The Sunday Republican – From Reel to Real Life – Video program trains officers to respond
By Jonathan Shugarts – Republican-American
WATERBURY — The blond-haired girl, in a panic, blurted out a description of the gunman: black shirt, black hat.
That was all the officers had to work with as they prepared to respond to a report of a gunman in a school. Once inside, they heard booming gunshots coming from an upper floor. High school students rushed down a nearby stairwell, hands above their heads as they fled.
The gunman, dressed in black and just a teenager himself, descended the staircase, gripping a pistol in an outstretched hand as he took aim at the escaping students and police. In front of him was a teenage boy being used as a human shield.
He refused to drop the gun. Shots rang out.
The school shooting was only a simulation, but it was unnervingly realistic, the gunman an actor in a video that played in a darkened trailer converted into a training simulator and gun range.
In recent weeks, nearly all of the city’s police officers, and a class of cadets, have gone through the real-time training scenarios run by the Massachusetts-based company Blue Line Corp. The trailer gave officers a unique opportunity to run through multiple training situations, including a school shooting, using live ammunition and their actual .40-caliber service weapons.
The training situations showed how officers have little time – in one case less than a second – to make a potentially lethal decision. Within those blinks of an eye, an assailant can raise a gun, civilians can scatter into the line of fire and officers have to decide to shoot or not.
“It’s not just to benefit the officers, it’s for the public,” said Police Chief Vernon Riddick Jr.
In the event that an officer has to use his weapon, the intent is always to protect citizens and the drills are designed to train an officer to decide when lethal force is appropriate, he said.
“We don’t come here to shoot people,” said Riddick. “When we fire, we are preserving life.”
Parked at a police gun range on Thomaston Avenue, Blue Line’s unmarked, white semi-trailer was nondescript and there was little on its exterior indicating what was inside.
Outfitted with ballistic armor, the trailer is designed to contain shotgun pellets and handgun bullets, among other types of ammunition. Inside, a paper screen sits at one end, while shooting stalls and a small control booth are at the other.
The officers step onto the range, the lights are cut, then video projectors play out scenarios on a paper screen that’s placed over a backstop for projectiles. The setup allows officers to fire live rounds at moving targets as situations unfold on the screen.
In about 15 minutes, Detective Ed Mills, a 25-year veteran and officer Stephen Alden recently ran two members of the media through five simulations, including a suicide-by-cop scenario where a man pulls a gun and points it at officers, an arrest of a teenage girl that leads to her father pulling a knife, and a report of a gun in a student’s school locker.
The system freezes the moment the officer fires, and his or her actions are evaluated by a training officer. Civilians are circled in yellow on the freeze frame, threats are in red and the paper screen allows officers to see where their bullets struck. The holes are covered with stickers and situation resets.
That review mimics actual experiences. When an officer fires in the real world, the decision is scrutinized by the press, public and internal investigators. Each bullet is accounted for during a thorough review, Riddick said.
Officers in the city do draw their weapons while on duty, but don’t shoot often, Mills said.
For Alden, the experience lent a sense of realism to situations that officers face on the street. The system can replicate low or unique lighting conditions, including the flashing blue and red lights of a police cruiser.
Ordinarily, police train with actors or inanimate objects and mimic the scenarios, Alden said. They also fire simulated ammunition – rounds that mark a target with colored detergent – during practice sessions.
Officers also can use practice-versions of electronic stun guns in the Blue Line simulators Mills said, but they don’t discharge electricity.
Riddick contacted with Blue Line using $20,000 of drug asset forfeiture money, so there was no additional cost to taxpayers. He hopes to bring the trailer back every other year as budget constraints allow. Jerry Tilbor, the operational manager for Blue Line, said his next stop is the Watertown Police Department.