Two police officers have their guns drawn, cautiously moving down the high school hallway as they check doors after a report of a man with a gun inside the school. Suddenly a crowd of students comes running around the corner, with the officers telling everyone to show their hands up, and just as suddenly the gunman turns around the corner. The officers yell for the man to drop his weapon, but he fires, and the officers return fire.
That harrowing and sadly familiar sounding situation—and other intense scenarios involving firearms—took place in a virtual training last week behind the Stoneham Police Department, where the Middlesex Sheriff Department's Mobile Training Center parked for six days as officers were drilled in both firearms training and how to use verbal commands to de-escalate situations involving guns.
The essentially armor-plated trailer allows officers to use the same firearms and ammunition they keep with them everyday out in the field, but instead of simply firing at a piece of paper with an outline on it, the rear wall of the trailer displays videos depicting various scenarios that are controlled by a Middlesex Sheriff deputy at a computer terminal at the front of the trailer. The scenarios can require an officer to fire his weapon into the self-healing rubber screen, or if the officer uses his communication skills effectively, to change the scenario mid-video and have the virtual suspect lay down his or her firearm, negating the need for lethal force.
"Being a firearm instructor on the range, it’s very hard to induce stress in guys, knowing that they’re still shooting at a piece of paper that’s not moving and not going to shoot back," said Justin Fagan, one of the instructors from the Middlesex Sheriff's Office who helps run the trailer. "So this helps guys work through the stress and see what they need to improve on as far as their verbal communications—all their use of force besides just their firearms."
To see three of the video-based scenarios in action, click on the videos in the box above. (Warning: These videos depict intense scenarios involving guns.)
Training Brought to the Officers
The training undertaken last week by 50 Stoneham Police officers, auxiliary officers and retired officers who work details in town supplements the annual handgun certification and rifle certification required for each officer, Stoneham Police Chief Jim McIntyre said. Those annual certifications are completed at a range in Bedford, which requires overtime costs and loses the officer for a day, while the training done within the Mobile Training Center parked right outside the station can be done while officers are on duty, keeping those resources at home in case of an emergency.
"The skills that they learn and build upon in front of the (trailer's) screen is invaluable," McIntyre said, adding that he spoke with another local police chief whose department used the trailer for training and shortly after, that department's officers had to respond to a call for a person in the street with a handgun.
"The feedback from the officers after the call, when they did their debrief, was that if had not been for the training they went through in the simulator, the potential outcome of that call may have been different," he said.
Purchased in 2010 using mostly a $475,000 federal COPS grant, the trailer has made its way to 30 communities within Middlesex County, according to Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, training 1,100 officers this past year. The trailer is booked out months in advance by local departments and can also be used for annual handgun and firearms certifications, if needed by the local department.
"Especially in light of what happened in Sandy Hook, and honestly as just a person that’s not involved in law enforcement in this fashion, it's a frightening thing to watch these scenarios to understand this is what our officers have to face at the drop of a hat at any moment, and they have to make these split second decisions," Koutoujian said.
Training Not Only in Firearms, But Communication and Non-Lethal Responses
Sgt. Robert Kennedy, the Stoneham Police Department's armorer and one if its firearm instructors, appreciates the Mobile Training Center's ability to present officers with scenarios where they won't necessarily go to their firearm, but to their pepper spray or baton.
"Then there might be some scenarios where it starts out less lethal, they get rid of the less lethal options and then they have to transition to their firearm. Transition drills are huge," Kennedy said. "If you talk the suspect down, so to speak, you may get compliance from a suspect. In some scenarios you won’t. I like to see those scenarios, the officers and if their verbal skills good enough to deescalate a situation."
Koutoukian added that law enforcement officers may not necessarily realize they're also armed in any given situation with the power of communication.
"This allows them to understand the power of that skill, which is more powerful than the use of the gun itself," he said.
Officers undertake similar scenario-based training using civilian actors and other police officers towards the end of the 22-week recruiting academy, according to Sgt. Tom Heller, the Stoneham Police Department's other firearms instructor and a NEMLEC SWAT member.
"The flip side of that is that once you come to your agency, they don’t have that for veteran officers," Heller said. "So short of doing this scenario-based training or having in munitions us using, like, paintball guns but they look like our standard weapons, there really isn’t a lot out there. What our guys have seen through this training—I’ve been to similar type of stuff—is that first and foremost this is a lifesaving tool. It allows you to make some very tense decisions in a very short amount of time."
The training is also a liability reduction tool for the town, Heller added, as it shows Stoneham Police officers are receiving the most up-to-date training available, and because it supplements the minimum firearms re-certifications goes above and beyond state standards for annual police officer training.
Heller demonstrated several of the scenarios in the trailer, including one where officers arrive at a home after a 911 hangup and find a pregnant woman holding a gun and her husband writhing in pain on the floor from a gunshot wound. After the scenario completed, Fagan said that a natural reaction to the stressful situations presented in the scenarios is "auditory exclusion," where the officer won't actually hear what's being said and perhaps fire at the woman.
"Afterwards I'll ask them, 'What'd you hear? A lot of people will be like, 'Oh, I didn’t hear anything, I just saw somebody with a gun over somebody on the ground,'" he said. "So back it up—it was a 911 hang-up at a residence. You could have just possibly shot a homeowner who was protecting herself from somebody on the ground. Then we play the replay and it’s not what happened, but it makes you think: they have to pay attention and paint the picture before they make that decision."