Robert Gehrke steps into a police training simulator to get an idea of the intense scenarios police officers face.
Intense scenarios can prepare officials for the worst, but they are still not the reality.
Everything happened in a few seconds: a man with a knife stands over a woman lying on the ground, pauses briefly and then sprints towards an officer who responds to the call of a woman who has been stabbed to death in Pioneer Park.
While the man was on the run, the second officer fired several shots. The man with the knife fell forward and died in the grass.
Salt Lake City Police released bodycam images of the city’s last fatal police shooting last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have reacted if I had been able to have this cop with that gun in hand and only had a heartbeat or two to respond.
That question came to my mind more fresher because I recently visited the state police training simulator in the Attorney General’s office in Murray.
These type of simulators are not new and are widely used in departments across the country. The idea is to put officers or cadets in an immersive setting – surrounded by five large movie screens in this case – and get them to react to some of the most intense scenarios they are likely to encounter and then watch them react.
So they let me see how I would react. On one hip I had an empty gun with a CO2 cartridge to simulate recoil, and on the other a disarmed taser.
The instructor wants to see the officers fall back on their training, trying to de-escalate a situation, connect to an issue, and calm it down. Do you then pick up your Taser or your Glock? Finally, what can they learn from their reaction?
The situations are extreme, said Scott Carver, director of training at the Utah Attorney General’s office, the guy you hopefully will never meet – a man who threatens to drop his toddler off a bridge; a domestic violence hostage-taking; a suicidal man with a gun; or an active shooter in a movie theater.
The on-screen characters’ reaction is controlled by an instructor – in my case it was Will Fowlke from the AG’s office – who can change the story, escalate or de-escalate depending on the officer’s reaction, then repeat the scenario and repeat the summary answers .
And while they’re just projections onto a screen, they’re effective. The pulse accelerates, the pits sweat, the throat narrows, the hands may tremble a little.
I learned two things: First, I would be a rotten cop.
I fumbled for my taser and let the suicide suspect enter a building and kill his former co-workers. I froze in the domestic violence situation and the hostage was killed. I was able to talk the dad out with his young son, so that’s a win, I suppose.
I had some concerns with the scenarios I went through. Too many of them, it seemed, ended up with the right reaction being to shoot a suspect with too little opportunity to defuse the situation.
Second, these simulations appear to be the most effective way – the only way to prepare officers for these worst-case scenarios.
How effective they could be can be difficult, however, says Susan Strauss, who researches virtual reality applications in the police and military for RAND Corporation.
“Getting the data to show the training is working is the holy grail,” she said. “One of the challenges in testing the effectiveness of training in shooting and non-shooting situations in the police force is that gunfire or an officer pulling his gun does not happen very often and you have to behave enough at work to to test whether there is a meaningful difference between the … VR or simulation-based training group and the regular method of the training group. “
Ultimately, says Tim Marler, Strauss’ colleague at RAND, simulators are a tool. To be effective, the scenarios must be well tailored, focus on specific training objectives, work requirements and guidelines, provide sufficient opportunities for practice, and measure performance over time.
“I think this type of technology … offers many opportunities in many different sectors, but especially given the headlines in law enforcement today,” he told me. “Law enforcement really could have some benefits, but I think it all requires considerable thought and consideration in how to implement and use these.”
No training, whatever it is, will result in officers not being questioned when they use force.
After the bodycam of the Pioneer Park shootings was released, the Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter posted a statement that “committing police suicide” shouldn’t be so easy for someone and that officials “save lives, not” take “you should.”
“You teach the police to hand-to-hand combat, they never use it. They give police tasers, they never use them. They give police de-escalation training, they never use them, ”the statement continues. “The police use guns. You take life. “
From what I saw on the Pioneer Park bodycam footage, the officers did – or tried – to do what they were taught. They didn’t show up and started shooting. They kept their distance, tried to communicate with the gunman, tried to de-escalate, ordered him to stop.
It didn’t work, and it was an unfortunate ending to an extremely dangerous situation that officers will encounter often. My colleagues Paighten Harkins and Jessica Miller compiled 30 incidents in 2020 in which officers shot suspects, setting a record from the previous year.
When the police do this, the best possible preparation – including role-playing games similar to life-threatening incidents – can save the lives of the officers or the next few people they meet.