Police aim for shot of reality Training video offers different scenarios, tracks hits and misses

August 03, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Officer Christopher Smith confronted a man breaking into a car in a downtown parking lot. The suspect bent down as if he had dropped a gun when a second man popped up from behind the car and opened fire.

Smith quickly shot back and killed both men with four shots.

But he missed -- six times.

"Just remember, we are accountable for every bullet we fire," said Officer Bush Hopkins, a firearms training instructor. "It could have been a perfectly good shooting, like this was, but if one bullet hits a bystander, you are up a creek."

Smith was in a dark room last week at the Baltimore Police Department's firing range at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Baltimore County. The gunmen he shot were on a video projection screen, a high-tech interactive training device to test how officers react in split-second life and death situations.

Each short video presents a scenario taken from the blotters of the Los Angeles Police Department. Officers react to the images on the screen, which then react differently depending upon what the officer does.

A mock 9mm Glock that the officer carries into potential combat is wired to a computer that monitors the officer's performance. The Glock is a replica of the weapon police are issued.

When the officer shoots at the screen, the computer records where the bullets go -- hit or miss.

But this is more than just target practice. Instructors such as Hopkins want the officers to shout out commands -- such as freeze -- and take cover behind a mock brick wall, just as they would in real life. Instructors can make the officer's gun jam, forcing him to reload. And many times, the scenario does not justify the officer pulling the trigger.

"It's one thing to shoot at paper targets all day," said Lt. Edward Frost. "But with moving targets and stress, their marksmanship goes down significantly. This is as close as you can get to a real gunfight."

$60,000 system

Friday morning, nine officers took turns at four scenarios, part of their in-service training that is required each year. The department bought the $60,000 Firearms Training System in January, and the officers who were tested Friday had never seen it before.

Most of the officers performed above average, hitting the bad guys. But all but one had too many stray bullets.

Instructors cautioned that even officers who are top scorers during target practice do poorly when confronted in the computer simulation. "It's a humbling experience," Frost said.

Baltimore police shot 16 people in 1997, four of them fatally. Also, a police lieutenant was shot and killed. Thus far this year, police have wounded seven and killed four. Most of the shootings have been ruled justified, though several have sparked considerable controversy, including last year's shooting of a knife-wielding man at crowded Lexington Market.

In 1995, three officers engaged in a gun battle with an escaped murderer in Southwest Baltimore. A bullet ricocheted off a brick wall and hit a bystander in the head from a half-block away. The bystander, and the murderer, died.

The interactive video demonstrated how quickly a routine call can turn into a disaster.

A young graffiti vandal dropped a can of spray paint in one video clip, but in a flash he put his hands to his waistband, drew a gun and opened fire before it was evident he was holding a weapon.

Instructors have nearly 100 scenarios to choose from, and most can be altered. A man who plunges a knife into an officer's chest in one case simply walks away in another. An innocent person in one is an armed criminal in another.

Man in shadows

Drive-by shootings, muggings and domestic calls are among the scenarios. Suspects are encountered in crowded shopping malls and darkened warehouses, where officers have to quickly decide if an armed man hiding in a shadow is a criminal, a fellow undercover detective or a regular citizen.

Officer Christopher Bielicki, opening fire on three gunmen hiding behind concrete pillars, managed to hit and kill two. But he missed 10 times. "You were just pulling the trigger," Hopkins told him after viewing the location of each errant shot.

But Hopkins was pleased that Bielicki kept his gun trained on one of the suspects even after he was down. The wounded man struggled to his knees and raised his gun before being shot twice more.

"I've been in that situation," said Bielicki, who shot and wounded a 32-year-old man in December. "The guy kept coming even after I shot him."

But one officer, who asked not to be identified, didn't fare so well at first. The officer's first test was a video of a mentally disturbed woman sitting on the the ground, warning people to stay away. "My husband is buried here," the woman said in the scenario.

As the camera closed in, the woman reached into her black purse, pulled out a gun and aimed it at the officer. Two shots rang out before the officer pulled her gun from her holster; she finally fired a shot after the shooter had walked off the screen, and the bullet sailed into a nearby house.

"That was kind of a delayed reaction," Hopkins said. "What were you shooting at?"

"I don't know," the police officer answered. "I thought the computer was waiting for me to shoot."

She did better on the next scenario, however, confronting a man with a gun at a bank machine. "You had two lethal hits, one non-lethal hit and no misses," Hopkins told her. "Good."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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