Facing off with scenes of crimes
High-tech firearms video equipment offers nine scenarios for officers, and the operator can change the outcome in each one.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- You have a split second to decide: Do you shoot the man as he staggers toward you wielding a knife and clutching a crying baby?
"Put the baby down! Put the baby down!" Youngstown Detective Sgt. Mark Wollet barked, drawing his gun from its holster and taking aim. "Put the baby down! Drop the knife!"
The commands had no effect.
"What are you looking at?" the man said, moving closer and sounding drunk.
"Go away!" he screamed at the officer, making stabbing motions at the baby squirming inside a plastic carrier.
Wollet's first shot struck the man in the chin. He kept firing. Another bullet landed mid-forehead.
The question: The video stopped on the FATS (Firearms Training System) machine, and Wollet holstered the gun. He turned to look at the officers behind him.
"Your justification for shooting?" asked Patrolman Sam Traficant, weapons expert for the Youngstown Police Department.
"He was stabbing a baby," Wollet answered.
Traficant and Lt. Robin Lees, head of the YPD planning and training division, nodded in agreement. Once police decide to use deadly force, they shoot to kill, not wound, the officers said.
"We don't want it to be a shooting gallery out there," Lees said. "The officers have to assess each situation -- situations they see every day -- and make a decision right now."
How it works: The $40,000 high-tech FATS features a gigantic screen and nine real-life full-size scenarios that range from traffic stops and vehicle pursuits to domestic violence encounters and disgruntled-employee-gone-nuts-at-work situations.
Traficant said the portrayals are so real that the officers' adrenalin starts pumping and they react as they would in the streets. One engrossed officer approached and nearly touched the screen as he shouted commands.
Police agencies, such as Youngstown, rent the FATS for a month and have their officers train on it. Traficant said it's not a test; there are no grades, just coaching and critiques.
So far, roughly one-quarter of the department's 217 officers have completed the training. FATS will be in town another 20 days, Lees said.
The gun used is the type YPD officers carry, a 15-shot Sig Sauer 9mm. Connected to the equipment, the gun has been altered to accommodate a compressed-oxygen tube, which gives it a realistic recoil when fired. As in a real-life scenario, the gun can jam.
Power of voice: Traficant, who is operating the FATS at a YPD training site on Mahoning Avenue this week, said he stresses the use of forceful verbal commands. Police, entrusted to manage threatening situations, need to take control and do so, initially, with their voices.
Wollet, as he listened to the video narrator for another scenario, learned that he was in pursuit of two robbery-homicide suspects. The suspects' car crashed into a high chain-link fence, and the driver's door opened.
"Get out of the car! Put your hands up! Walk toward me!" Wollet shouted, and the driver complied. "Passenger -- keep your hands up! Driver -- drop to your knees!"
The driver, to the left of Wollet, had his hands up but made a dash to escape.
Just then, the passenger aimed a gun at Wollet and fired.
Wollet returned fire. The video stopped.
"Your justification for shooting?" Traficant said from the FATS control panel.
"He shot first," the detective answered.
"Fair enough," Traficant replied.
Judgment call: The next scenario involved a boyfriend who had been slashed with a knife by his girlfriend. The man, holding a bloody towel to his face, came around the corner of a garage and said to the officer: "The b---- cut me and she'll cut you, too."
Wollet, his gun in his hand, aimed it to the right of the garage.
His repeated commands to "Put the knife down!" began as soon as the woman, a bloody knife in her hand, lurched toward him. Her confrontational attitude subsided and she laid the knife on the ground.
Then she reached her right hand to her back pocket and Wollet tensed.
He didn't fire.
The woman pulled a whiskey bottle out of her pocket and took a deep swig.
"Good judgment," Traficant said.
Traffic stop: The Vindicator caught the last scenario used for Patrolwoman Wanda Wilson. The video narrator told her she was making a routine stop for a traffic violation.
As her partner, the officer in the video, got out of the cruiser to approach the driver of the car that was stopped, he said: "Keep an eye on the side door."
When the officer bent over to speak to the driver, the car lurched backward, knocking him to the ground.
Wilson aimed her gun at the driver as he emerged from the car.
"Keep your hands up!" she shouted.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I'm sorry!" the man screamed, pulling something from his pocket.
Wilson held her shooting stance but didn't fire.
The man then held up the wallet that he'd pulled out of his pocket.
"Good judgment," Traficant said.
Is FATS stressful? "Yeah, oh yeah," Wilson said as she handed back the video gun to Traficant and put her real Sig Sauer in its holster.