By Joe Beck
FRONT ROYAL -- No decision a police officer makes is fraught with more life and death consequences than the moment when he must choose to fire or not fire a gun aimed at a suspect.
Capt. Jason Ryman of the Front Royal Police Department remembers three times in his 15-year career when he has come close to pulling the trigger. The first time came during his rookie year on patrol while answering a report of a disturbance.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Ryman said.
Ryman spoke a few feet away from a screen that is part of a firearms training simulator that allows police to feel the harrowing experience of confronting a suspect in circumstances where life and death hang in the balance, and the wrong word or deed can lead to an officer or a suspect being killed.
Front Royal police have been training on the simulator for the last three months after the department acquired it at a bargain price from a gun shop owner.
A combination of money from the police department's asset forfeiture fund and the Front Royal Police Foundation paid for the device, which cost the department roughly $12,000, about one fourth the price of a new unit. The foundation has also helped the department buy items such as a grappling heavy bag and a padded suit designed to allow officers to go all out in hand-to hand combat training without injuring their instructors.
The simulator uses a projector and screen, a gun with an air cartridge and an infrared beam to give officers a safe environment in which they can practice deciding when to shoot or not to shoot.
"In here, if you make a mistake, we watch you make it here," Ryman said. "Then we can go through it and talk about it."
The simulator gun, which has the size, weight and feel of a regular service revolver, shoots only an infrared beam and the suspect on the screen is a videotaped actor. But officers still leave the practice sessions emotionally drained, healthy signs that the simulator has achieved its purpose.
"Even experienced guys, you see sweat beads coming out on their forehead because they don't know where they are going with this," Ryman said.
The simulator creates nerve-wracking tension by playing out different scenarios on the screen with suspects who may or may not be armed.
One set of interactions involves a man on a motorcycle pulled over for a traffic stop. The video shows the suspect from the vantage point of the officer making the stop. The suspect initially refuses to give the officer his driver's license, then grows increasingly hostile and defiant. Finally he relents and surrenders his license without resistance.
In a second scenario, the suspect behaves in much the same way when asked for his license -- except this time he reaches over, pulls a gun from the motorcycle and fires at the officer.
Ryman, standing about 15 feet from the screen, reacted by pulling his simulator and firing repeatedly at the gunman. Red dots from the infrared beam showed where a bullet would have hit or missed the suspect in real life.
Police officers receive considerable firearms training while in the academy and after joining the force. But those drills tend to be focused on the mechanics of shooting a gun properly. The simulator puts more emphasis on assessing threats, communicating verbal commands, continued threat assessment as the scenario plays out, taking action and justifying the course of action.
Ryman calls the simulator "a stress inoculator" that makes it less likely that an officer will overreact to a weak or non-existent threat or lock up with indecision when confronting clear and present danger.
"It's not practice makes perfect," Ryman said. "It's perfect practice makes perfect."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org