Simulator trains police reflexes, judgment using firearms

Scott Gordon and Scott Gordon

A rookie cop begins his first day at work with a foot patrol through a mall. His partner wakes up a man sleeping on a bench. Once awake, the man immediately springs at the partner with a 6-inch-long steak knife in hand. The rookie has less than a second to aim and “eliminate the threat,” as Deputy Chief Michael Perry of Evanston Police Department puts it.

That was one of many scenarios that confronted police officers on the Firearms Training Simulator, or FATS. The FATS unit owned by the Illinois Department of Justice made its yearly stop at EPD this month.

Outfitted with specially modified 9-mm pistols, officers using the system learned how to respond to volatile situations, projected onto a screen, that place extreme strain on judgment, response and marksmanship. The simulator’s computer tracks a trainee’s response time, number of shots fired, and number of fatal and non-fatal hits.

“There’s nothing in the law that says a police officer has to wait for the guy to shoot first,” Perry said. Trainees have to make decisions that could leave people dead based on their momentary evaluations of the threat — can the sniper on the rooftop be trusted to drop his gun? Is that an armed suspect or a plainclothes cop running from that darkened warehouse?

According to Perry, most police shootouts occur at close range and last only eight to 10 seconds. In that time two officers might have to fight off a sudden gang ambush by taking cover and knocking out a small group of assailants without exhausting their ammunition.

During FATS, trainees learned that even in the most trying situations, a police officer has to be ready to justify his or her actions. Before making a crucial decision — such as whether or not to shoot and kill someone — an officer should give clear, emphatic commands and warnings to suspects, the training instructed.

An officer shouldn’t even risk the appearance of having killed somebody precipitately, leaders of the program said. Suspects have to be told loudly and in simple terms to drop their weapons and comply, or they may have to be shot.

A suspect might know how to cause a lot of harm with just a quick movement, making the situation even less predictable, training leaders said.

“People practice killing police officers,” Perry said, using such tricks as aiming and shooting over their shoulders just when they’re putting their hands up and seeming likely to drop their weapons.