Fake gunfire, real lessons

Class teaches civilians about police work

June 23, 2008|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun Reporter

While walking through a parking lot in the middle of the day, Christine Sullivan and her 59-year-old mother, Patricia Sullivan, spotted a man with a wrench trying to break into a car. The man paused before pulling out a gun and firing at them, while an accomplice darted out from another car and also started shooting.

The mother-and-daughter duo didn't flinch. Clutching Glock pistols, they fired back. The older Sullivan managed to unload six shots - most of them into a nearby car.

"I only hit windshields," said Patricia Sullivan sheepishly. "I didn't hit a person, just the windshield four times."

Her 35-year-old daughter fared better - firing three shots into the culprits.

"I guess I'm used to aiming because I take photos all the time," she said. "I've never picked up a gun before."

The mother and daughter were actually role-playing in a video simulation system used by the Harford County Sheriff's Office. The Sullivans, who shop, vacation and attend sporting events together, shot bad guys together in their final class at the Citizen's Police Academy.

The Citizen's Police Academy classes lasted for 15 weeks, and during the last one, participants tried out the video simulation system, which is also used to train recruits.

Participants play the role of a police officer who is confronted by potentially dangerous suspects in the video. The suspects, played by actors, can pull out a gun or threaten nearby civilians. In some of the scenarios, participants are placed in school hallways where screaming children flee from attackers or in deserted alleys where gangsters pop out of corners and fire shots.

Like the 1990s Nintendo game Duck Hunt, the player has to shoot a moving target. But the simulator is an upgrade from the bright orange plastic guns and the animated quacking ducks.

"My heart was racing a little. It was like, 'Is he going to come out at you? Should you shoot?' It was nervewracking having everyone watch," said Christine Sullivan.

The simulator uses a modified Glock that recoils and fires laser beams instead of bullets. The system tracks where the shots went.

"This state-of-the-art video training system lets students experience, in as realistic a setting as possible, the milliseconds in which police officers are sometimes forced to make life-and-death decisions," said Cpl. James Pangratz, coordinator of the Citizens' Police Academy for Harford County. "The situation on the screen we put up, you have to react to it. You have a millisecond to decide in that situation of what's right or wrong."

The annual academy, offered free to county residents, attracts a mix of the young and eager, police groupies, retired folks and community activists. This year's class ranged in age from 18 to 72 and included students, an engineer, a welfare fraud investigator and an elevator mechanic.

"I like the mix of people. It's not all businessmen - it's people in the community, people in government, people all have their own little issues they want to know about," said Judy Terrill, an insurance agent who took the class.

During the 1990s, such academies began cropping up in police agencies nationwide, including the FBI, giving civilians an up-close view of how police departments work. The agencies saw it as a way to reach the community and demystify their roles.

The Citizen's Police Academy offered by the Harford County Sheriff's Office was started 14 years ago, and the class that ended recently was the largest.

When the class began in March, 30 participants walked in shyly, listening carefully to the speakers. But as the months progressed, friendships were forged over visits to the jail, lectures about search warrants and missed shots in the simulator.

"I really think this class is unique, not just because it's the largest or most inquisitive," said Horace Tittle, a radio show host. "Folks really bonded. There were people of different ages and different walks of life."

Throughout the course, they listened as detectives at a forensics facility talked about how finding insects on a corpse is helpful and about how experts prefer using paper bags to plastic for keeping bloody evidence. Correctional officers took them through the detention center, where inmates eyed the visitors and asked, "What is this, Scared Straight?"

They met Bruno and Sabre, sheriff's office dogs, who zipped through a doggie obstacle course and gleefully attacked a deputy wearing protective padding over his arm. Week after week, they listened and peppered deputies with questions about procedures and policies.

For the last class, they gathered at a dance studio at the community college to try the virtual firearms training system. Over the playful teasing and banter about their shooting skills, there was a more serious aspect.

"It's a lot harder," said Michael Czawlytko, after firing shots in the simulation. "You have to watch what you're doing - there's so much to take into consideration."

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