Simulation is right on target

The video training simulator puts officers in real-life emergency situations.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The heavy-set man jumps out of the van, apologizing profusely for backing up and knocking down a police officer during a traffic stop, but then suddenly pulls a gun and aims it at the downed officer's partner.
Rick Mahan, that partner, already has his gun drawn and fires quickly. The heavy-set man falls to the ground, mortally wounded.
It sounds like a scene from the television show "Cops," and, although similar, it's not real.
It's all on video, playing out in a darkened room on a 10-by-8-foot screen on the second floor of Cushwa Hall at Youngstown State University.
It's a training exercise on the new Firearms Training Systems Law Enforcement and Security Training Platform in YSU's Peace Officer Training Academy.
Mahan, a retired Niles police captain who has degrees in police science technology, law enforcement administration and police management from YSU, is the academy commander and recently gave a demonstration of a few of the hundreds of training scenarios police officers might encounter in the real world.
Each scenario has variations that Mahan, controlling the screen from a computer, can insert as the scene plays out.
For example, in a variation of the heavy-set man jumping out of the van, the guy still apologizes profusely, but this time, when he reaches behind his back, he suddenly whips out his wallet, not a gun.
That's clearly a situation where lethal force isn't warranted, and it shows that police officers have just seconds to make life or death decisions.
The academy, which opened six years ago and has trained nearly 300 cadets, had no training method like this before it was able to buy this system earlier this year, Mahan said.
There was the basic state firearms training and weapons practice, but nothing to simulate actual situations in the streets, he said.
About the system
Fees paid by area police departments for use of the academy facilities were used to buy the 79,000 system that comes complete with two standard semiautomatic handguns, an assault rifle, a shotgun, a Taser and a chemical spray gun.
The guns are real, converted to fire only laser lights, and all but the shotgun are programmed to deliver the same "kick" that would be felt if live ammunition were being fired.
Not every scenario calls for lethal force, Mahan said, explaining the need for the Taser and chemical spray, which also fires only a laser light.
The computer controls allow Mahan to control the screen action. He can even make an officer's gun jam as the officer tries to fire it in an emergency situation.
The officer has to clear the weapon and resume his confrontation of the screen suspect. That's just another situation that can occur in real life, Mahan said. The system also can be programmed to fit a particular department's need. For example, an officer from a rural department can train on scenarios involving rural crime.
Trying it out
The first academy cadets to come through the program since the simulator system was added haven't had their chance to try it out yet, but officers from 17 area police departments, including YSU police, have been through it.
"It's a great piece of equipment. Everybody loves it," Mahan said, although some veteran officers have experienced some strange emotions when they have to take a life on the screen.
Whatever action they take in the simulator, the police cadets will be required to justify it in writing as part of the training process, Mahan said. The simulator will give them confidence, knowing that they are prepared to deal with real-life emergency, he added.
The cadets will go through simulator training before they use real weapons in live fire training, he said.
Some YSU criminal justice classes have visited the simulator room to witness scenarios. Mahan said he allows the students to act as a jury to decide if the action taken by the police officer was justified.
There are a lot of different opinions, he said, adding, "It's all based on your perception of danger."

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