Police 'lethal force' simulator makes a Baltimore grand jury more sympathetic to cops

Baltimore grand jury went through a police 'lethal force' simulator, and it changed their minds about police.

When members of a recent Baltimore grand jury put themselves in the shoes of cops to better understand the complexities of police work in one of the nation's most violent cities, they came away thinking the officers deserve sympathy — and better pay.

The jurors attended a "lethal force seminar" where they were given fake firearms and placed in "realistic simulators" that mimicked scenarios police officers confront, including a person trying to commit "suicide by cop" and a call for an aggravated domestic assault.

"As members of the grand jury, our perceptions of police officers have changed after this visit," the grand jury wrote in a report outlining their experience serving the judiciary from January through May. "Many of us were born and raised in this urban Baltimore environment and have always held a negative opinion of police officers.

"Society has beaten these men and women down," the report continued. "We no longer consider them 'Officer Friendly,' and now, we can understand why."

Grand juries are panels of residents who decide whether serious criminal cases meet legal standards for full prosecution in court.

"For those of us who participated, we agreed that we were actually nervous about using our firearm. Each time, we contemplated whether we should use our gun or not, but we surely did not want to be harmed ourselves," the jurors wrote. "We realized at that moment that we did not do as well as we would have liked. That experience made us consider that in many cases, police officers really do not have much time to think, especially in life-threatening active situations where a hostage may be in danger."

The grand jury's reaction to their simulator experience comes amid the ongoing national debate about police accountability and as activists call for civilians to be placed on the local boards that review police conduct.

Many law enforcement officials have suggested that everyday citizens ought to get a taste for the reality police face, just as the jurors did. And some want to.

During a call-in town hall meeting in which Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis heard from residents and neighborhood leaders on issues of police reform, the mayor said residents have told her they "would like Baltimore police to train the public on what some of the stresses of being an officer are."

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police union, said the grand jury's experience supports the union's stance about policing.

"You gotta walk in our shoes to see what a police officer does," he said.

But Ryan said he still wouldn't support civilians serving on the trial boards that review alleged officer misconduct, even if they went through such training.

Such boards in Baltimore are made up entirely of law enforcement officials and officers, and police union officials argue that only individuals with policing experience understand an officer's job well enough to pass judgment.

Activists calling for civilian participation on the boards say it is the only way to ensure accountability in an area where officers shield one another.

This week, state Sen. Catherine Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor, said she wants the General Assembly to strengthen a law taking effect Saturday that allows civilians to serve on such panels if police unions agree.

Pugh said she plans to push for legislation that would allow civilian participation regardless of police union agreement.

"I know the FOP will not be happy with that," Pugh told an audience at United Evangelical Church in Canton on Tuesday. "But until we allow participation by individuals who live in our communities, we will not get the coordination that we need."

Situations in which an officer has to decide whether to use his or her firearm have come into sharp focus in recent years, in Baltimore and elsewhere.

Activists across the country argue that officers are too quick to shoot, particularly when the person they are confronting is black, and aren't held accountable when they make mistakes or abuse their power. Police officials and their supporters say officers often have to make life-or-death decisions quickly and should be honored for putting their lives on the line for public safety.

The grand jurors noted the difficult challenges officers face on a daily basis.

"Police officers are often faced with situations that require split-second decision making, and as we are all aware, any decision could cost a life, erupt civil unrest, damage careers and/or impel jail time," the jury wrote.

After assessing their "own decision making" in the simulators, the jury members "shared our personal beliefs about police officers and their roles in our community" with officers on the Baltimore police force.

"They shared with us as well: the good, the bad and the ugly," the grand jury report said. "This approach was honorable, considering the ongoing issues involving police transparency throughout the nation."

Afterward, the jurors came away with the belief that police officers in Baltimore are "overwhelmed, overworked and underpaid," the report said.

It found that since the unrest last year after the death of Freddie Gray, officers are confronting staff shortages and long hours, as well as restrictions on time off. They also determined that the crimes officers face on Baltimore's streets "are more heinous than ever before, as criminals are becoming more vicious and fearless."

"On a typical day, it is possible they may see dead bodies sprawled on the ground, go into a home involving child abuse or sexual molestation and after their 12-hour shift, they return to their own homes and try to have normalcy," the report says. "They should be arguing: Where is my mental health? Where is my break? Sit me on a desk for a day! Let me [breathe]!"

The jurors wrote that officers are "tired and afraid for their own safety and security," and need "real support from the top that will someday trickle down into the communities and change the mindsets of each one of us civilians."

The grand jury called for more routine and mandatory mental health screenings for officers and an end to 12-hour shifts and "inflexible leave usage," which it called "abusive work practices" that "create high stress compounded with an already stressful environment and could cause even minor issues to become explosive."

It also called for increased pay "and improved working conditions" for all police and corrections officers, "aggressive campaigning" to hire more police and corrections officers, and "statewide recognition and sincere appreciation toward our officers who daily risk their lives."

It called on elected officials to participate in the same lethal force seminar the jurors attended.

"We as constituents would like to know how, during a simulation scenario, you would react and respond," the jury wrote.

krector@baltsun.com

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