In the Sacramento Police Department’s new high-tech shooting simulator, Officer Jacob Casella heard gunshots as he walked through a school hallway lined with lockers. A wounded victim lay on the ground.
Casella moved cautiously down the hallway, his gun drawn, until he confronted an armed suspect. In front of the bad guy, a distraught looking woman knelt on the ground, her hands in the air.
Casella aimed for the suspect’s head and pulled the trigger. He hit his target. The video screen froze. The lights came on, and the room snapped back to reality.
“As you can see, this is highly interactive,” Casella said. “Every shot fired could have meant another body.”
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The Police Department’s new Force Option Simulator is outfitted with five large screens that immerse officers in 50 interactive scenarios. It’s designed to train officers and students enrolled in the Sacramento Police Academy to make use-of-force decisions under pressure.
The simulation tool comes to the department at a time when officers’ use of lethal force has come under public scrutiny across the nation.
“The No. 1 reason for this tool is to enhance our training for decision-making and the ability to react appropriately,” said Casella, an instructor at the academy. “I’d much rather see someone achieve a negative result here and push their boundaries … because this is a safe environment to do that.”
Police officials have been on a mission lately to improve the department’s use-of-force training and replace outdated equipment. The department bought a single-screen simulator last year and purchased the five-screen simulator in March, department spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein said.
The five-screen simulator is housed at the Sacramento Police Academy at McClellan Park, the former Air Force base northeast of Sacramento. It cost $120,000; the Sacramento City Council approved most of the funds, Heinlein said.
Those training on the simulators use non-firing weapons, including pepper spray, a handgun, a rifle and Taser. Instead of deploying bullets or electrodes, the weapons emit red light beams recognized by the simulator’s cameras.
The crime simulation videos are filmed in high definition and include surround sound, putting officers through a variety of lifelike scenarios, including calls regarding emotionally disturbed people, active shooter situations or crimes in progress.
Instructors at the Police Academy control the simulations via computer and can choose different “pathways” within each scenario, Casella said.
Casella and Heinlein emphasized that the training is meant to be more than an exercise in handling weapons. It tests an individual’s ability to stay calm under pressure and determine the level of force that’s appropriate and legally justified, they said.
“We can create the stress that they are going to face in an environment on the street,” Heinlein said. “We want them to experience that, so they know how to control the way they’re thinking, (to understand) what they’re seeing and not get tunnel vision.”
The exercises are followed by debriefing sessions, in which officers and students talk about how they reacted and why they did or didn’t use a particular kind of force. The participants’ actions, verbal commands and use of weapons are recorded and can be replayed so trainees can see how they performed.
“There’s no advantage in putting someone in this system, putting them through a scenario, and walking away,” Casella said. “What makes this fundamental training is holding that person at a standard of justifying why they did what they did – and making sure that they see what they did, not just their perception.”