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Houston’s new simulator trains deputies for real situations

WARNER ROBINS — When Houston County sheriff’s deputy Ben Lashley headed to the gym after work, the manager met him at the door about a belligerent man who would not leave.

The angry man loudly cursed Lashley, who was still in uniform. The deputy told him repeatedly to calm down and put down a heavy weight. The man initially complied but in a matter of seconds he grabbed the weight again and charged at the deputy. Lashley deployed his Taser and the man was subdued. Had the deputy hesitated for a split second, the man would have hit him with the weight.

Would have hit him, that is, if any of it were real. Lashley’s experience was part of a use of force virtual training exercise, made possible by the department’s new simulator.

“It gives us the ability to put officers in as close to real-life situations as possible,” said Houston County sheriff’s Lt. M.J. Stokes. “There’s only so much you can do on the firing range.”

AS REAL AS IT GETS

The $52,000 simulator, purchased this year by the Houston County Sheriff’s Office using seized drug money, includes more than 300 scenarios. The situations range from a courthouse hostage-taker, to an armed robbery in a parking lot, to a suicidal man waving a gun in an office complex.

All deputies who carry a weapon were required to go through the simulated training last week. Interacting with people projected onto a life-size screen, the deputies issued commands and demonstrated what actions he or she would take in a real-life situation as training officers watched and critiqued.

Training officers had the ability to change up the scenario based on how the officer responded. The endings varied, and included the “bad guy” obeying commands and surrendering, or a full-blown gun fight and the death of a hostage if the officer failed to act quickly to take down an armed gunman.

The sophisticated equipment includes a fake gun that fires air-compressed projectiles. A laser records the officers’ shots. Taser prong hits can also be captured. The system records the officers’ voice commands and his or her actions. The system can also simulate the suspect firing back through the rapid issuance of small plastic pellets aimed at the deputy.

A SPLIT SECOND DECISION

In many of the simulations, a deputy had only about a half-second to make the decision on what type of force to use. “That’s how it is in real life,” Stokes said. “Things escalate in fractions of seconds.”

When making the call on whether to use deadly force, Stokes said deputies are taught to consider three factors: ability, opportunity and jeopardy. The person wielding the weapon must have the ability and opportunity to harm others and the jeopardy of that harm being inflicted must be present.

“It’s like a tripod,” Stokes said. “All three legs have to be on the ground. All have to be present to justify the use of deadly force.”

In some of the scenarios, officers had the opportunity to attempt to resolve the situation with verbal commands, and some were resolved peacefully. In others, deployment of pepper spray or a Taser was needed to protect the suicidal person, bystanders or the responding deputy. In many of the scenarios, the person initially appeared to comply but then grabbed a weapon — such as gun on a nearby table — and opened fire. A few times, no words were spoken.

NO TURNING BACK

In one scenario, deputy Alex Busch, a training instructor, rounded the corner of a black sports utility vehicle for his first glimpse of an armed robbery in progress in a parking lot. The robber had the gun pointed at a terrified husband and wife. Busch immediately fired on the robber.

Sgt. Kevin Harper, who was leading training that day, explained that action is faster than reaction. Had the deputy not fired immediately, the armed robber could have fired on the victims, or turned and fired on the officer before the officer could have responded.

In another scenario on another day, deputy John Reynolds, who provides security in Magistrate Court, was confronted with two men running out of nearby courtroom doors at the same time. One man had a gun to his side. Reynolds, in the simulator for the first time, hesitated to shoot. At the deputy’s next opportunity to fire, the man had the gun to the head of the hostage. If the deputy missed, he could accidentally shoot the hostage. The deputy hesitated again. Seconds clicked by. The gunman and hostage disappeared behind a door followed by the horrific sound of the single gunshot. The hostage was dead.

Harper and Sgt. Joe Middlebrooks, who also conducted the training, played back the scenario, freezing the action screen-by-screen for Reynolds, as they talked about why there wasn’t any other choice but to fire immediately on the gunman when he came into view.

Stokes noted that it’s hard to grasp how fast a situation can escalate unless you’ve experienced it, or witnessed such a simulation.

DEADLY FORCE

In another courthouse hostage scenario, when Reynolds may have been tempted to immediately open fire after the previous situation, he walked into a full courtroom where a deputy had a gun trained on a suspect holding a hostage. The suspect and hostage were hidden from view. All Reynolds could see was the other deputy’s back.

Reynolds, gun drawn, moved to the left side of the deputy and continued to move left. As Reynolds moved, the full scene came into view. The suspect had the pointed end of scissors pressed to the neck of the hostage. The judge was seated at the bench behind them. Here, Reynolds fired and the man fell to the ground. The hostage, judge and others in the crowded courtroom were unharmed. Had Reynolds attempted to take a shot earlier, he could have shot the other deputy, the hostage or the judge, who was also initially hidden from view.

“You don’t want to have to take someone’s life if you don’t have to,” Middlebrooks said. “But sometimes, you don’t have a choice.”

The reality for law enforcement officers, Harper said, is there is no routine call. A basic traffic stop has the potential to become deadly. The hope of the training is that officers will gain the insight and experience necessary to make the best decision when life is at stake, Stokes said.

“We want our deputies to go home after their tour of duties,” Stokes said. “This is very useful tool to help us ensure they go home to their families.”

OTHERS AGENCIES USE SIMULATORS

Simulators, which range in price and complexity, have been available to law enforcement for some time.

Macon police have been training on a similar simulator for years, according to Sgt. Melanie Hofmann, public information officer. Warner Robins police have one from a previous administration, though Chief Brett Evans said it is not nearly as sophisticated as Houston County’s simulator. Perry purchased a simulator last year.

In addition to training, the simulators instill confidence, boost morale and cut down on ammunition costs, police said. Some agencies also use them to educate the public, allowing leadership classes and citizen police academies to go undergo or observe the simulated training.

The best part, regardless of each scenario’s outcome, is that it’s only a simulation, Perry police Capt. Heath Dykes said.

“There are no consequences when you get killed in a simulator,” Dykes said. “One can learn and walk away from it and get a second chance.”

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