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Ex-Instructor: Marshals Acted Correctly in Miami


Yesterday's shooting was the first time air marshals have fired their weapons since the marshals program was dramatically expanded after September 11th. Jamie Smith is a former air marshal instructor. He says marshals are trained for scenarios like the one that unfolded yesterday.

Mr. JAMIE SMITH (CEO, SCG International Risk; Former Air Marshal Instructor): When you have the scenarios that involve a bomb, you're not going to see the bomb. It's going to be hidden in a bag or hidden on a person. And in those cases, that's something that we have to prepare them for.

BLOCK: And how do you do that? What does the training say to do?

Mr. SMITH: Well, you're looking for three things when it comes down to whether deadly force is justified or not, and those three things are opportunity, capability and intent. Now let's just take an example of somebody who has a gun or a knife on an airplane. They stand there next to the stewardess and they grab the stewardess, and they say, `I'm going to kill the stewardess.' Well, you ask: Did they have the opportunity? Well, what does that mean? Well, yes, they are standing next to her, so they have the opportunity to do what they say they're going to do. The intent part comes from them saying they're going to kill her. And then the last part is the capability: Do they have a weapon to do what they say they're going to do?

BLOCK: But this is murkier. This was a claim that someone had a bomb but no way of knowing, I suppose, whether there was a bomb in that bag.

Mr. SMITH: Right. Now when you're talking about a bomb, that changes the opportunity element of the three pieces to the equation, and that is because you don't have to be near the cockpit to damage an aircraft with a bomb. So once somebody says, `I've got a bomb,' then, you know, all three elements are met at once.

BLOCK: So would it be the act of physically reaching into a bag that would prompt the use of deadly force then?

Mr. SMITH: Exactly. You know, what you're looking for, you're looking for the hands of the individuals. If you can see their hands and they do not have a weapon in their hands, then deadly force is not going to be a justified solution for you. When it comes down to a bomb, it's the same thing. It--you know, if the hands go into the bag and they've said they have a bomb, you have to assume they're reaching for the detonator. You know, the hands tell the story, and that's what the air marshal's trained to look for--is to watch the hands of the individual.

BLOCK: Would the marshals--if they are going to shoot, would they always use deadly force? Would there ever be a case when they would use disabling force, say?

Mr. SMITH: Well, if you're dealing with somebody who has a bomb, you've got seconds to deal with this person. If you shoot them in the leg or you shoot them in the shoulder, you know, they're still conscious; they still have the motor functions, and they can still set the explosive device off. But if you shoot and you incapacitate them, you know, you strike that portion of the body or the brain that shuts down motor function, there is no ability then to make the body do what you want it to do.

BLOCK: What about training in negotiation techniques, ways to defuse a tense situation?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, they are. They're trained to deal with everything from people that are just being unruly on the plane all the way up to situations such as we saw, unfortunately, yesterday. And they are, you know, taught how to use verbal skills, verbal judo if you will, to talk a person into submission. If that doesn't work, then they have to move into other forms of non-lethal and then, you know--hopefully it never reaches it--lethal.

BLOCK: How long is air marshal training?

Mr. SMITH: It can take anywhere from six to eight weeks. There are many different programs. Back in 2002 when it initially started, it was eight weeks long, and then they had a four-week program, and they've been constantly adjusting the weeks. And so it just varies, depending on whether it's been taught in New Jersey or out in New Mexico.

BLOCK: When you review what appears to have happened on this airplane yesterday, does it seem to you to be a case where everything worked as planned? Is there anything troubling about it?

Mr. SMITH: It seems to be a textbook case of addressing the problem. Now the Homeland Security and the air marshal program, they will review this thing nine ways to Sunday. But, you know, at first glance it does seem to be basically a textbook response to a bomb threat.

BLOCK: Jamie Smith, thanks very much.

Mr. SMITH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jamie Smith is a former air marshal instructor. He's now CEO of the company SCG International Risk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.