Vail police use simulator to mimic deadly situations
Simulator creates life-or-death scenarios where officers have to make split-second decisions
VAIL — The sight of a woman in a bikini top can make it easy to miss seeing a gun in plain sight. For police, distractions, even those that are eye-blink quick, can be the difference between life and death.
The Vail Police Department this month has been training with a regional Fire Arms Training Simulator. The system is shared, and is used by departments including Breckenridge, Vail and other Western Slope agencies.
The system includes training handguns designed to mimic the size and heft of the Glock 17, a widely-used police firearm. Vail Police Detective Lachlan Crawford runs the simulations, which are a series of scenarios to help officers work on procedures and possibilities. The scenarios also help officers look for danger.
In the case of bikini-top woman, the first red flag was her getting out of her vehicle. But officers saw what a civilian participant didn’t — a handgun in the map pocket of the car door.
Officers use the simulator to work on what they’re supposed to say to a suspect:
• “I need to see both of your hands, right now.”
• “Put that (object) down and let’s talk about this.”
The simulations seem pretty close to real life — with the notable exception of being able to start over after mistakes that could be fatal — to either a suspect or an officer. Participants also don’t have to deal with the report and recoil from a real pistol. But officers train with their duty firearms regularly. The simulation has a different purpose.
In the simulations, officers have to make the split-second decisions whether or not to use deadly force.
Those simulations range from trying to track down active shooters — one scenario, eerily, was shot in the Vail police headquarters; another looks like it may have been created in the old Cascade Village theater. Both are harrowing.
From active shooters to domestic violence calls, guns can seemingly appear out of nowhere.
In one simulation, a suspect has already been handcuffed by an on-screen officer when the suspect pulls a revolver from his back pocket, shoots the officer and runs off screen.
For civilians participating in an exercise, the simulations give a glimpse into the kinds of decisions officers have to make in potentially deadly encounters — and where their own shots are landing.
After taking a turn at the simulator, Vail Town Council member Jenn Bruno was asked what she thought of the training.
“Interesting, and kind of intense,” was all she’d say.
Fellow council member Travis Coggin said he sees the value in the training. And, after participating in some of the simulations, he added, “I need to spend more time (shooting) on my buddy’s ranch.”
Simulated shots are displayed on the video screen. The officers participating in training displayed some fine shooting. The civilians — who don’t regularly train with firearms — should probably keep their day jobs.
Civilians also get a first-hand look into how quickly a situation can escalate.
The officers participating in the midday training know this, of course. They see it in both simulations and real life.
Vail Police Sgt. Bill Clausen noted that, on average, someone can cover about 20 feet in about 1.5 seconds. That doesn’t leave much time to react. It also doesn’t leave much time to use non-lethal alternatives, especially if an officer is alone when responding to an incident.
The simulator also presents tricky situations. In one, a suspect threatens a woman with a long crowbar. That imminent danger to others can justify using force.
In another scenario, a suspect has his left arm raised, but his right hand stays hidden by a box on a table. The suspect ignores multiple orders to show both hands, ultimately making a quick motion that looks like he’s about to present a firearm.
Simulated gunfire echoes through the dark room.
The object in the suspect’s hand turns out to be a staple gun.
After running through a few simulations Tuesday, Vail Town Attorney Matt Mire apparently faced the staple gun suspect. In the council chambers, Mire noted there’s well established case law that would clear an officer in that situation.
Given that local police officers are rarely called upon to use deadly force, training is crucial if a situation arises.
During the afternoon session, one participant wondered how running through the simulations might affect a participant’s pulse rate.
With that, officer Randy Braucht turned on his FitBit and ran a few simulations. His pulse rate rose to about 100 beats per minute. His normal rate is in the 70s.
Braucht said an elevated pulse can actually help with response times — to a point.
But working on those response times is essential, and useful.
Clausen at one point called firearms proficiency a “perishable skill.”
And, Braucht said, when it comes to high-stress situations, “Your body won’t go where your mind’s never been.”
Tire chains are your friend, especially if Interstate 70 is snowy and slick and you’re a trucker trying to make a deadline.