Police use simulator to train for shootings

With only a flashlight illuminating his way, La Plata County Sheriff Sgt. Charles Hamby works his way through a video-based shooting scenario at a training facility in Bodo Industrial Park. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

With only a flashlight illuminating his way, La Plata County Sheriff Sgt. Charles Hamby works his way through a video-based shooting scenario at a training facility in Bodo Industrial Park.

Law-enforcement officers meet every so often in an abandoned warehouse in south Durango to train for the unthinkable – a mass shooting inside a school.

Officers stand before a large video screen – about 10 feet tall and 14 feet wide. A dispatcher’s voice is heard over booming speakers.

“All units, all units, be advised to report to (inaudible) Middle School. There is an active shooting in progress. Report of one, possibly two shooters.”

An image appears on screen showing the inside of a school. Kids run for safety, a fire alarm is blaring and gunshots can be heard.

Sgt. Charles Hamby with the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office raises his weapon – a handgun with the same weight and feel as a 9mm Glock – that has been retrofitted with a light device.

The video takes the officer inside the school cafeteria where he sees a man with a high-powered rifle and a bullet-proof vest. He yells for the man to drop his weapon. The man moves his gun toward the deputy, and Hamby shoots the suspect.

The video ends, and Hamby explains his actions to Lt. Keith Cramer, who is operating the video system.

“With the siren going and all that, it becomes pretty chaotic,” Cramer said. “You’ve got these kids running by you. It really amps some people up, and a couple of officers get pretty emotionally involved in it.”

If Hamby didn’t shoot the suspect, the scenario would have ended with the suspect shooting Hamby. In other scenarios, it is less clear whether the person with a gun is a suspect or a fellow law-enforcement officer. They learn the importance of yelling who they are to identify themselves to other officers. Sometimes it is unclear if the suspect is armed – he could be fumbling around in his pocket for something, and the officer has to make a split-second decision.

“It is something you can’t take lightly,” Cramer said. “You can’t be Wild Bill Hickok and start shooting everything. You have to use common sense, and if you don’t, there are repercussions for that.”

Hamby said training on the machine helps eliminate “tunnel vision,” the loss of peripheral vision that can occur during tense moments.

“Anything that makes you think, and scenarios that you would possibly deal with, you’re going to benefit from,” he said.

Dozens of scenarios can be played out on the Firearms Training Simulator, which cost about $50,000 and is jointly owned by law-enforcement agencies throughout Southwest Colorado.

The machine provides one of the most realistic virtual experiences of responding to an actual shooting, said David Griggs, undersheriff with the Sheriff’s Office.

The system also has a nighttime mode, which allows officers to use a fake flashlight to illuminate a portion of the screen, similar to what would be seen at night.

The machine used to shoot pellets at officers during certain scenarios, but that function no longer works.

shane@durangoherald.com