Realistic role-playing

Training: On movie-like sets, Baltimore County police cadets confront situations they might encounter on patrol, including robberies, barroom brawls and domestic squabbles.

November 30, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

It looks like a quiet bank lobby. Suddenly, a robbery breaks out and, moments later, two nervous policemen arrive.

"He just left. You could probably catch him," the teller yells as the officers run in. Money is scattered over the floor, and the waiting-line rope is knocked down.

A bank patron hurries out, saying he doesn't want to get involved. The two officers split up. One talks to customers, the other to a teller. They learn that the robber left a note.

Five minutes later, it's over. And Baltimore County police recruits are evaluated for how they handled the simulated holdup.

The role-playing is one of the last training exercises before the 50 recruits graduate from the police academy today. Cadets confront realistic situations they might encounter on the job, ranging from robberies to barroom brawls and domestic squabbles.

"One big thing. Don't let anyone leave, or the detectives will shoot you," says Officer Scott Defelice, a "bank customer" who emphasizes the importance of keeping all witnesses at the scene.

Unlike in other jurisdictions in the Baltimore area, the crimes are played out on movie-like sets -- a bank, apartment, bar and convenience store were built two years ago for $1 million at Community College of Baltimore County's Dundalk campus.

Recruits never fire their weapons. They use a separate video screen scenario that tests them on the most difficult decision an officer faces -- whether to shoot a suspect. Using a specialized gun, they shoot at the screen. The tape is replayed, showing recruits where and when they shot.

In live simulations, each pair of officers approaches the room knowing little about the call.

"Before you had to tell people, `Now pretend this is a bank,' " says Sgt. Rich Moelter, who helps train at the academy. "Now there is nothing they have to visualize."

Two doors down from the bank -- past the convenience store -- is a bar, where recruits Cooper Strickler and Brendan Barton are responding to a fight.

Two men -- played by veteran Officers Tim Gilmore and Brad Martin -- are fighting over a woman. In the background, arcade games are on, music is blaring, and lights are dim.

"The only thing that is missing is smoke," Moelter says. One patron will not follow an officer's commands, so he pulls his nightstick, an appropriate action, Moelter explains. "Do you want me to kick him out?" Strickler asks the bartender.

It's important that the scenes are as close to real life as possible, Moelter says, so officers are aware of how many things they need to think about.

The fake two-bedroom apartment has real kitchen knives and lamps (potential weapons) and windows (a possible escape route for an intruder). The bar has a pool table and darts, providing weapons that could be used against an officer. The bank has rope lines, which can get in officers' way and slow response.

"I will face that situation at least once, that's for sure," Strickler says after finishing the bar scene.

Officers playing citizens say they're as involved in the training as recruits. Of nine scenarios recently, only one officer fell out of character. Some say they draw on personal experiences for dialogue.

"It's kind of self-serving," Gilmore says. "The more I can help them here, the more it helps me when we are out on the road."

Also, he says, "It's a good way to let some stress out."

Moelter says he wants officers to be able to see how they've handled a situation. "The next big step we want to go to is audio/video," he says. "Sometimes they'll say, `I didn't do that, did I?' "

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