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The system projects a 300 degree simulation to prepare police officers for real-life scenarios David Guralnick, The Detroit News

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Livonia — The firing range is where police officers learn how to shoot. Now a simulation tool new to Schoolcraft College's Public Safety program will help teach them when — or if — they should, program instructors say.

“It’s not all shoot, shoot, shoot — that’s not what we’re here for,” said Dave Schutz, an instructor with the program that trains hundreds of officers each year. “Not everything requires a gun. If someone can be talked down, you want to do that.”

The simulator, called the FATS 300LE, consists of five large video panels, creating a 300-degree view of the action in front of or on either side of the officer. Unlike flat-screen simulators, which can feed into a myopic view that doesn't reflect reality, on this system, friends and foes appear from all angles and an officer must quickly decide which is which, said Schutz. 

It starts with the trainee being given a scenario: a woman’s husband has come to her job and is physically abusing her in a break room; a mass shooting breaks out at a workplace; a fired woman refuses to leave the office.

The trainee must join the fray, applying the training they’ve been getting in de-escalation techniques. 

Sometimes, as with the mass shooting scenario — where one slain victim appears on the screen at the outset — skillful use of a firearm is required. In others — one had a man acting belligerently at a traffic stop, even getting out of his vehicle without being told to do so — the skill comes in not having to display or fire the weapon.

A voice inside the screen reads off the scenario. The trainee loads their weapon — a hollowed-out, Bluetooth-equipped handgun, a Taser or a long gun — and joins the situation.

“We have the ability to change the scenario based on what the officer is doing,” said Tom Miller, a program instructor who manned the computer. “If they’re using good voice commands and trying to de-escalate the situation, maybe the person can comply. If they’re not talking right, maybe things go off. Now, maybe the guy pulls a knife or a gun.”

Miller could ramp up the scenario from the computer, sometimes by adding sounds, such as gunfire or glass breaking, to the exercise. The belief is that the more stress an officer is exposed to during training scenarios, the more calmly they’ll react in the street, he said.

The simulator has been on campus about a month, and over the next year will be used by more than 100 police trainees or sworn officers, said Jerry Champagne, associate dean of public safety programs at Schoolcraft.

It cost six figures to install, not including retrofitting the guns and Tasers for simulation purposes.

The simulation is used in conjunction with live firearms training, Schutz said.

“Firearms training isn’t just about throwing a bunch of rounds into paper. We get them in here, and now everything we’ve been talking about on the gun range, everything we’ve been talking about in our scenario training, comes together," he said. "The lightbulb eventually comes on.”

After a scenario plays out, instructors can play it back and review it with the trainee. But unlike when the training was live, in review the screens show exactly where the officer’s gun was pointed the entire time. 

The reviews allow instructors to ask trainees what they saw and why they responded the way they did.

A reporter, allowed to partake in the training, was given the scenario of a “routine traffic stop.”

But then a man, standing well over 6 feet tall, got out of his vehicle and moved toward the trainee. The reporter didn’t give ground, preferring instead to pull his gun and point it at the suspect. 

A glitch ended the scenario early, but afterward Miller asked why the trainee didn’t back up a bit and why he was so quick to point the gun — exactly the kind of conversation a sworn officer might have with superiors after choosing to introduce potentially lethal force to a traffic stop. 

“If you treat people right, they’ll probably treat you right,” Miller said before the scenarios began. “That’s what we strive to.”

The simulator will also be made available to civilians and community groups in the months ahead, Champagne said.

Civilian groups often want to practice scenarios involving active shooters, Miller said. This is particularly a concern in faith communities, where masses of people congregate. 

Others, Miller said, are legal gun owners or CPL holders who want to be able to protect themselves and their homes.

Police academy classes will start using the simulator next week, Miller said.

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