(Photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
SIKESTON -- I got shot while in the line of duty as a police officer Monday. Fortunately, it was just a simulation -- but not a game.
Thanks to an extended loan of a Fire Arms Training Simulator from the FBI office in St. Louis, Sikeston Department of Public Safety officers are now able train split-second decisions involving life and death.
"Even though it looks like a video game it's not," said Lt. Rick Rapert, firearm instructor for the Sikeston Department of Public Safety. "We take this very, very seriously."
News reporters in the area were invited by Sikeston DPS to experience first-hand the decision-making process officers face during dangerous situations by trying the F.A.T.S. during a "Media Day" Monday at the DPS Annex Building.
"It's a lot of fun but very educational," Rapert said.
Indeed, it was.
The interactive system uses video of live actors projected on a floor-to-ceiling screen to place officers in a variety of scenarios during which the officer must decide whether it is appropriate to draw a firearm then whether to use it or not.
During the training, as in real life, police officers are only to use lethal force as a last resort, Rapert said.
Each session begins with a review of the Sikeston DPS use of force and weapons policies.
"We're not training our officers to shoot just because a gun is pulled," he said.
The simulator uses a real semi-automatic pistol that has been modified so it can no longer use real ammunition but still feels like a real gun.
"Safety is No. 1," Rapert said. "Nothing comes out of the gun other than an infrared laser."
The simulation begins with an "empty" gun, Rapert said. The simulator is programmed so the gun has the same number of bullets as the guns officers actually carry.
Officers begin by pushing the magazine up into the weapon and moving the slide all the way back once to simulate putting the first round into the chamber.
The officer using the F.A.T.S. is advised by his video partner about the situation they are entering. The officer is expected to use verbal commands during scenarios which range from pedestrian investigations to felony warrants.
Rapert said that having had over 20 years of law enforcement experience, he believes the scenarios presented by the F.A.T.S. are a good representation of the types of situations officers are likely to encounter while on duty.
"They are as close to the real thing as we can get it," he said.
During each of the F.A.T.S. scenarios there are decision points where the instructor can push buttons on the master control center to select how the video subjects behave.
"The scenarios can either be a shoot or a no-shoot situation," Rapert said. "This gives more possibilities to the officer. We can run the exact same scenario twice with different outcomes."
For example, in one scenario a mentally disturbed female may speak incoherently and walk away -- or pull a knife and throw it at officers. She may also drop the knife and draw and fire a pistol.
When the officer using the simulator fires the weapon, the gun recoils and the simulator provides the sounds of a weapon being fired.
"Most scenarios allow for interaction causing the suspects to fall if struck and, in some cases, if a non-lethal area is hit, the suspect's aggression may continue even though wounded," Rapert said. "This gives the officer the opportunity to respond with as much force as necessary to overcome the threat."
Trainers running the program can also program in a gun malfunction for the officer to deal with during a scenario.
"This is as close to a gunfight that we can get you in without being in a gunfight," Rapert said.
The computer records all the simulated shots and where they land.
"It is guided by a master computer and determines whether it was a non-lethal shot, a lethal shot or a miss," Rapert said.
The computer also tracks when the finger is placed on the trigger and where the muzzle is pointed during the encounter.
After the conclusion of the scenario, a freeze frame is presented and the officer is rated with either "good judgement" or "poor judgement" and asked to explain their actions.
"The scenario is then reviewed at the point of the threat or action that prompted the officer to use force," Rapert said. "The degree of force available to the officer ranges from mere presence to deadly force."
A typical training session for an officer using the F.A.T.S. takes about 30 minutes and goes through 10 scenarios.
"This is at no cost to the city," Rapert said. "The FBI provided it for free."
Rapert said while there are police academies and other places officers can go to experience F.A.T.S. training, having the machine here means officers can be trained in a short session while on duty instead of paying them overtime and covering travel expenses to send them elsewhere.
"This is a whole lot of free training that we're taking advantage of," Rapert said.
Rapert said getting the FATS machine is another example of DPS Director Drew Juden's policy of training DPS officers well beyond what is required by the state.
Every DPS officer with arrest powers and that carries a firearm is required to go through F.A.T.S. training, Rapert said: "Everyone from the chief on down to a new guy that was just hired goes through this training."
Officers who go through a F.A.T.S. session "really like this training," Rapert said. "It is the most realistic training we can provide."
Rapert said officers have told him that their hearts are pounding following a scenario. "It's that realistic," he said.
And unlike reporters who get to walk away with a new perspective on what officers go through, for officers it's a chance to train in a safe environment making critical decisions that have potentially serious consequences.
"It's what they face everyday," Rapert said.