You’re a police officer, and you’ve received a call from dispatch saying a man has been seen walking along a street who matches the description of an armed robbery suspect. You’re given a description of the man’s clothing, and while cruising the street you see him. How do you handle the encounter?
Officers in the Urbana police department get to practice such encounters using a computer simulator. Thanks to a Federal grant that an officer pursued, they purchased the equipment to use in their training.
The simulator is in a 15’ square curtained-off area of the SWAT team’s briefing room. (The curtains allow the simulations to run in both daylight and night-time conditions.) There is a screen at one end of the room that’s about 8’ wide and 6’ high on which the video image is projected. From where you stand, it is wide enough to fill your peripheral vision, so you feel you’re there.
The person going through the simulation is armed with a laser gun that can shoot at the screen. The computer will record where the shot hit and the whole shooting sequence for replay later. The laser guns used are actual guns that have been modified and fitted with CO2 bottles so the gun cycles like a regular automatic. Besides the standard Glock service piece, they also have a converted M-16 and a 12-guage shotgun for SWAT simulations, and a pepper spray can for non-lethal situations. They can even do simulations to teach the proper use of the officer’s baton.
The program is interactive so the officer talks to the person on the screen as if it’s a real situation. There are over 250 situations from which to choose.
The training officers let each class member go through two scenarios in the simulator. The first one was what I described in the first paragraph. You get out of your squad car and are talking to the suspect. He’s standing with his hands in his pockets, arguing with you. Then he points with his left hand and says he lives just over there. With his right hand he reaches behind his back and draws a gun.
Officers going through the training wear a vest so that if the character in the simulation shoots them, they feel it. We were spared that. In my case, the suspect got off one shot while I fired three times, hitting him twice in the torso. From the time he went for his gun to when I finished firing, 2 seconds elapsed according to the timer when they replayed what had happened.
The second simulation was a call where a silent alarm was tripped at a warehouse on the north side of the city. You respond and find a door open. While checking inside the building, a man stands up from behind a work bench. He says he works there and is swearing up a storm. All the while, his right hand is down by the bench out of sight. Eventually he says he has ID, raises up his right hand – and in it is his wallet with his ID.
Afterwards I sat down with Lt. Rich Serle, who is assigned to street crimes in Urbana as well as being a member of the SWAT team and coordinator for the simulator training. After going through the first simulation, it definitely changed how I reacted to the second. Lt. Serle pointed out that situations are gray, and they happen very fast. When he’s faced with a suspect who may be armed, he gives them three chances: he asks them to comply with his requests, then he commands them, and finally he makes them. He also said one thing the simulator brings home is that hands kill cops. That’s why in a confrontation the police want to see a suspect’s hands.
Officers in the Urbana department go through simulator training every two months. The point is to create a database in the officer’s head of what to do, giving them life experience in a safe environment. The Supreme Court has ruled that it’s not enough for officers to be taught how to shoot; they have to be taught when and why to shoot. The simulator can do that.
Simulators are not cheap. The one we practiced on cost $40,000. But as one of the training officers said that night, “If this prevents the wrong thing from happening in the field, it has paid for itself ten times over.”