By Stephen Jay Schwartz


I was the point man, or “blocker,” in our stack of four. Our team leader asked what I could see around the corner.

“I see two open doors on the right,” I said. “The first is fifteen feet in. The second is twenty.”

“Can you see anything on the left?” he asked.

I didn’t want to push my head further into the hallway. I didn’t want to be a target.

“Maybe twenty feet in, I see some light. It could be an open door.”

The suspect was yelling and throwing things against the hallway walls, but it was further than I could see from my position.

“Joe!” I yelled. “We have a warrant for your arrest. Come out with your hands in the air!”

“Fuck you, pooooolice!” Joe yelled, and we heard a gun shot.

“Keep your cool,” team leader told me.

I tried calling Joe out again, and he repeated his mantra, slamming chairs and other objects against the walls as he yelled.

“Take the first room,” team leader ordered.

I was a bit nervous, being the guy in the center of the hallway and the last one who would step into the room. I wore a vest and helmet, but I’d never fired the Sig pistol and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to be a misfire statistic.

We moved slowly down the hall, each one resting his hand on the left shoulder of the guy before him. I was in front with no shoulder to hold. After I passed the room, I felt each of my teammates slip behind me, their weapons held in front of them. “One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three,” I whispered, then stepped backward into the room, never taking my eyes off the hallway. Our room was clear.

“What did you see?” team leader asked from the starting position behind me.

“The light does come from an opposing room. And the hallway is long, with another open door to the right, about a hundred feet from our position, and a door at the end of the hallway,” I answered.

The team leader sent another four men to join us. I stepped into the hallway again and let them slip into the room we’d taken. I stepped back in after the last man passed behind me. My eyes remained in the hallway.

“Okay,” team leader said. “We’re going to double-stack and take those opposing rooms. Point men go when you’re ready, and don’t forget to cross-cover.”

I took a deep breath. We could hear our suspect, Joe, laughing insanely from one of the rooms. We’d been told he was a felon who had broken his probation by carrying a loaded handgun. We asked what the felony was for and were told that he’d attacked a police officer. I exhaled.

I stepped into the hall and was joined by the point from Team Two behind me. Our teams walked side-by-side, then split off into the opposing rooms. The three in my group entered and cleared the room.  I heard Team Two clear theirs.

“Okay, double-stack and take the last rooms. Team Two, take the one down the hall. Team One, collapse the point and take the one on the right.”

We moved out. I heard them behind me, sharp breaths under clunky face-masks. Joe was nowhere to be seen.

As we approached our objectives I pulled back into my team, collapsing the point. I was in first position, with three other men behind me. Team Two stepped past me and took the room at the end of the hall.

I turned right into the room, my weapon raised. I could barely see through the foggy visor, but I saw a man crouched on the floor with a gun in his hand.

“Drop it, Joe!” I yelled. He raised the weapon and I did what I was trained to do. I put two rapid shots in his stomach. The marks appeared quickly on his shirt.

He dropped his weapon.

“Don’t shoot anymore,” he said, still crouched on the backs of his heels. I got him just below the vest, where it hurt.

“Can’t you fuckers ever aim for the chest?” he asked. There was a yellow stain on the back of his head from where he was hit in the last simulation.

“Sorry,” I said, feeling proud as hell. They were just sim rounds, but I heard they left a welt. I wouldn’t know, having avoided being shot myself.

“Wear crappy clothes!” our PIO had said the week before. “You will get hit, all of you.”

This is my fourth week in the ATF Citizen’s Academy. I fucking LOVE IT. This is Disneyland for crime writers. It’s three or four hours a week for eight weeks. And then we graduate. I want to fail so I can do it all over again.

The ATF Citizen’s Academy is the pet project of Special Agent in Charge John A. Torres, a soft-spoken, well-respected leader who has been with the ATF since 1984. It’s the only one of its kind in the country, and its success has spawned plans to duplicate the Academy in other states across the U.S.

The first couple weeks were filled with lectures. The kind of lectures you never got in college. With footage of undercover operations filmed from the lapels or buttons or sunglasses (the agents won’t tell us all their secrets) of the agents involved. Real Donnie Brasco stuff. These agents put their necks on the line every day, and we got to see it. We were taken through the details of infiltrating a simple counterfeit cigarette smuggling ring in Los Angeles and watched as it grew into an international undercover operation involving the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, ICE, LA Sheriffs, CHP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Hong Kong police, and more. An Asian gang in Los Angeles led to a Russian car-stealing operation in New York and climaxed with a deal to smuggle military weapons to the U.S. from China. Called Smoking Dragon, the operation netted 95 million dollars in seizable assets.

I think that was the first night’s class.

Then we got into undercover operations with the local motorcycle gangs. Most of this stuff had to do with illegal weapons sales. Our PIO is a Special Agent himself, and he’s mostly known at the agency as the guy who’s crazy enough to do anything he’s asked to do. His name is Special Agent Christian Hoffman, and Author Andrew Peterson brought him to the Romantic Times conference in Los Angeles this past year. Together with an outstanding team of other special agents, Christian ran a panel on ATF tactics, weapons, and operations. The event ended with Andrew Peterson being attacked by a german shepherd from the ATF weapons division. What a climax.

Last week we were wired and sent into a local, outdoor shopping center to spy on a Confidential Informant, another ATF agent. He was approached by several different suspects intent upon selling him a stolen Glock pistol. I was team leader in a group of eight classmates, and we were all paired in twos. Our job was to watch the CI and everyone he came in contact with, while trying not to be “made.” I sent classmates off to follow each suspect he met, which led some of the students into dark parking structures where they witnessed “hand-offs” and were forced to record license plate numbers on the palms of their hands. I found the psychological strain of Surveillance Day much more exhausting than the more physical day we spent catching bad guys with paint-ball guns.

But I love it all. Next week we go to the range. Yes. Fully-automatic assault weapons with live ammo. We even get to fire a Tommy Gun.

After yesterday’s exercise I asked our instructor what the cut-off age is for joining the ATF.

“Thirty-seven,” he said.

Damn. I’m almost the age where I can’t do everything I want to in life. But I’m never too old to write about it.

26 thoughts on “I SHOT THE LAW (AND THE LAW WON)

  1. Chuck

    SWEEEEEEET!!!! I am jealous SJS! Thanks for the imagery today…a little vicarious living for us. Have fun next week.

  2. Richard Maguire

    Stephen, I envy you. Sounds like an exciting way to do research and get the facts straight. I'm sure your head is already spinning with ideas for future stories. On graduation, are you awarded a replica ATF badge or a diploma? I wish you all the best – and take it easy with that Tommy Gun.

  3. Patricia Stoltey

    Looks like an incredible experience. Around here (Colorado) writers attend Citizen Police Academies with local or county police. I haven't done one yet, but it's apparently very worthwhile.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    I've just been talking to SWAT about simunitions training rounds, and they feature in the opening chapter of my new book. How spooky is that! Sounds like you had a blast, and the range will be fun, too.

    You'll love the Thompson – all solid wood and cast iron, but the weight of it means there's almost no recoil.


  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chuck – you'd love it, man. The whole class is jazzed about next week.

    Alaina – they have Citizen Academies for the DEA and FBI, too. Next year I'm hoping to do them, too.

    Richard – we get a certificate, or diploma, at the end of the class. And the Director of the ATF might be coming in from Washington to give them to us personally. I can't wait.

    Alex – I wish you'd been on my team. Naomi Hirahara is at the Academy with me, and we were partnered on the exercise I wrote about. I think you'd kick some ass.

    Patricia – I'd love to do an Academy with my local police, preferably with the LAPD. I was told that there's a CERT program with the Mayor's office in L.A., which is much more extensive. I'm going to check that one out.

    Louise – would've been fun to have you on my team. Maybe they do something like this in SF? There's a good FBI office there.

    Blaire – don't be a wuss! Man-up!

    Zoe – you know, you're the only author who really scares me.

    Al – just livin' the life, man.

    Gayle – it's not like we're shooting the live ammo at human targets. We'll be at the range for that. Unless there's some new early-release prison program I don't know about…

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    The truth is I have a scary competitive side that I've spent most of my life using my blondeness to neutralize and I don't even want to think about what would come out if someone put me in a training exercise like that.

    Naomi, though – SHE scares me!

  7. Allison Davis

    Fong said I could still join the FBI and I'm ancient — they have desk jobs there, but we wouldn't be satisfied with that.

    Sweat was rolling down the back of my neck, my heart was going, it was awesome to follow you. I wanted to be there. Good for you for being able to do that.

    Off to New Orleans in a couple hours. Zoe, need any research done?

  8. David Corbett


    I took part in my local PD's citizen academy, and though it was nowhere near as action-packed as what you describe, it gave me a whole new view of my city and the cops who patrol it. (I also met with a local defense lawyer, originally from New York, here for 25 years, death penalty certified, and he gave me an even more fascinating view of the local legal terrain.) You can't underestimate how valuable these academies are, not just as a writer but a citizen. Unfortunately, I was out of town the day they did the gun range, but I've made a couple pals — one's writing a novel, big surprise — and they've promised to take me over for a little one-on-one.

    Great post, good sir. But I'd watch my back if Joe's in the vicinity for the next few weeks.

  9. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Allison – no, we would NOT be satisfied with a desk job. We're field agents, you and me.

    David – did you get a chance to speak with the SF cops who were at my signing at the Beat Museum? They are really cool guys and they'd be more than happy to talk to you or even take you around a bit. I think your experience as a PI is incredible, actually. You've really been places the average citizen has not. At least with the SFPD, ATF, FBI, etc, there's a whole agency behind you. As a PI you're all by yourself. Vulnerable. That takes a certain kind of nerve, man. And, yeah, Joe will be at the gun range next week. I better watch my ass…real bullets…

  10. Naomi Hirahara

    Great post, Stephen. My husband is totally jealous that we get this inside scoop on area gangs as well as this great hands-on experience, too.

    I'm learning a lot about things that we put in our books that may not be necessarily true. That it's not all about testosterone, speed and individualism, but patience, coordination and teamwork.

    And I'm definitely not scary, Alex. With my helmet on, I'm sure that I looked like a kid trick-or-treating with a Darth Vadar mask!

  11. Schwartz, Stephen Jay

    Absolutely, Naomi. I'm learning the same lesson. The reason these guys are so successful is because they approach everything as a team.
    And don't kid yourself, girl. You were a rough-and-tough ATF agent in there, swinging that Sig in the air. You were a sight to behold.

  12. KDJames

    Wow, Stephen. This is very impressive experience you're gaining. I'd love to be there and observe, because, you know, all that adrenaline and testosterone and tension up close and personal would be compelling (no, you're not going to convince me those things aren't present) (controlled, yes, but still present).

    But to participate? Um, no. Not for me. I've safely navigated my two kids (and half their friends) into their twenties. I'd be stepping into the middle of the room, holding up my hand and saying things like, "Okay, now wait just one minute. You, go to your room. And you over there, put that gun down before you hurt someone." Plus, I'm not sure I could shoot anyone. Not unless they shot me first. I figure it wouldn't take long. Milliseconds and I'd be a goner.

    Very happy you're having so much fun with it.

  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I just have to say – KD – where have you BEEN????

    And you know what? Turning on that Mom thing could be exactly what it takes to save lives in a situation like that. Don't ever underestimate what simple human connection can do to make someone put down that weapon. It's worked for me, and I've seen it work with other people.

  14. KDJames

    Alex, now I'm laughing, remembering a book I had as a child: "Little black bug, little black bug, where have you been? I've been under the rug, said little black bug. Ug ug ug ug ug."

    I've been here. Lurking. I guess I have been quiet lately. Up to no good, mostly. Plotting, planning, writing, plotting some more. Sometimes I just run out of things to say (for public consumption, anyway) and have to let it all build up again.

  15. Sally Charette

    Terrific account, Stephen – I'm pretty sure I was the team two leader when you took down the ATF officer. I took one of the shots he intended for you inside my upper arm. Glad it was only paint!

    The weeks have passed far too quickly!

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