At 6-foot-2, 140 pounds, I may be too scrawny to be a police officer. It is a good thing, too, because I made a mess of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s virtual training last month and — if I did not already — seriously doubt my qualification to enforce laws, digital or real. This is an account of the experience, in which I was likely killed more than once.
Up a flight of stairs and a short walk down a hallway in the sheriff’s office’s southern precinct in Edgewood is the agency’s virtual training room. Before we are allowed in, a uniformed sheriff’s deputy asks if I have any weapons on me. I tell him no, but that I have a sandwich in my backpack. He asks me to leave both outside.
Everyone has to disarm before entering the room; there are no exceptions. The reason, I am later told, is to prevent accidental discharges into a commander’s office, which is adjacent to the last available space in the building that the sheriff’s office was able to squeeze its training apparatus into. Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler surrenders his gun and a pocketknife, accompanying me into the room.
The training system — made by VirTra, an Arizona company — looks like a walled-off stage connected to a computer. It dominates the room. Five walls encircle about 300 degrees of the raised platform and can be used to project onto one screen at a time or construct a panoramic view of a dirt lot, movie theater or other places officers may find themselves responding to a call. When the system engages, its screens light up and the room’s lights dim — like the beginning of an IMAX matinee. From there, a short message displays on the screens, and a blue-painted Glock 22 is passed to the trainee, or, in this case, me.
The screens are receptive to laser-emitters installed in the barrels of a few different types of guns, along with a special stun gun cartridge and a mock can of pepper spray. In the field, Cpl. Greg Young says, deputies have to carry either the spray or the stun gun as a non-lethal alternative, though he carries both. The guns used in the simulation are real. They are not loaded, but are instead fitted with specialized attachments used to produce the lasers. A quick disassembly in a couple spare minutes, however, can remove those.
The pistol and rifle simulate recoil when fired, Young says, though the shotgun does not. A minor immersion-breaking detail was the pepper spray’s tendency to sound like a gun when fired.
Behind a computer monitor sits Lt. Mark Fox — who I dubbed “Oz the great and powerful” — the office’s expert in its use of force policy and the man in charge of adjusting the simulation’s parameters for my session. Through an easy-to-work computer program, Fox is able to change the situations, dictating the digital people’s level of cooperation, their possession of firearms and how some cussed at me when I responded to virtual calls for service.
The computer contains over 300 simulated situations, each with a multitude of branching paths. Some of those scenarios are applicable in military training regimens, though the sheriff’s office does not get much use from the desert landscapes that came loaded with the $350,000 setup. Gahler proudly says that drug dealers bought this device for the sheriff’s office — which funded it through proceeds from seized drug assets: fancy cars, jewelry and anything else bought with drug money. A plaque at the room’s entrance celebrates their unwilling generosity.
Further adding realism to the simulation is the electric-shock device that can be hung from a pocket. When triggered, the device sends a jolt of electricity through its wearer; Young says this is to simulate taking a bullet and to raise the heart-rate, which it verifiably does. Though the shock was not overly painful, the device appeared to be on one of its lower settings, and I forgot to wear it for the remainder of the session.
The shock is to increase stress in trainees, Young says — to train them to cope with the feeling and accustom them to making snap decisions in charged situations. Stress decreases decision-making and fine-motor skills, Fox added.
“You can actually visualize the stress they are going through ... A lot of times that is not what the public sees,” Fox says. “What we are trying to get our officers to do is maintain the highest level of proficiency possible” in those circumstances.
‘If you hesitate, you will lose and die'
The situations are designed to mimic real scenarios police officers face in the field. I got started on a simple speed-shooting drill. Tasked with shooting as many rounds as I could into a target before it turns red, signaling me to stop, I squeezed off eight rounds in four seconds, but fired one more after the man-shaped target changed color. Young says this illustrates the disconnect between the hand and brain.
In the next situation, a virtual man reached behind his back and produced a gun, fired, let go of it and raised his hands in one fluid motion. I managed to raise the Glock 22 to hip-height after being virtually shot, but I was no match for Billy the Kid. I questioned the shooter’s ability to hit me with that snapshot, but Young says that there is always the chance it could.
Beyond the threat of being shot, Young says, is the impression of the shooting. Though my shot did not connect, if it had while the shooter was raising his hands in surrender, and that had been videotaped, it could create a misleading impression if the footage were chopped up or only shown in part, Young said.
Certainly, if the man shoots at a police officer, I reasoned, that would justify proportional use of force — more so if a gun could be recovered, or body-camera footage could corroborate the event. Young says it would still not look good.
From there, the situations grew more tense. A man lying on a pistol shot a digital deputy; another pulled a gun on me for interrupting his argument with a prostitute. Three more tried to shoot me after a home invasion, and I spectacularly bungled the response to a movie theater shooting, where I was either killed or in very deep with whatever virtual superiors I reported to.
Both the home invasion and theater shooting end in an armed standoff. After running through surrounding homes’ backyards looking for the alleged burglars — invariably shooting some of them, given the situation Oz dialed in for me — another computerized deputy and I chased down a man with a gun. After a second of hesitation, he put the weapon to his own head and said he would pull the trigger.
“That wouldn’t do either of us any good” appeared to be the wrong thing to say to him, because he turned the gun my direction.
Through the several hours of training, I waited to shoot until I saw a gun pointed at me. That, Young says, is how you get shot. The surest way to avoid taking a bullet is to proactively shoot. He demonstrated how quickly a mock-gun pressed to his own temple could be redirected toward me with a turn of his wrist. Depending on the situation, which deputies have to judge, they may be justified in shooting before a gun is raised, Young says.
“If you hesitate, you will lose and die,” he summarized.
The principle was further reinforced by the simulated call for service that led me to the movie theater. The report was for suspicious people wearing camouflage in the theater. Young warned me that this one got hairy.
Shortly after arriving at the theater, multiple shots ring out. Inside, hiding behind a vending machine cabinet and with a hostage, a man shoots a pistol. He rounds the corner, his arm clamped around the woman, holding her in front of him, and I squeeze off a number of rounds, hitting and killing them both.
That would have been a problem, Young says in the post-mortem analysis, for obvious reasons. The options in that scenario were to land a precise shot on the captor’s head or move away, which the simulation did not allow for. Some officers, he says, also tried to shoot the gunman through the vending machine, though I got the impression that would also kill the woman. It also, frankly, did not cross my mind.
After moving further into the theater, finding wounded people and general chaos, a man with a gun creeps out of one of the screening rooms. I turned and shot him, and as he rolled over, saw the badge he had hung from his neck. I had, in fact, shot a cop, Young told me later, but I was not the first to make that mistake. The other officer should have announced his presence or hunkered down in the theater, by Young’s estimation.
Eventually, I came face-to-face with a young man holding a gun in the theater’s back parking lot. Next to him is a car with a young woman in the driver’s seat. He mumbled something to me as I told him to drop the gun and then asked how fast I thought I was. That, Fox said, is when I could have started putting lead downrange, because the man raised the pistol and fired. I had to shoot him too.
Later, Fox explains that police have a “priority of life” diagram they adhere to. In a dangerous situation, he explains, civilians’ lives come first, then cops', then criminals'. Because the man in question was holding a gun, and had previously fired a few rounds my way in a crowded theater, he ranked low on the scale.
With that said, Fox was clear: “The last thing a police officer wants to do during his career is to take another human being’s life.”
When not to shoot
All of the situations previously described were “good shots,” meaning justified, which Young quizzed me on during the session. But I could have prevented the only bad shot I saw, where a man with a gun in his waistband and hands at his sides is killed by police. I was tasked with being the nonlethal alternative to a couple of officers toting big guns, but I figured the man would not chance a shootout against two rifles. One of the other officers, though, dropped him after a brief conversation.
Young asks if that was a good or a bad shot. I say it was good; he says it was not. The man’s hands were not on the gun or moving toward it. Because he was not making furtive gestures or going for the weapon, he was a prime candidate for the pepper-spay laser I was holding, which may have incapacitated him and kept the other officer from shooting.
According to the office’s use of force policy, deputies are not permitted to fire warning shots and should not use deadly force “to subdue persons whose actions are a threat only to property.” Per the code, deputies are authorized to use deadly force when they believe someone else poses an imminent threat to others’ and their own safety. Deputies are also permitted to use deadly force to stop someone from escaping for the same reason.
While I also took part in a few calmer scenarios, the real training regimen, Fox explains, is more nuanced than the gun-slinging cliff notes I experienced. Almost every person in the simulations has the potential to be cooperative, and the training can be made more varied for bona-fide deputies. Exclusively educating them in non-violent or violent situations is not good practice, Fox says, though the virtual training does not represent the full scope of their required schooling.
I was alone on the stage, but Young is it was not uncommon for him to add a distracting person during training routines for real deputies; they often hold phones, pretending to film the deputy. Sometimes, after a virtual shooting, Young makes deputies write a report on what happened. The simulation is recorded and can be played back, which the officers did several times for me.
Footage of me gangling around onstage may make for a fun story — or compelling blackmail — but it gives insight into the doctrine instilled in law enforcement officers. I left with doubts — recognizing the course to be a montage of the most serious and fraught situations possible, and suspecting the fun deputies had watching me blunder through a short career in law enforcement — but understanding how regrettable those scenarios are to begin with. Most decisions I had to make in the simulation were rushed by the appearance of a gun; few, if any, were perfect.
Use of force by the numbers
The Harford County Sheriff’s Office’s use of force policy defines force as any “amount of effort required by a deputy to compel compliance from an unwilling suspect.” That ranges from physical force, to using pepper spray, electronic stun guns or firearms.
The Morning Sun
In all of 2019, deputies responded to approximately 177,000 calls for service, and used some form of force 43 times, according to data provided by the sheriff’s office.
On only one of those occasions did deputies use their issued firearms.
On May 30, 2019, deputies were involved in a roughly 30-minute standoff with an armed man in the 4400 block of Colt Lane in Havre de Grace. When the man advanced toward them, multiple deputies fired, police said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Per protocol, the use of deadly force was investigated by the office’s Criminal Investigations Division and the Forensic Services Unit collected physical evidence, all of which was forwarded to the state’s attorney’s office for review. Deputies were placed on administrative leave during the investigation.
Cristie Hopkins, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, confirmed the use of deadly force was considered justifiable in that instance and the deputies had since returned to work following the state’s attorney’s review.
Prior to that incident, the last Harford Sheriff’s deputy-involved shooting took place in April 2016, when a Baltimore County police officer was shot during an armed standoff with deputies in the Bright Oaks community in Bel Air.
The man survived his injuries, but was found dead inside his home in August of that year from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.