Deputies train to hone judgment in shooting situation

Richmond County sheriff's Deputy Rolf Cramer approached a suspect at his shop Tuesday, telling him he had a warrant for his arrest.

Back turned, the man angrily swung around to face Deputy Cramer and shifted a large hammer between his hands. Muttering, he turned his back again to the officer before pivoting and lunging forward with the weapon.

Bang.

With split-second reaction time, Deputy Cramer shot the suspect in the chest. There was no blood or panic at the scene as the video simulation shut down and the officer reviewed his performance.

"When I first did it, I was nervous to do it even though it was a video game," said Deputy Cramer, a 17-year veteran of law enforcement.

The exercise is part of a "shoot-don't shoot" drill that all deputies-in-training must complete four hours of to earn their police certification. The simulation is meant to prepare officers for hostile situations and help them judge when to use force against a suspect.

There have been five shootings by Richmond County deputies in the past year -- four of them fatal. The most recent happened last week when three narcotics officers were involved in the shooting death of Michael C. Nestor, who they said tried to run one of the officers over with his car.

A week earlier, officers shot Terry Ramsey when they responded to a call and found him threatening his wife with a knife to her throat.

Capt. Ray Myers, who leads training for Richmond County deputies, said officers are trained to address a variety of violent situations and learn how to make the best decision.

It's a situation no officer wants to face, he said.

"It's like I tell our guys, if you make a bad decision, the only thing I can't take back is a bullet," Capt. Myers said. "For God's sake, if you feel like it's wrong, don't do it."

A deputy-in-training must complete an 11-week program, or 408 hours, to be certified and earn the approval of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. During that training, 16 hours of instruction in judgmental police training must be taken, said Lt. John Young, an instructor for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center's regional police academy in Augusta.

There is overlap in many of the other areas cadets study, such as 40 hours of firearm training and crowd control in potentially violent situations, Lt. Young said.

"It's sort of a theme that is continually enforced as we go through additional blocks," he said.

During the video simulation portion of training, the students sometimes are confronted with situations that appear similar at first but are meant to elicit different reactions.

For example, in one scenario a man becomes agitated while being arrested at a bar and reaches into his pocket for a gun. In another situation that starts the same way, the man reaches into his pocket for his wallet.

Deputy Cramer did not shoot at the suspect in the second scenario, saying he watched the man's hands and could determine he was not going for a suspicious item.

Each deputy reacts differently to the simulator, which is why training officers review the performance afterward. Live-action scenarios also are used sometimes to replicate a situation they could face in the field.

"The more we have this training for them, the more aware they are of what to do and how to do it," said Jerry Rhoden, a deputy sheriff instructor for Richmond County. "You can make your mistakes here and walk out."

After being initially certified, the state requires all deputies to undergo 20 hours of annual training, which includes firearm requalification and use of force.

There are some things that can't be replicated during the learning process, Lt. Young said.

"I don't know that we'll ever be able to approach the degree of realism they're going to encounter on the streets," he said.

Reach Erin Zureick at (706) 823-3217 or erin.zureick@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

408: Total hours for certification by Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council

16: Hours of judgmental police shooting

4: Hours practicing shoot-don't shoot scenarios

40: Hours of firearm training

2: Weeks of post-academy training to review material

16: Weeks with a field training officer

8: Phases to be completed before qualifying to be a "relief" driver for deputies