You are a seasoned beat cop, working your detail when you pull over a vehicle during what is supposed to be a routine traffic stop. The driver steps out of the vehicle, agitated. He stumbles around a bit – perhaps he’s under the influence – and starts to ramble a bit, taunting you about a gun he claims to have. With a permit to carry, he insists. He starts to reach into his pockets, digging around, as you order him to put his hands where you can see them. “Are you ready?” he taunts, “It’s coming out.” He then moves his hands as if drawing a weapon in your direction. What do you do?
That is just one of the roughly 500 scenarios on the FATS (Firearms Training Simulator), an interactive machine designed to train officers to survive an encounter with a person with a weapon. Around 3,800 agencies in America, and hundreds more around the world, including the Canadian and Singaporean armies and the British Ministry of Defense, use these machines to run through simulated scenarios based on real-life on-duty encounters to sharpen skills that help officers to determine when to shoot, when to use non-lethal force, and when to rely on verbal commands.
If you’re like Masshole Mitch and myself, in the scenario described above, you’d shoot the guy right in the head, and then realize afterwards, he was completely unarmed.
Although simulated in the safety of a conference room, the experience was a bit jarring – what if he was in fact armed and his threats were credible? It’s a tough call to make in the precious few seconds between the draw of a weapon and a bullet barreling towards your skull. In yet another scenario, a man steps out of a vehicle with a gun to his own head. He’s screaming, clearly distraught, as we order him to drop the weapon. He steps closer and closer, and then fires – we’d be dead. In our efforts to negotiate the weapon out of his hand, we missed what he was talking about – murdering two people and then urging us to kill him. By focusing on our desire to diffuse the situation rather than the danger present, we ended up with dire consequences.
The Pawtucket Police department were kind enough to invite us to try out this training simulator, and have two of arguably their most attractive officers talk to us a little bit about their Explore program, a program for at-risk and other youth interested in law enforcement, as well as some of their experiences in the line of duty. I have to admit, the two teenagers they had there with us were exponentially more competent than I.
The training is like a high-end video game. Holding a gun loaded with compressed air rather than bullets, trainees face a bank of screens as the scenarios unfold: a homeless man gets upset when woken up from sleeping in an unlocked building after hours as his German Shepard growls from a corner (I forgot about the dog and it mauled Mitch to death); a girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old, starts shouting at your partner for taking her daddy in on a warrant. She steps out of his truck and points her father’s hunting rifle at your partner (we managed to avoid shooting the girl with verbal commands, but ended up having to shoot her dad right in front of her). There is a live shooter in a school. A trainer changes the scenario based on the trainees’ responses. Sometimes the right response is a verbal one: the active shooter in the school dropped the weapon after multiple commands.
The machine teaches police when to pull the trigger and when to hold off. But it also shows citizens just how quickly police have to make life-and-death decisions. I’d be interested to see, AHEM, some activists and critics of the police put through their paces on the machines. I know we came out saying “I didn’t realize what a hard job the police really have.” This exercise proved one thing definitively – if it’s a life or death situation – you probably don’t want me there. I will get us all killed. I even put my taser in its holster backwards – twice. At one point I left it “on”. Were it a live taser, I would have been on the floor faster than you can say “Hawaii Five-O outtakes”.