Training so realistic it hurts Simunitions: State troopers hone their judgment using paint-ball bullets in a stressful exercise that simulates close encounters of the dangerous kind.

June 11, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Although Cpl. Joseph Appleby has never been shot, he has felt the sting of a 9 mm bullet.

Appleby, a state trooper at the North East barracks, was one of about 40 troopers who began training last week with paint-ball bullets. The bullets -- actually 9 mm shell casings filled with a small amount of fluorescent orange paint -- are fired from a standard handgun and explode on impact.

"This is about as real as it gets without actually being shot," Appleby said. "If it hits on the [bullet resistant] vest, you just feel a thud. But if it hits you on the arm or leg, it stings."

The troopers began using the bullets during a realistic training exercise that they call Simunitions, named for the nonlethal ammunition used. Instead of shooting at targets or using a video that mocks potentially dangerous situations, the troopers staged burglaries, traffic stops and suicides on the grounds and in abandoned buildings at the old Henryton State Hospital in Carroll County.

The exercises, part of a street survival course, are designed to teach troopers how to make difficult and often snap judgments about whether or not to shoot.

While the military has used Simunitions to teach soldiers combat shooting for years, police departments have begun using it only recently to supplement other kinds of firearms training, such as moving targets and videos with life-sized projections of actors who seem to fire at officers.

"This type of training allows the officer to deal with the totality of the situation he is confronted with, and a lot of departments are starting to use it," said Rodney Chaney, a retired Prince George's County police officer who oversees Simunitions training for that county's force. Chaney sold the idea to State Police Superintendent Col. David B. Mitchell when Mitchell was chief there in the early 1990s.

"The beauty of this is that you can re-create scenarios that really occurred on the street," Mitchell said. "When it comes down to survival training, we want to give our troopers the best training there is."

During the state police training sessions, Sgt. Bud Frank, a firearms instructor, created the scenarios and gave the officers basic information. But unlike video training, the sessions had no prescribed outcome. The troopers did not know who was going to shoot or even if any of them would have to.

During one scenario, Appleby posed as the driver of a white pickup truck that Tfc. Scott Maclane was assigned to stop. When Maclane found that Appleby's license was suspended, he ordered him out of the car.

"Put your hands where I can see them and get out of the truck," Maclane yelled.

"What's the problem? I didn't do anything," Appleby yelled as he opened the truck door. "So, what? Are you going to arrest me now?"

Suddenly, from between the seats, Appleby pulled a handgun and fired at Maclane.

Maclane was a better shot. Appleby's shirt had at least two orange marks on it.

"This takes a lot of the guesswork out of it," Appleby said later. "We all know if we have been hit. Without the paint-ball marks, although you hear the 'bang, bang,' you are not sure if you were hit or if you got the other one."

Because it is so realistic, Simunitions is more stressful than other training exercises, troopers say.

"This really shows that there are consequences to what goes on," said Frank, who has gone through the training.

Troopers, like officers from other agencies, are required to go through judgmental shooting training each year. It increases their self-confidence and makes them think about how they would handle a potentially deadly confrontation.

"It's more than just target practice," Chaney said. "The only similarity between being at a shooting range and in real shooting is that you use a gun both times."

Troopers are taught to follow the department's policy on the use of deadly force, which requires that an officer believe his or her life -- or that of someone else -- is in danger, Frank said.

"That's the problem with deadly force," Frank said. "It depends on the perception of the officer. If he sees the gun and feels threatened, then he may shoot. If the other officers with him don't see it, they may not fire."

Troopers are taught to shoot to incapacitate, not to wound, he says.

"What that means is that we shoot to stop the suspect's action," Frank said. "And to shoot at the center mass. Because of movies and television, people think we can shoot the wings off flies."

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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