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Missoula police aim high with new virtual training

A gunman holes up in a local high school and starts popping students. Stacked four deep, officers move in two-by-two, and I’m on the left flank. A kid jumps out of a doorway, screams and runs away. We pass a classroom where a trio of students tends to another kid laying in a pool of blood.

“He went that way,” one of the students says as he points down the hallway. “He shot my friend.”

A shot rings out and the officer in front of me drops to the ground, clutching his leg.

“I’m all right,” he says. “Keep going.”

We turn a corner and the shooter, a student, holds another student in a headlock with a gun pressed against his temple. I hesitate, then fire off a couple of rounds and kill the shooter, but not before he offs the poor kid in his arms.

The screen goes blank.

“You engaged. That’s good,” says Lt. Mike Colyer of the Missoula Police Department (MPD). “But you hesitated. You have a right to protect yourself, but an obligation to protect everyone else. If he’s putting someone’s life in danger, you shoot him.”

Colyer is the instructor for an $85,000 simulator the police department purchased in February from IES Interactive Training in Ann Arbor, Mich. With the purchase, Missoula became the first police department in the world to own the newest version of the MILO Range Pro, an interactive simulator that incorporates more than 250 professionally acted scenarios.

“I knew it was going to be some of the most realistic training we could employ without people getting hurt,” says Capt. Chris Odlin. “It’s very hard for us to recreate the realism of somebody actually being defiant with you and pushing you all the way to the point where you use lethal force. We end up using cops for actors a lot—and cops aren’t great actors.”

Missoula managed to get an appropriation for the simulator through U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, but the process took a while. Odlin, the officer who submitted the request, says he’s been working on acquiring the system since January 2007.

The simulator can handle up to 16 different users simultaneously, a new feature that allows entire units to train together. Another feature allows the instructor to reward an officer for strong verbal commands by deescalating a situation, or to raise the intensity if a cop makes a poor decision. (When I pulled over a car, Colyer had the passenger cooperate, rather than pull a gun on me, after I screamed at him to put his hands up.) In fact, Colyer emphasizes that it’s a “use of force system, not a shooting system,” despite the flashier violent scenarios.

Since the simulator is so new, Colyer says he doesn’t have any statistics to prove how the training translates to the streets; he hopes to evaluate use of force statistics in a year. Anecdotally, however, he says it’s helped new officers who struggled with the correct level of assertiveness and veteran officers refine their training.

Colyer says MPD used or threatened to use physical force approximately 221 times last year, including the Dec. 21 shooting of a homeless man named Greg Baumann. After police tried to arrest him on two outstanding warrants, Baumann fired on the three officers. The officers returned fire, killing Baumann. A coroner’s jury found that the shooting was justified.

Robert McCue, general manager of IES, says the simulator is designed to help officers prepare for and sometimes avoid specific scenarios that have often ended in shootings.

“It’s training for the future,” McCue says. “In one afternoon, we can put an officer into a domestic dispute, we can put him into a situation where there’s a shooter on campus, we can have him deal with an emotionally disturbed person. Basically, we can compress the years and years of experience an officer normally needs to see all those types of situations into a single afternoon. The idea is that it gives them a frame of reference and a level of experience so at least they have a starting point when confronted with a new situation.” 

The MPD uses a full complement of weapons equipped with lasers to interact with the simulator—two handguns, a rifle, a Taser, chemical spray and a baton. Part of the exercise forces the officer to choose the appropriate tool for the particular situation.

In the name of authenticity, the simulator also shoots back. After I dropped a bank robber who pulled his gun on me, I turned, smirking, to Colyer. The bank robber’s partner, whom I didn’t see, let loose a barrage of plastic BBs in my direction. They hurt, Colyer says, but because he’s nice, Colyer, who controls the direction of the projectiles, shot the BBs at the plastic table I was standing behind instead of my head.

Colyer ran me through a half dozen other scenarios, most of which I botched. Finally, at the end of the session, I managed to shoot a drug dealer before he shot my partner, but Colyer says he usually ends with a more innocuous scenario.

“You don’t want people walking out of here thinking, ‘Everybody’s trying to kill me,’” he says. “You don’t want the officer pulling his gun on the next guy who pulls his wallet out.”
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