Fear is real, but bullet is soap

Roving through the halls of the Glendale Galleria one night earlier this year were about a dozen wannabe cops trying, with varying degrees of ridiculousness, to be covert.

I know, because I was one of them.

I was there as a student in an eight-week Citizens' Academy held by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, better known as the ATF.

Our mission that night was to covertly observe a gun transaction involving real ATF agents posing as bad guys and to discreetly tail them to their cars. My fellow students and I had been told at our "pre-operational briefing" that it would go down in or around a cafe on the ground floor of the mall.

My partner and I were supposed to call our "team leader" on his cellphone and give him a detailed description of the suspects once they arrived.

Suddenly, there they were: a long-haired dude in a Hawaiian shirt and couple of other guys in their 20s, looking nervously about.

Even though it was just an exercise, the adrenaline began to kick in. My partner, a paralegal in the Los Angeles city attorney's office, scribbled down the suspects' descriptions.

Eager to deliver the intel, I tried our team leader on his cell. No answer. Again and again I tried, but the result was the same.

I thought of putting out a call on the brick-size Motorola radio we'd been issued earlier that evening for use in the exercise. But I'd inadvertently changed the channel and couldn't remember which one we were supposed to be using.

Police work, it seemed, was harder than it looked.

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As a reporter covering federal law enforcement in Los Angeles, I enrolled in the class to learn more about the ATF and what its agents do. (OK, I'd also heard there might be some automatic weapons involved -- there were, it turned out -- but more on that later).

Though I've been writing about law enforcement for years, I knew far less about the agency than I did its better-known cousins, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration. My education began on a Wednesday night in January with a lengthy lecture by ATF historian Barbara Osteika. She started with Eliot Ness, the hard-charging Prohibition agent whose battles with bootleggers and the mob in Chicago 80 years ago inspired the book, movie and television series "The Untouchables."

Back then, it was all about booze. Over the years, though, Congress expanded the role of the bureau. The National Firearms Act of 1934 placed restrictions on so-called gangster guns and charged the ATF with enforcing the law.

The killings in the 1960s of John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Martin Luther King Jr. -- all with guns -- would lead to tightened restrictions on firearms nationwide and enhance the ATF's role as "the gun police."

The agency was targeted for elimination in the early 1980s under President Reagan, but was granted a reprieve when it was able to trace the gun used by would-be Reagan assassin John Hinckley Jr. in less than 16 minutes, Osteika said.

Today, the bureau's 2,600 agents handle everything from arson to bombings to counterfeit cigarettes and bootlegged booze.

The Citizens' Academy, said John Torres, the ATF's top agent in Los Angeles, was created to "let people know what we're doing and what we're about."

The academy, which is free, is offered twice a year. Each participant must be at least 21 years old, live in Southern California and be "a civic, religious or community leader."

Despite this last requirement, I received an e-mail in February letting me know that I'd been accepted.

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My 35 classmates included several lawyers and support staff from the city attorney's office, some film and television producers, a Superior Court judge, a real estate attorney, an aspiring ATF agent and one very gung-ho looking insurance agent.

The course was equal parts classroom lecture and in-the-field training, though both were but a taste of what real prospective agents are said to undergo.

To the extent that the Citizens' Academy was aimed at community outreach, from what I could see there was an element of preaching to the choir:

Most of my classmates seemed either to have ties to law enforcement through their work or to already be ardent supporters of the profession. Several had taken similar courses offered by the FBI or local police departments.

Christy Evans, 61, of Burbank, for example, had volunteered with her local police and fire departments before completing the FBI's Citizens' Academy. Plain-spoken and energetic, Evans volunteers teaching school-age children how to respond when "the rat bastard predators get ahold of you."

What she was looking forward to with the ATF program, she said, was tactical training the FBI didn't offer, such as the surveillance operation at the Galleria.

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Spread out across a table at the Eagle's Nest shooting range in the Angeles National Forest was a cache of weapons, including a fully automatic AK-47, a .223-caliber assault rifle, a Thompson submachine gun and a Walther PPK, the favorite handgun of Ian Fleming's 007.

It was an impressive arsenal, made more so by the fact that "every one of 'em was taken off the streets from some lowlife," as my classmate Ted Reina, a retired telephone company worker and police volunteer in Orange County, reminded me.

The idea of the display was to give us some notion of the firepower the cops were up against.

One of the agents placed a supposedly bulletproof vest on an earthen berm about 20 yards away. Firearms instructor Ken Tomlinson fired rounds from a couple of handguns and the vest did its job. Then he took aim with a .223-caliber rifle and squeezed the trigger.

Tomlinson walked over and picked up the vest.

"What do you think happened to the agent wearing this?" he asked, displaying the body armor with several holes at center mass.

Next, another agent hung the vest on what was the equivalent of a wire clothesline. Tomlinson picked up a 12-gauge shotgun and fired a slug into the center of the vest. It swung violently backward, nearly to the point of doing a 360 over the clothesline. Tomlinson didn't have to ask the question. It was not hard to imagine what would have happened to whoever had been wearing it.

My classmates and I were essentially given free rein to fire as many weapons as we wanted, as many times as we wanted. For some, it was the first time firing a gun and was therefore an education in itself.

Having grown up in rural Michigan, I was no stranger to guns. But I'd never hunted deer with an AK-47. I squeezed the trigger and leaned forward to keep the barrel of the gun from rising skyward as I let loose with a gusher of hot lead. I emptied the 30-round magazine in about three seconds.

The sensation was pure adrenaline rush. If I learned anything from the experience, it's that I wouldn't want to find myself on the wrong end of such an awesome killing machine.

As a curious reporter, I also couldn't help wonder how much taxpayers were spending on ammo for our little outing. So I asked Torres, who didn't seem overly pleased with my question.

But he had a good answer: Most of the rounds had either been seized off the street or were slated to be destroyed because they were nearing their expiration date.

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First in goes right or left.

Second does the opposite.

Third up the middle.

That was my mantra on a rainy Friday in March as my classmates and I learned how to "clear" a room in a vacant office building in Cypress that had been converted into a law enforcement training facility.

What it means is that the first officer in an entry team has the choice of going either left or right once he's through the door. The second must go the opposite way. And the third must come up between the first two. Each is then responsible for identifying and neutralizing threats in his third of the room.

It's a common way of entering a location where officers might encounter armed suspects, we were told.

The formula gets more complicated as you move from room to room and have to account for open and intersecting hallways. In some rooms, there were posters of armed, menacing-looking people we were supposed to shoot upon entering -- their inanimate nature allowing us to get the drop every time. And that was a good thing because I discovered at least one well-hidden paper villain well after he would have blown me away.

The dry runs were one thing. But once we were told live "armed suspects" were being added to the mix, it became surprisingly difficult to concentrate on both your tactics and the events unfolding around you.

"Even though it's paintball, it's sort of real," said Evans, who in addition to her volunteer work is a manager at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. She said that she let her guard down during the exercise and that an ATF agent playing a bad guy grabbed her, put a gun to her head and held her hostage.

"It happened in a split second," she said. "It scared the hell out of me."

My moment of truth came as my squad members and I were trying to clear a long hallway with several open doors on both sides.

We're all carrying 9-millimeter pistols rigged to fire projectiles made of soap. They sting enough to let you know you've been hit, but typically don't leave bruises if they don't hit open skin.

As we were moving room-to-room down the hall, we could hear loud noises coming from somewhere, but couldn't tell where.

Then, in a flash, a large man came around the corner and was heading up the hallway in my direction. He seemed agitated and was carrying something -- I wasn't sure what -- in his right hand, pressed up against his thigh.

The squad member in front of me never saw the gun.

It was already swinging upward -- toward me -- when I realized what it was. I started shooting -- three, maybe four times. I was pretty sure I'd hit the bad guy, who was about 30 feet away, with every shot.

Turns out I hit him only once, in the thigh. He got me in the arm.

The revelation was just how fast things can happen. I'm sure it doesn't begin to compare to a real gun battle. But I figure it's gotta be a step up from watching one on TV.

My classmate Ariella Loewenstein learned a similar lesson in the shooting simulator.

As a do-gooder who works for the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles, Loewenstein is not someone you'd think of as a trigger-happy cop.

Yet there she was training her handgun on a fleeing, unarmed suspect and putting a bullet in his back.

"I felt terrible," said Loewenstein, 30. "I'm just happy it was a simulation. I can't imagine if it was real."

The experience, she said, would probably alter the way she views police shootings -- even controversial ones -- in the future. "It definitely makes it seem a little less black and white and a little more gray," she said.

As for the surveillance at the Glendale Galleria, it ended up looking more like a deleted scene from the movie "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" than a real law enforcement operation. It became a sort of free-for-all where people popped out from behind planters and ducked into doorways in obvious efforts to avoid detection. One student agent didn't even bother trying to hide. She walked about a dozen paces behind the men she was tailing, her Motorola clutched in her hand, a dead giveaway.

Watching it all, I remembered something a cop source once told me about questionable police shootings or seemingly nefarious acts by officers:

More often than not, he said, honest mistakes, not malice, were to blame.

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scott.glover@latimes.com

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