The Supreme Court had it right: It's damn easy to dissect a split-second decision made by an officer with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight.
Yet how difficult it is while operating under that split-second constraint.
When you're one of two cops working an undercover stakeout, you're automatically more attuned to your environs. Not only are you surveying for your target's activities, but the actions of those about you.
Such was the case on April 10, 1985, when Officer Joe Paskvan and his partner sat in an unmarked Olds Cutlass outside a Cleveland, Ohio, bar waiting for a suspect to exit. Not that he harbored any illusion that the locals would take them for anything other than what they were: Cops. After all, how many gangsters tool around with three antennas sticking out of the trunks of their hoopties anyway?
That made it all the more surprising when Paskvan's partner elbowed him and pointed out a young male carrying what looked like a sawed-off shotgun. They radioed for uniformed officers to respond to the scene, then watched as the man got into a car, drove a short distance, made a U-turn, then pulled up behind their unmarked car.
At that moment, the uniformed officers pulled around the corner and stopped abreast of the suspect car, placing them directly in the kill zone. Paskvan yelled, "That's him! That's the guy!" as he and his partner jumped out of their unmarked car in a bid to clarify for the officers just where they'd put themselves.
But before either could do anything to improve their positions, the suspect raised his weapon at one of the uniformed officers. The man's quick, determined pace told Paskvan that he didn't have much time to thwart the threat that was developing in front of him.
Was it tunnel vision, the complete focus on his intended victims that prevented the suspect from seeing Paskvan and his partner? Paskvan didn't know. He just accepted the fact that for once he had the drop on someone who thought he had the drop on someone else.
Firing from his Smith & Wesson four-inch Model 19 .357 Magnum, Paskvan pumped three quick rounds into the man's side. The suspect's gun fell to the ground.
Paskvan approached and kicked the gun away from the suspect's reach. As he did, a single BB fell from it.
I didn't kick it that hard, Paskvan thought, still believing that the weapon was a sawed-off shotgun and that he'd somehow kicked a shell open.
"Oh, God, don't shoot me!" the man yelled. "It's only a pellet gun!"
A mere eight seconds had passed between the time the uniformed unit pulled up and Paskvan's request for paramedics, time enough for the man to have sustained fatal injuries and Paskvan's life and career path to change substantially.
And so started an odyssey for Paskvan that would find him taking a circuitous trek through the judicial system - one that would not end for years to come.
Paskvan thought the deceased, Marcos Luciano, was Italian - as did Paskvan's paisano partner. But it turned out that Luciano was Puerto Rican and that one ethnic tweak put a spin on the shooting. Paskvan, a white officer, had shot a Puerto Rican man.