By Reba Hull Campbell
Deputy Executive Director, Municipal Association of SC
Consider a scenario that plays out like this: Police receive a late night call that a warehouse is being burglarized. A police officer shows up and finds a man rifling through a desk in the dark.
“Sir, let me see your hands,” the officer says to the man. The man refuses and instead complains about the officer’s actions.
“I can’t see you at all. Get that light out of my eyes,” the man says. “Is that really necessary? I work here.”
The police officer repeatedly orders the man show him his hands, which are still concealed inside a desk drawer. Suddenly the man pulls his hands out of the drawer, produces a staple gun and sends a short cascade of staples at the floor in front of the officer.
“How many of you would have shot the man in that situation?” said Todd Williams, a former state and county law enforcement officer and currently a public safety loss control consultant for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, which represents all 271 cities and towns in the state.
The warehouse scenario is one of many in a law enforcement simulator training system, a high-tech computerized tool that puts the user in the moment. It provides training to police departments around the state who participate in the Association’s insurance programs for workers compensation and property and liability.
The simulator is run by software that includes more than 500 scenarios that project on to a screen, allowing officers to respond with the appropriate levels of force. Participants get feedback on their reactions to the scenarios.
Williams said approximately 40 percent of those who experience the warehouse scenario in a simulated demonstration have opted to shoot the man as he brandished the staple gun in a manner consistent with pointing a real firearm while failing to comply with the officers’ instructions
Police officers face the potential for unpredictable circumstances and emergencies like this every day. A simulator helps teach and reinforce proper use-of-force decision-making and gives users a firsthand understanding of what these highly charged encounters entail. Participating in the simulator exercise gets the officer’s heart rate up, which produces a stress reaction. Training in these stressful situations helps the officer make similar real-life decisions under duress.
The simulator can also help officers learn how to properly document a confrontation for liability purposes. It allows users to go back and review the scenario and dissect it as a training lesson. It lets officers pick the type of scenario, such as a hostage situation, suicide threat, or officer ambush.
Williams said the simulator training focuses on decision making and critical thinking to ensure officers make ethical choices in selecting the appropriate level of force to include shoot, don’t shoot, and de-escalation, or no physical force. Through these scenarios, departments aim to reduce liability exposures, enhance officer and civilian safety, and validate training and operating policy procedures.
The Municipal Association has been using the simulator for 15 months and has trained more than 800 officers in 26 police departments around the state. The focus is also on training the trainer so that large and small departments alike can benefit from this unique approach to hands-on learning opportunities.