For police officers in Ulster County, N.Y., training on a firearms training simulator (FATS) is a major step up from pelting one another with paintballs and wax balls.
To an observer, FATS might look like a giant video game. A trainee shoots a realistic-looking gun at a 15-foot by 8-foot screen, which projects a re-enactment of a potentially hazardous scenario, such as a knife-wielding man.
FATS isn't only a great tool to teach cops how to handle a crisis situation; it's also a good way to educate the public about the split-second decisions required of law enforcement. Ulster County police use the newly purchased simulator to teach cops and citizens the landmines involved in police work.
When training on the simulator, an officer packs a real Glock 17 pistol converted to fire carbon dioxide cartridges. The gun kicks as if it were shooting real bullets. The officer is given 10 feet of floor space to seek cover, move into firing position or cover a target on the large screen.
A video scenario - one of hundreds an officer might face on patrol - is projected on the FATS screen. All the scenarios were adapted from real-life situations reported by U.S. law enforcement and then re-enacted on video by actors.
A man brandishing a knife, a husband and wife arguing or a routine traffic stop play out on the screen as the officer handles each situation. Any or all of them could turn into a crisis situation for the cop.
"You can have a scenario where the officer pulls over a driver and the instructor can choose between different scenarios, like whether he's going to be a threat target or not a threat target," said Lt. Egidio Tinti of the Kingston Police Department in Ulster County. "You can have the officer repeat the same scenario, but with a different ending."
Ulster Community College acquired the training simulator in fall 2007 from Meggitt Defense Systems for $67,000, via a grant obtained by state Sen. John Bonacic, R-Mount Hope. FATS is used by an emergency services team, a county special weapons and tactics team, two police academies, the newly founded citizens' police academy and the Ulster Community College Department of Justice.
"It gives you exposure without risking your life," said James Truitt, assistant professor and coordinator of Ulster County Community College's Criminal Justice Department. "It helps provide distress inoculation - when you're in a stressful position you'll have the skill level to handle it."
Hundreds of Scenarios
The simulator records data about the scenario, including the training officer's reactions, voice commands, bullet tracers and where the officer's gun muzzle was pointing at all times. The information allows the trainer to play back the video and discuss what the trainee did right and wrong.
The simulator allows firearms training in an atmosphere where life and limb aren't on the line. Teaching proper gun handling is difficult to do on a range when shooting with paper targets. With the simulator, the trainer can show trainees what they are doing wrong instead of just telling them.
"We'd been using force-on-force means [paintball guns] in the past, but this is excellent," Tinti said. "It's safe, it's clean and you can play it back and show them where they're hitting, where they're aiming, whether they're cognizant of the fact that they're not behind cover. It provides a lot of different avenues."
There are two components of the system: a firearms training component, which teaches basic stance, grip of the gun, etc.; and a decision-making component.
"Jerking the trigger, anticipating recoil - you won't see that on a range very well," Truitt said. "And you can't argue with the playback. They can see exactly
where the muzzle was pointed and where every shot went. If it didn't hit the target, where did it go?"
There are hundreds of scenarios for honing officers' decision-making skills.
"It might be an off-duty situation where you're in a mall and a robber runs in and says, 'Show me your hands,' and the officer has to do something, either verbally or a straight engagement," Tinti said. "The guy might have just shot and you don't have time to say drop the gun. You have to engage to save the life of another."
Sometimes, trainees are required to go outside and exercise, then come back inside and train on FATS with an elevated heartbeat to simulate a pressure situation. Going over hundreds of simulated scenarios gives the officer some knowledge and experience to fall back on during a crisis, when a split-second decision must be made.
"Can you shoot a person holding a knife?" Tinti asked. "Here's what I tell students: 'yes and no.' If they're 10 feet away and they say, 'I'm gonna kill you,' and make a motion toward you, the officer will have to engage. Same person, same knife, but he's a football field away. Are you justified in shooting that person? No."
Ulster County opened a citizens' police academy in May and will use the simulator to show the public just what kind of mayhem officers might face and what law enforcement's options might be. Tinti said most of the interaction between the public and police is negative, and the academy will try to show the public how difficult police work is.
"We're promoting a more detailed interaction between law enforcement and the community, teaching things like why an officer shoots when he does," Tinti said. "Why do cops have to come up to the car with their hand on their gun? Why do they ask for registration before they tell me what I've done? Why did they have to shoot a guy 12 or 15 times?"
Tinti said citizens are surprised when they participate in the training simulator. "We ran a couple of civilians through a test at the community college. One woman fired six rounds in a second and a half. They were blown away by how fast they could fire these rounds, and they continued to fire as the person in the video was going down," Tinti said.
The civilians got an understanding of how quickly an officer must decide whether to use force and what that means. "You fire until the threat is no longer a threat," Tinti explained. "Couple that with two officers responding and now you have two guns firing. It doesn't take much to see that a guy can be shot 12 or 15 times.
"Most people raise their eyebrows when we talk about decision-making - instantly having to decide whether or not this use of force is condoned or not," Tinti said. "We're trying to make an impact on getting people to understand why law enforcement does what they do."