Originally created 09/15/99

Simulators help train officers



As a woman poked her head in the driver's side window of her car, pulling out something from inside, Richmond County sheriff's Deputy Raymond Jones shot her in the chest.

"That's a dud," he said a split second after pulling the trigger, realizing she was armed with nothing more than her wallet.

It's easy to criticize every wrong move the deputy made, but there'd be little consolation to a person on the receiving end of the mistake.

And fortunately for Deputy Jones, the woman he fired at was only an image on a screen and the pistol he used shot only laser beams -- elements of the sheriff's department's newest piece of training equipment that's more lifelike than ever.

The $18,000 interactive computerized simulator spews out dozens of "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios, putting the deputy's on-the-spot judgment to the test. The simulator specifically tests the deputy's ability to know when to draw and fire his weapon.

Inside a stark training room, Deputy Jones stood about 30 feet from the screen as the computer projected a videotaped image made with a hand-held camera, similar to a home movie.

The scenarios, chosen from about 80 different incidents, are common cases deputies respond to -- traffic stops, domestic violence calls, bar brawls and hostage situations.

Deputy Kathy Daniel chooses a scenario that tests a skill level anywhere from one to 11 and tells the deputy the same information he would be given by a dispatcher sending him to a call.

The woman with the wallet had been stopped by the deputy for a routine traffic violation.

But just as easily as he makes a mistake, the deputy also handles another scenario perfectly.

Upon knocking on a man's door and identifying himself as a police officer, Deputy Jones draws his gun when he hears a rifle being cocked behind the door. The man jumps out and immediately begins firing at the deputy, who first gets a shot in himself, likely saving his own life.

"The draw-threat is when an officer should recognize there is a threat and draw his gun," said Capt. Ray Myers, who oversees training for all sheriff's deputies.

And when the officer shoots, a laser beam projects a red cross on the target and records where the would-be bullet would have hit.

The gun used, although an actual Glock pistol that all officers carry, is converted so that instead of ammunition in the clip, there is a 9-volt battery and laser beam.

The scenario is played back and compares the moment when the gun should be drawn and fired -- if at all -- and the moment when the officer actually pulled his gun and fired.

"If you make a boo-boo, it explains why you did," Capt. Myers said. "They should realize the danger and help to make them better aware of their surroundings so they're better prepared mentally."

But with a continually declining crime rate, Richmond County sheriff's officers have had less and less reason to fire their pistols in recent years, according to information at the sheriff's Internal Affairs division.

Last year, Richmond County deputies fired their weapons 11 times and nearly half of those were to destroy an injured animal. Only twice in 1998 did a deputy fire at a suspect.

"With the crime index and number of arrests and for a county this size, that's exceptionally low," sheriff's Chief Deputy Ronald Strength said. "And we hope to keep it that way."

And 1999 has been even better with only one report of a use of weapon -- and that also was to destroy an injured animal.

All reports of pistols used in the last two years have been justified.

Deputy Jones, an officer for 2 1/2 years, said he had used the simulator only twice, but feels it's a valuable part of training.

"You'd be surprised how your adrenalin really gets going," he said.

More than 400 officers have been trained with the simulator since it began operating in July. Now it's part of the standard two-week training all new deputies get before going to the street.

Capt. Myers said he believes the Richmond County Sheriff's Department is one of only two Georgia law-enforcement agencies with a simulator, the other being the Savannah Police Department.

"People don't realize the stress an officer goes through," said Chief Deputy Strength, adding that the simulator is as close to real life as possible. "It's been a great benefit as far as training."

Reach Meghan Gourley (706) 823-3227 or mgourley@augustachronicle.com.

Deputies using weaponsRichmond County sheriff's deputies must file a report each time they fire a weapon. Here's a summary of those reports:

Total: 1 -- destroying an injured animal

Total: 11

5 -- destroying an injured animal

3 -- accidental discharges

1 -- during a vehicle pursuit

1 -- Officer struggling with a suspect in the woods fired a shot to alert backup officers to his location

1 -- Two officers shot and killed south Augusta resident Alfaigo Davis after he led them on a car chase and then tried to run them over with his car

Source: Richmond County Sheriff's Department