Article Launched: 04/24/2006 04:30:00 AM PDT
EUREKA -- In a darkened room the size of a two-car garage, a local police officer stands alone facing a blank screen.
Instructors and other officers watch from behind a semi-sheer curtain as he receives a brief outline of the situation about to play before him like an interactive movie.
It's a man walking down the middle of a three-lane street mumbling to himself. He turns his back on the officer, who continues trying to make contact before the man puts up his hands and moves off the road, saying “OK. Don't shoot. Everybody needs a parent.”
In this case, the scenario ends without a weapon being drawn.
The realistic computer simulations are part of “force options” training for College of the Redwoods Basic Academy law enforcement students and current officers in surrounding cities. The situations can go in different directions depending on the reactions.
Each session is reviewed by instructors, all law enforcement officers, who discuss what was done right or wrong.
”This is designed for them to learn from their mistakes,” said Kevin Stonebarger, one of the force options simulator instructors at CR's Public Service Center.
Another scenario starts out as a routine
check on several men who appear to have car trouble. It turns life threatening in an instant when the individuals, including one camouflaged in some trees, suddenly open fire. The officer ducks for cover and fires back.
The decisions are made quick -- in the blink of an eye. The scenarios are based on true events and hundreds of alternatives can be produced by the computer. Each person runs through the training three times per session while the others watch and learn.
”In at least one of the scenarios they're going to have to utilize something other than deadly force,” said instructor Bob Ferrall. “We want to make sure you're going to react like you do on the street, where you're not going to pull your weapon all the time.”
The gun is real but modified to hold a laser that interacts with the computer. The air-compressed bullets even malfunction at times to add another level of reality. And, instructors can have the simulator shoot back rubber balls if an officer or student doesn't move from the line of fire.
”What they often find out when they go through this is it's not as easy to shoot at something or someone who's moving while you're moving,” said instructor Cliff Chapman. “This is the closest thing to actually getting involved in a shoot-out without having to hurt somebody.”
It's part of a training package that includes an overview of when force can be used -- from physically bringing a person under control to the use of pepper spray, tasers or the firing of a weapon. There are lectures on the legal justifications needed for use of lethal force, ethics and moral considerations and recent case law on the issue.
Many officers will never face such a decision, but the death of a 48-year-old mentally ill woman after a tense two-hour police standoff April 14 has some community members raising questions about the handling of the welfare-check call and whether it could have ended differently.
Few details have been released, but those who knew Cheri Lyn Moore said she was off her medication and distraught about the anniversary of her late son's birthday. At times, she waved a bright orange flare gun and threw objects out of her apartment window.
An investigation by the multi-agency Critical Incident Response Team is continuing.
Ron Waters, coordinator of CR's Basic Academy, said the state mandates students receive six hours of training on situations involving a person with a mental illness or developmental disability. The academy gives nine hours, including training from an instructor who works with developmentally disabled adults, he said. Current officers are required to have 24 hours of continued training in a variety of areas every two years.
A former Eureka Police Department officer with 30 years on the force, Waters said he has no inside information on the standoff that left Moore dead. He said some of the alternatives people are suggesting police could have used aren't realistic. Sometimes, he said, people expect situations to be resolved like they are on television, where an officer can shoot a gun out of someone's hand.
”I wish people could be trained to be that good a shot,” he said.
Waters said there was a time when Humboldt County Mental Health had a crisis intervention unit that responded to situations like Moore's to talk with the person, but it was cut to budget constraints. It can be difficult for someone who's never been in that type of situation to understand that officers often have to make quick judgment calls in incredibly stressful situations, he said.
”They're looking not only at shoot or don't shoot, but am I going to be sued over this? Is it a safe shoot? Is this shooting legal? Is the use of force I'm going to use legal? Have I exhausted all my options?” Waters said. “They have to make a decision in a fraction of a second that judges, juries and the public will scrutinize for years.”
”It's a nightmare at times,” he said.
When the worst-case scenario does happen, there are widespread impacts to the community, other law enforcement agencies, the officers and their families, Waters said.
”They obviously are never going to forget that and if there's any doubt in their mind, it's going to be replayed in their mind every time they're in a situation even remotely like that,” he said.
Waters said officers regularly have to face a dark side of life that many people don't even realize exists in their town. That can have an impact and adds stress to an already stressful job. Many law enforcement officers don't talk about what they've seen when they get home, he said.
”My kids still don't know most of the stuff that went on,” Waters said.
He said the academy has a public service component that encourages the students to get out and interact with members of the community in a non-law enforcement way -- whether it's at a church, a school or volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul.
”Not everyone in the world is going to have problems and not everyone in the world grew up the way you grew up,” Waters said. “(It's) having empathy for what their situation is.”
Kimberly Wear covers the cities of Eureka and Arcata.