A virtual simulation, in their shoes

A journalist gets a new perspective on policing when she tries out a new training tool.

It was the first time I’d held a gun, and it wasn’t even real. Inside Campus Safety Services Headquarters, I stood in front of the newly installed TI Simulator that will be used to train officers to decide when to use a weapon and what weapon an on-duty officer should choose. My original purpose for being there was to write an informational article about the software, but about halfway through the interview, I was asked if I’d like to try it out.

I wasn’t about to let an opportunity to use a very high-tech training simulator pass, because who knew when I’d be able to use it again, and also, what could I learn?

The first step was holding the mock-gun (which controlled the simulator much like a Wii remote controls a video game), something I thought it would be a challenge, but was not too difficult. In Officer Damon Mitchell’s hand, the gun looked normal, like he knew what to do with it. I was told to extend my pointer finger past the trigger so it rested on the unmovable plastic that encased it. This was to ensure officers can quickly pull the trigger while staying safe, and make sure they don’t accidentally shoot something. However, when I took the gun, my finger could just barely reach the trigger, forcing me to use two hands to even maintain a grip on the weapon.

Actually running through the simulation made me feel just as weird as the gun I struggled to hold. I was supposed to take charge, introduce myself as an officer and get the situations the program presented me with under control. I wasn’t prepared for someone trying to steal a bike to suddenly pull out a gun and shoot me, or for a man to threaten to kill himself if I didn’t back off.

Instead of the scenario playing out perfectly like it did in my head, I failed every time. The characters weren’t cooperating because I wasn’t asserting myself enough, and I ended up getting virtually shot and stabbed multiple times. I even went through the same scenario twice but couldn’t react fast enough, even though I knew what was coming the second time around.

Part of me wanted to say it was the lack of reality in the situations that made it so difficult; I knew it was a projection and therefore not real. For a while, I convinced myself if it had been actual human actors, maybe I would have been able to do better and feel a little less ridiculous.

But the truth is, I am not a cop. I don’t have what it takes to do what they do in a single simulation, and they do it every single day with real people and repercussions. I’ve seen first-hand the difficult scenarios officers have to deconstruct and react to.

When talking with Officer Mitchell and Charlie Leone, the executive director of Campus Safety Services, I was told officers have to consider every fact in a situation. They told me about a Temple police officer who had been faced with the choice of using violent force or not. A man was threatening his girlfriend with a gun, and while the officer had a clear line to shoot the man to stop him, he didn’t. Instead he talked the man down. The officer explained his decision to not use his weapon because there were teenagers playing basketball several hundred feet behind the man, and he didn’t want to hurt them accidentally.

Standing there, with the false gun barely fitting into my hand, I realized just how difficult it was to be a police officer in the city, which conflicted with my previous conception that brutality was practically encouraged. My opinions are no longer black and white. While officers receive intense, rigorous training to help them learn what to do in any and every kind of situation, that training doesn’t always make real-world decisions easy.

Julie Christie can be reached at julie.christie @temple.edu.

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