Tonight’s the night we’re either going to shoot someone or die. And that makes some of us nervous.
The subject in the Sarasota Police Department’s Citizen Academy is one of the most timely and controversial in all of law enforcement—the use of force by officers. To give us an idea of the challenges they face, SPD will run us through the Use of Force Simulator, the same one used by rookie officers to test their decision-making under fire.
The simulator will show whether we can make sound, split-second decisions without violating the law or allowing a suspect to escape. Or getting killed.
Before we start, Officer Jeff Dunn, who organizes the class, reviews law and policy regarding the use of force and ends with a caution: “When you feel adrenal stress, you don’t make the same decisions you would make in a calm, safe setting. It’s like everything closes around you.”
Dunn should know. He’s a member of the SWAT team and a former K-9 unit officer who has faced these situations in the field. If an experienced officer reacts that way, how will that stress affect us?
We find out quickly. The class enters the simulator four at a time. My group consists of Barna, Tracy, Bill and me. Barna worked security in Europe so he’s used to some of this. The rest of us look like the civilians we are.
The theater-like simulator consists of a computer, projector and life-size screen that plays an interactive video. Officer Kim Stroud conducts the drill, showing us how to hold our weapons, enter a building and communicate with our partner. The Glock and the TASER™ are real, the bullets and prongs replaced with lasers that not only target suspects but display the accuracy of our fire.
In the first scenario, Bill and I respond to an active-shooter situation in an office building. Dispatch has no other information. Armed with guns, Bill and I simulate walking down hallways past bodies of workers and officers. We turn a corner and hear shots and a man in a white shirt walks into a room and starts firing.
Bill yells “Sarasota Police!” and as the suspect backs out of the office we fire. Just as the man goes down, another pops up from behind a desk and, before we can get off a round, shoots at us. We fire back and, as he clears the desk, finally bring him down. Stroud replays parts of the exchange. The computer shows crosshatch marks where our bullets hit. The desk is a goner but we didn’t hit the shooter until he’d squeezed off several rounds. I don’t know how many, it happens so fast.
In the second scenario, Bill holds the Glock and I hold a TASER. We’re called to a disturbance and find a woman fighting with an officer on the street. As she grows more violent, the officer moves off and the suspect screams and waves something in her right hand. The use of potentially lethal force is not needed so I yell “TASER! TASER! TASER!” and pull the trigger. The devices crackles and the woman hits the concrete.
Stroud looks as if I’ve waited too long. She’s probably right.
In their first scenario, Tracy and Barna respond to a reported break-in at an office building after hours. No other information is available, so they go in blind.
Tracy holds the TASER, Barna the Glock. As they move through the building, they see a man sitting at a desk. He looks calm and talks to them. Suddenly he stands and raises what looks like a weapon. The pair fire, Barna hitting the suspect in the foot and knee. Tracy brings him down, landing the TASER prongs over the guy’s heart. The assailant’s weapon turns out to be a stapler.
In the second scenario, Tracy and Barna respond to a domestic dispute. They wend their way through a warren of halls to confront a person yelling at a man who’s seated in front of a fireplace. He’s holding a shotgun between his legs. Before either officer can react, the assailant raises the gun and fires. As the screen goes blank, Barna fires his weapon.
Stroud pushes back from the computer and says what officers must hope they’ll never hear. “Too late.”
Next: citizen volunteers and criminalistics.
Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.