I WAS WORKING THE DAY SHIFT OUT

of Forestville when I got the order. Guy name of Jimmy Jones, wanted for burglary, is sitting in a local bar. I go in the place, a greasy little joint, and I see him talking to a guy in a seersucker suit. "Jimmy Jones," I say. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" He turns around, calls me some things you can't quote in a family newspaper, then turns back to the bar. Apparently, he doesn't like cops. I call to him again: "Mr. Jones, I'd like to talk to you." He swings around and gives me more lip until the guy in the seersucker suit shuts him up. "Let me take care of this," seersucker says, then he pulls out a pistol and shoots me.

Never trust a guy in a seersucker suit.

A few minutes later, I get another assignment. Seems there's a cook in a local restaurant who's a PCP freak wanted for some extracurricular activity with a knife. I walk into the kitchen and there he is, carving something up with a wicked-looking blade. When I tell him I want to talk to him, he's all smiles. He comes right out, carrying the knife. I take two steps back, whip out my revolver and tell him to put the knife down. He steps back to his carving table and puts the knife down, still smiling like he's Bert Parks or something. Then he reaches down to a little gym bag. I tell him to stop. He pulls out a gun and blows me away before I can get a shot off.

I die.

Fortunately for me and my insurance company, all this gunplay is merely a training exercise for the Prince George's County Police Department. It's called the "Shoot/No Shoot Reaction Time Stimulator." Bob Beckman developed it when he was working for the Naval Investigative Service in 1981, and now his company, Robbec Inc. in Manassas, sells it to law-enforcement agencies. His customers include the U.S. Capitol Police, the Anne Arundel County Police Department and the London Metropolitan Police.

"Shoot/No Shoot" is an "interactive video" system, which means that although these alleged perpetrators and assorted dirtballs are only images on a screen, you can talk to them and they can talk back. You can also shoot at them and they can shoot back. "The intent of the system," says Beckman, "is to give the policeman practice in making that decision to shoot or not to shoot."

Though Beckman provides the basic system, each police department using "Shoot/No Shoot" makes its own videos. The Prince George's County police videos re-create incidents that actually occurred in the county. That way, current officers can learn from the sometimes fatal mistakes of their colleagues. So far, about a third of the county's 943-person force has trekked out to a drab gray trailer in Forestville to take the hour-long course. "When it comes to in-service training," says Rodney Chaney, the former county policeman who came out of retirement to administer the course, "this is the best I've seen in 20 years."

He says that, then he sends me out with my laser-shooting service revolver to confront yet another video villain. This time it's a burglary in progress. My partner has gone around the back of the house to check out the situation. Time passes. I decide to follow him. I step around the corner, gun drawn, and see my partner crouched behind a fence. Then I spot this little dirtball trying to break into the locked back door. "Freeze," I yell. He takes off. As he runs, he reaches into his belt and pulls out a pistol. Sick of getting shot, I fire first.

The good news is that my second bullet hits the alleged perp right in the place that ensures he'll never reproduce.

The bad news is that my first shot killed my partner.