

Following such high-profile incidents, tensions have been growing between police and citizens across the country. That's one reason the Bradford County Sheriff's Office offered to take four people -- News4Jax reporters Heather Leigh and Vic Micolucci, News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith, and local NAACP leader Rev. Larry O'Hara -- and put them into real-life scenarios that officers find themselves in all the time. All four had to decide if their lives were in danger and if they should pull the trigger.

The participants used real guns with training rounds but had no idea what to expect until they got into the police cruiser. They participated one at a time in the exercises and could not watch the other participants before they went through a scenario.

"These are hot rounds. You're going to find out these rounds are going to sting. They can break your skin," said Sgt. Kevin Mueller of the Bradford County Sheriff's Office. "That's why we're going to wear a face mask. They could blind you if they hit you in the eye." 

SCENARIO ONE: DOMESTIC DISPUTE

The first scenario: a domestic dispute -- two people arguing inside their home. Smith, who has nearly 30 years of experience and training with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, went first. Once he approached the home, he knocked on the door and immediately a man came storming out.

Suspect:

"What are you opening my door for?"

Smith:

"Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands! Just stay right there. [I'm] just checking out, making sure everything's OK."

Right away the man pulled out a remote control, which prompted Smith to grab his gun out of the holster, but he didn't shoot. Smith eventually got the man away from the door but before he could check the man for any weapons, a woman popped out of the home and shot Smith in the arm.

While Smith was an officer for JSO, he typically had another officer with him. In this scenario, he was alone, waiting for backup to arrive.

"I had to start thinking about how I would do things differently than I would normally do in Jacksonville. I said OK I'll get him over here, pat him down first, make him stay out here. Once I knew he didn't have a weapon, then I'll go in and deal with her," Smith said. "Of course, I didn't have time for that."

Rev. O'Hara went next, facing the same scenario with a very similar outcome. O'Hara approached the house and, like Smith, did not shoot when the suspect pulled out the remote. He was able to get the man away from the door.

But according to the man who played the suspect, that was part one of his plan. The second part was to get the officer to turn his back. O'Hara did.

"As I was getting ready to turn around and watch the building to see if anyone else was coming," O'Hara said, "I was thinking about calling [for] backup. I didn't get the opportunity before she shot me."

Leigh was up next. She shot the training weapon a few times before the scenarios began, but before that Leigh had never shot or even held a gun in her life.

Unlike Smith and O'Hara, Leigh never left the front-door steps. Instead, Leigh focused on the woman still inside the home while the man continued to yell nearby.

Suspect:

"I'm not coming out."

Leigh:

"I'm going to open the door then."

Suspect:

"No you're not... Say goodbye to your family. I will kill you."

Eventually Leigh made her way down the steps to talk with the man outside. Her back was to the door, and that's when the woman jumped out and shot. She was hit once in the arm and once in the leg.

"While you're by yourself, there are two totally different situations happening," Leigh said. "And trying to pay attention to both of them is really difficult, especially when someone is threatening your life."

Finally, it was Micolucci's turn. His outcome was far different than the three people who went before him.

Micolucci successfully got the man away from the door but remained on the doorstep in a position where he could see the woman if she popped out and the man at the same time. Micolucci drew his gun quickly when the man pulled out a remote, but like the others before him did not shoot.

"I just knew it was a tense situation and could have escalated really quickly. I did feel threatened when he reached into his pocket, and that's when I grabbed my service weapon and luckily I didn't shoot," he said. "I saw it real fast. He should not have reached into his pocket. He was definitely putting himself at risk by pulling out that remote, and I saw it real fast and I couldn't tell what it was at first, but I knew it wasn't a gun."

Micolucci's scenario went on for a few minutes before the training officer finally called stop. Micolucci was never shot. 

MORE: Scenario 2: Suspicious activity | Scenario 3: Traffic stop