A man with a knife has cornered three students in the school library and is threatening to stab them. A husband barges into his wife’s workplace and has a man by the collar and is screaming at him. These are just two such situations police officers may encounter, and they only have seconds to decide how to respond.
Members of the Watertown Police Department recently got a chance to practice how to handle these scenarios using high tech equipment that turns the department’s shooting range into a realistic, life-sized, interactive simulation.
Every officer must go through the training, which uses the Fire Arms Training Simulator made by Meggitt Training. The equipment, which costs many tens-0f-thousands of dollars, was donated to the WPD by Wyc Grousbeck, an entrepreneur and co-owner and CEO of the Boston Celtics.
A floor-to-ceiling screen is set up, onto which is projected a situation using real people in the actual settings: a school, a car in a traffic stop, a domestic at a home, and many more.
“There are 300 different scenarios,” said Officer Rick Munger, one of the WPD Fire Arms Instructors. He added that there are several different scenarios for each type of incident, as well as some that do not apply to a municipal police department, such as inside a prison.
To make the simulation realistic, the system also includes replicas of the weapons used by the Watertown Police: Glock pistols, AR-15 rifles, pepper spray and batons. The fire arms use pressurized air cartridges instead of live ammunition, but they are the same weight as the real weapons and have the same cocking and firing movements, Munger said.
While police go in with all their weapons available, practicing using the weapons is only a small part of the simulation.
“A lot of people think it’s all about shooting. It’s not,” Munger said. “It’s about how to handle a situation.”
Inside the Simulator
Last week, the WPD put the officers through the training, and they even allowed yours truly, Watertown News editor Charlie Breitrose, to take it for a spin.
For the simulation to begin, you must load the magazine and cock the pistol. Then you suddenly find yourself in a hairy situation. During first simulation I went through, I found myself in the hallway of a school with someone telling me a young man was threatening a group of students in the library.
The camera moves quickly into the library and I see a teen holding a knife and yelling at three people. I think about what to do and tell him to put down the knife in a stern but calm voice. He doesn’t comply the first time and turns toward me. I tell him to let the people go and to put down his weapon. This time he puts the knife down and says. “OK. OK.” The situation ended without a shot fired.
Fire arms instructor and Watertown Police Officer Charles Samios sits at a laptop during the simulation and controls the action. It’s like a “choose your adventure” book, where what happens next depends on your decision.
Samios said that because I spoke to the knife wielding man in a tough but calm way he had the suspect drop the knife. However, sometimes he takes it another way, even if the officer says the right things. Sometimes the kid with the knife stabs another student, or he might turn and come at the person in the simulator.
The simulator also records where the weapon is pointing. When a shot is fired it marks it and shows if it is a hit, a wound or even a kill shot. Munger tells me that I had my pistol pointed down, but if you are within 21 feet of someone with a knife your gun should be pointed at the suspect.
“He could rush and stab you before you have time to bring up your gun, aim and fire,” Munger said.
In the second scenario I’m back in a school and find a students bleeding on the ground after being shot in the shoulder. I move past him and then into a room where a young man is standing over an older man while point a gun at the man. I tell the man to put the gun down but he just keeps yelling at the man. Again, I tell him he must put the gun down, but he shoots the man. I fire at the man and he turns and fires back at me.
After the simulation ends Samios replayed a recording of the scenario to show what happened.
“When you replay it you pick up things you did not pick up the first time around,” Samios said.
One of my shots missed and the second wounded the suspect in the shoulder. I realized that I did not aim at the supect on the first shot, but on the second had him lined up in the sight. Also, I noticed that when I had the gun up and looked through the sight it blocked much of my field of vision, especially on the lower part of my view.
Munger noted that when I came across the injured student I could have waited with him for medical help to arrive, but had to make the decision and chose to try and stop the suspect from shooting another person.
Officers sometimes face these “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations, Munger said.
“If you shoot, they say, ‘Why did you shoot him?’ And, if you don’t shoot and the person shoots someone they say, ‘Why didn’t you shoot him?'” Munger said.
The training is a great way to practice how to deal with a situation officers hope never to encounter, such as a school shooting, or ones which are common.
“A traffic stop, or a domestic situation — those are situations officers encounter every single day,” Munger said.
The system also helps officers tune up their shooting, Munger said, with the pinpointing of where the gun is aiming and firing allowing the firearms instructors to diagnose problems.
Most of the time, the simulator is reserved for Watertown Police officers, but Munger said that all the Town Councilors were invited to try it out, and people who go through the Watertown Citizens’ Police Academy also get a chance to use it.