New Simulation Helps Philadelphia Police Use Guns Wisely

The department's new firearms training system teaches them to make split-second judgments, using scenarios modeled on real-life stories from departments around the country.
by | June 20, 2012

By Allison Steele, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The driver was weaving all over the road when police pulled him over. Once stopped, he got out of the car, disobeyed police orders to raise his hands, and said, "I have a gun."

In a sudden movement, the man held his hands out, mimicking the shape of a gun and yelling, "Bang, bang, bang!", before collapsing against his car in laughter.

Two police recruits watched the scene unfold on a floor-to-ceiling projection screen from the safety of a training room at the Philadelphia Police Academy in the Northeast on Tuesday morning.

They held fake guns pointed at the "driver," and at any moment could have cut the simulation exercise short by opening fire. But they waited it out and were rewarded with a calm end to the story: a suspect who never had a gun in the first place.

"I was about to shoot," one of the recruits said when it was over. "My heart was beating, though. It was scary."

The newest members of the Philadelphia Police Academy learn how to shoot through more than just target practice.

The department's new firearms training system teaches them to make split-second judgments, using scenarios modeled on real-life stories from departments around the country. Those situations sometimes mimic ones in which Philadelphia officers have been killed in recent years.

They also take part in simulated car stops and other scenarios, firing bullets made of colored soap pellets at their supervisors, who pose as criminals.

"It's important that officers learn not just how to shoot, but when," said Capt. Mark Fisher, the commander of the firearms training unit. "It happens so fast on the street."

In another scenario, police officers are called to a filthy alley, where a man is stumbling, carrying a baby and repeatedly dropping it. Ordered to put the baby down, he becomes belligerent, brandishes a machete, and approaches. In another, shots ring out in a high school classroom, and, as students run in panic, the officer must decide who is innocent and who is dangerous.

Construction was completed this year on a building used for reality-based simulations of hazardous situations. The large, open room can hold several cars and the set pieces for two "rooms," meaning officers can act out a range of scenarios.

On Tuesday, two recruits enacted the roles of partners on patrol as they tried to question several men they had pulled over.

After getting out of their cruiser, the officers tried to cuff the men, but the men ignored commands, and one grabbed at an officer's gun. The pop-pop of gunfire quickly erupted, and the officers lost control of the situation. At the end of the exercise, at least one recruit had splotches of color on his vest from the impact from the soap "bullets."

Afterward, the recruits heard feedback from their supervisors, who explain what they did right, and what they should have done differently.

"You only learn by experience, by doing," Fisher said. "And anything that happens on the streets, we can re-create here."

(c)2012 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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