With more mass shootings taking place across the country, the Harford County Sheriff's Office is taking steps to ensure its deputies have the tools to train for such incidents.
To that end, the Sheriff's Office purchased two weeks ago, a VirTra judgmental training simulator that helps to prepare deputies for various shooting situations, from a mass casualty scenario to a suicidal person.
Purchase of the $346,826 simulator was funded "in its entirety by drug dealers" from asset forfeitures, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said, and it will help deputies be prepared were anything such as the Las Vegas shooting to happen in Harford.
Sheriff's Office leaders demonstrated for the media at the Southern Precinct station in Edgewood Wednesday afternoon the simulator's walk-in, elevated platform, which can surround the deputy 300 degrees. It was set up in what was the only vacant space big enough to accommodate the equipment.
"This is about as real as possible, as real as you can get without actually being on the street," said Gahler, who first saw the equipment at a conference last year in Chicago. "We live in a 3D world."
The simulator runs through virtual, real-life threatening scenarios from incidents such as movie theater shootings, to school incidents with hostages, to a man threatening to throw his baby off a bridge.
Six deputies are trained to run the program. Included in the price is a five-year warranty and the weapons package, which includes the Glock service weapons deputies use daily, rifles, shotguns and pepper spray.
The agency will have to buy the carbon dioxide used to fire the simulated weapons, which Gahler estimated would be every three to four months.
Deputies will not be required to use the training simulator but are encouraged to, Gahler said.
"Any time you practice you'll be better at what you do," he said. "Our goal is to make sure we equip deputies to be the very best men and women on the street."
The simulator creates a different level of stress than typical range practice, putting partcipants in real-life situations.
"It puts them in a situation out of their comfort zone," said DFC Thomas Wehrle, who demonstrated the equipment. "If police don't have the necessary tools, they panic, and that's when police officers get killed."
The new simulator is more cost-efficient than practicing at the shooting range. It costs one-quarter of a cent to fire the simulated weapon, versus 50 cents for each 40-caliber round fired at the range.
"Are we prepared if anything happens in this community?" Cristie Kahler, director of media relations for the agency, said, referring to the shooting in Las Vegas Oct. 1 from a hotel window into a crowded concert. "I don't know if we ever could have thwarted that incident."
"But we ask ourselves, could that happen? And are we trained if something like this happens in our community?" she said.
Each scenario typically trains one to two deputies at a time, but it can accommodate up to eight people on the platform — three handguns, one shotgun, two rifles and two pepper sprays, Kahler said. There are 250 possible scenarios.
One of the scenarios used in the simulator is a movie theater shooting, with all the adrenaline and anxiety a law enforcement officer might experience, as well as other emotions and situations that could lead to shooting a hostage.
The deputies walk into the theater and see movie-goers running outside amid screams of panic. People who have been injured lie on the ground and point in the direction of the shooters. The deputies stealthily move through the building. People appear from all possible hiding places.
Suddenly they're fired on and they have to react; so they fire back — bang, bang, bang — and they hit the shooter.
In some training scenarios, the deputy gets shot. As part of the training, the participant wears a piece of equipment that stuns them when they're shot, so they know they've been hit.
Some of the scenarios begin with a routine traffic stop and the deputy talking to the person driving the car. The driver gets out, yelling at the officer, who tries to calm him down. The operator can send the training in two ways: escalate or de-escalate. In one scene, the driver reaches into his car, pulls out a gun and fires at the deputy; in the other, he reaches in and pulls out his phone.
"Most people we deal with daily are really compliant people," Wehrle said. "This gives us the option to make them compliant and we don't have to use lethal force, we can work on our de-escalation skills."
When a situation escalates, deputies are forced to make split-second decisions, and the simulator provides those opportunities.
"It shows you how quick things can go bad in a routine traffic stop," Wehrle said.
One of the advantages of the equipment is that the training simulation is video-recorded, enabling supervisors and trainees to see "frame by frame where the shots went, to see how they reacted," Kahler said.
"It makes as real of an environment and learning environment as possible... ," she said.
Besides shooting situations, deputies can also use the simulator for routine training, like a shooting range, to test their reflexes and their timing.