“Ideally, the trainee is saying, ‘Stop, Aaron.'"
The La Mesa Police Department’s Citizens Academy is, in the words of training sergeant Kate Lynch, “a great way to share the unfortunate realities of the job without putting citizens in harm’s way. It helps bridge the gap between the community and the police.” The most visceral part of that sharing is virtual: the VirTra Firearms Training Simulator, used to “make training as realistic and stressful as possible without actually shooting at the trainees. That’s going to allow them to imprint the training in an elevated state. You can train your body to operate under that stress.”
Three 8-by-12-foot screens, three speakers, a computer, and an actual mailbox (for cover) create a panoramic, immersive experience of the officer’s World of What Ifs: school shooter, cop hostage, drug deal, dumpster diver, etc. “If the trainee is effectively de-escalating, I can control the scenario to bring things down. But if not, or if I want to make a point about the use of force and officer safety, I can choose to have the subject on screen escalate.”
Force can involve pepper spray, a taser, a pistol, or even a semi-automatic rifle: real weapons, the latter two retrofitted with lasers for shot-tracking and compressed-air canisters for sound and recoil. “Your first reaction can’t be ‘Gun, shoot’; that’s not going to work. Here, you’ve got transitioning force options.”
One of Lynch’s favorite scenarios for de-escalation training involves Aaron, a city-hall employee who has just been fired. He’s sitting in his truck outside the building with a gun to his head. “You have this dilemma: an armed subject with an occupied building behind him. I have this obligation to help him. I don’t want to shoot him. But when you understand the reactionary science of it, it takes him nothing” to shift from shooting himself to shooting someone else. “It’s a tough one, but it brings a lot of good conversation.”
Lynch regulates his responses to the trainee’s attempt to engage Aaron and get him to put the gun down. “They took everything from me!” he screams. Then silence. Then a terrified, “I don’t want to do this!”
“Unfortunately,” says Lynch, “when you’re dealing with people who are suicidal, you get these long periods of silence, and it makes you really uncomfortable. The trainee is trying to build a rapport and getting nothing.”
Often, she will make the situation deteriorate, just to force discussion. “One of the hardest things we can make Aaron do is get out of the truck and come out shooting. Or one that’s even worse….” She clicks the mouse. Aaron gets out of the truck, the gun to his head, and walks toward city hall. “Ideally, the trainee is saying, ‘Stop, Aaron. If you go toward the building, I’m going to have to shoot you!’ Shooting a man in the back is counterintuitive; our job is to protect life. But if you don’t pull the trigger, he goes in and you hear…” Gunshots. “At some point, you have to take action.”