OPINION: Virtual armed suspect simulator offers perspective to stresses of law enforcement

San Angelo NOW's Randall Case in Prism simulator training.

Recently, officer-involved shootings seem to be a regular sight on national news. “Officer shoots armed suspect”; “suspect killed by officers”; “officers wounded in shootout with armed suspect” are common headlines on the national front.

In the court of public opinion, officers are often second-guessed. I admit, I’ve been guilty of wondering why someone was shot, why they weren’t Tasered, why force had to be used.

Locally, within the last several months, there have been at least three officer-involved shootings, each involving an armed suspect who was eventually shot by a San Angelo police officer; the most recent, a man who intended to shoot police officers, as well as possibly firefighters as they responded. Many asked why lethal force was used in these situations, why the officers involved didn’t shoot the suspects in the leg or shoulder, or out of their hands.

Growing up, older folks watched Marshal Lucas McCain of “The Rifleman” shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand with style. The younger generation plays first-person shooting video games. We all think that is reality. We can shoot the “bad guy” without hesitation, with ninja-like reflexes.

On Tuesday, a group of media members gathered at the San Angelo Police Academy to see what these situations are like, first-hand.

Two and three at a time, we entered the Prism simulation training room, where we would be put through “virtual” situations with armed suspects.

What you quickly learn is that there is so much going on in a situation such as what law enforcement officers go through when confronted by an armed suspect. It’s almost indescribable. I am obviously not a trained law enforcement officer who is somewhat “prepared” for the situation. You stand in a dimly-lit room, with a projection screen in front of you, armed with a gun linked to the simulator.

And then the scenario begins, a bar scene, a convenience store robbery, a wanted suspect being taken into custody – all armed – all ready to shoot the “officer” in training. And then the decision between life and death lays solely in your hands. While in the training room, it’s a virtual scenario, but it leads you to think after the fact that when they are in the real situation, law enforcement officers have a fraction of a second to make those decisions. If they do not stop the suspect, what will happen? Not only are they considering their own lives and safety, but the lives and safety of the public, as well.

Let’s be honest – I “died” or was at least seriously wounded at least twice. The seconds in which I had a chance to make that virtual “life or death” decision, I faltered. I hesitated. I didn’t assess the situation quickly enough.

I could sit here and say, “Oh yeah, I totally killed all the bad guys. I beat the simulator.”

No one can say that and no one says that in real life. Over the years that I have been able to have candid conversations with members of various branches of law enforcement, I have never once heard, “I’m out to kill bad guys,” from one of them. These men and women sign up to protect and serve their communities and to come home at night to their loved ones, not to shoot ‘em up any chance they get.

Having said that, there are bad apples in every bunch. Some officers do not make wise choices and as required by law, they are removed from law enforcement by their respective departments.

When seconds count, they are charged with making a quick decision in a high-stress, high adrenaline situation – a decision to shoot or not shoot. As more than one officer said Tuesday night, “You can’t take a bullet back.”

What Tuesday’s session did was allow me to walk away with a better perspective of the situation. It showed this Monday morning armchair quarterback that there is more to consider than “Why didn’t he just shoot him in the leg?”

We can all say what we think we would do, but when your reaction means life or death, can you honestly say you’d make the perceived “right” choice?


Sandy Rojas is the news director for San Angelo NOW.

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