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Shoot, don't shoot? Traffic stop scenario

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

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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 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.

BEHIND-THE-SCENES IMAGES: Shoot, don't shoot scenarios

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.

SCENARIO THREE: TRAFFIC STOP

Officers say traffic stops are some of the most unpredictable and dangerous calls to which they respond.

Micolucci was first to this scenario. Within seconds of pulling up, a suspect jumped out of a car and started toward Micolucci, who hadn't gotten out of his cruiser.

Suspect:

"Get out the car you lazy bum. What the heck are you stopping me for?"

Micolucci:

"Alright sir, how are you doin?"

Suspect:

"Good... What are you stopping me for?"

The suspect was loud and extremely agitated. He reached behind his back to pull something out, and Micolucci pulled his gun but didn't shoot.

Micolucci: "Hey... whoa, whoa, whoa. Hands up! Hands up! Hands up!"
Suspect: "What do you mean? What do you want?"
Micolucci: "Hands up! Hands up! Hands up! Put you hands on the front of the car. Do not move. Do not move."

The suspect was carrying a wallet.

"At that point, I saw both of his hands, and I knew that if he got any closer, I was going to shoot him," Micolucci said. "But I saw both of his hands [and] I knew where he was."

Smith did not shoot either.

"People know in a traffic stop, you sit in the car and wait for the officer to approach you," Smith said. "But soon as he came out, boom, [I] had to come out ready."

He pulled his gun as the suspect reached for his wallet, but once he realized there was no weapon, Smith instructed the man to get on the ground.

Leigh, on the other hand, was unable to control the man. He approached her very quickly, and because Leigh had never shot a weapon before, she struggled as she grabbed the gun. By the time she figured it out, the man was in front of her. Leigh said she crouched down behind the door not knowing what else to do.

Leigh:

"I've got a gun. Put your hands in the air and put your... get on the ground. Get on the ground!"

Suspect:

"I can't hear you. I can't hear you! I'm trying to get home. I'm trying to get home! I've got something for you...You wanna shoot me? Take my wallet!"

Leigh started shooting as the man reached for his wallet.

"I don't have any experience in this, but I'll tell you what, when he started coming at me, I felt threatened because I was behind this [door], and I know that there, maybe this is some sort of barrier," Leigh said. "But I still felt very threatened. He was right at me, and I felt like there was nothing else I could do."

Officers said because the suspect was so aggressive and wasn't following commands, the shooting could be seen as justified but a grand jury would have to decide.

Leigh wasn't the only one to shoot the unarmed man. O'Hara was up next.

O'Hara:

"Get back in the car! Get back in the car!"

Suspect:

"I've got something for you!"

O'Hara:

"Get back in the car! Don't... don't... don't try to... get back in the car!"

Suspect:

"I don't wanna go back in the car!"

O'Hara:

"Don't come any closer. Don't come any closer!"

It took less than a minute for O'Hara to shoot the unarmed man. Smith asked O'Hara what his initial reaction would have been two weeks ago if he saw these exact scenario play out on the news.

"I really don't know," O'Hara said. "It's one of those types of scenarios that didn't happen to me."

"Lets say it happens a week from now, now that you've experienced it, and you see this happen, what would you think then?" Smith asked.

"Then I would have to be on the officer's side, simply because his life was in danger," O'Hara said. "I knew something had to be done, because I wanted to be the one to go home today."

Smith also asked if O'Hara would find this shooting justified. O'Hara said, "Absolutely."

O'Hara said he will have to look at things differently after experiencing the scenarios. He said the NAACP can't take one side and must evaluate the situation and look at the final reports before making a decision.

MORE: Scenario 1: Domestic dispute | Scenario 2: Suspicious activity