The weight of the Glock 9mm feeling strange in my hand, my partner and I step out of our patrol car.
The call came in for an individual lying on the cement in an aqueduct near a busy overpass. A pair of tunnels under the road stretching away to the right, we approach the prone man. A senior patrolman warns us that only one of his hands is visible.
And even though I know that I’m standing in Edgewood Hall at Harford Community College, not in east Los Angeles, and even though the gun in my hand is part of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office electronic Firearms Training System, I’m weirdly on edge.
Moments later, the attack comes—not from the man on the ground, whom we’ve trained our guns on, but from another man who steps out from the shadows of the underpass and lets loose with a nasty-looking shotgun.
My partner’s first shot catches him in the shoulder, while mine sails just above his head. Virtual bullets fly, as he blasts away and our rounds go wide, but miss their mark. Though we’d almost certainly have been hit, thanks to our crappy shooting, the digital assailant flops to the ground as if shot.
The scenario apparently over, I break my shooting stance and begin to joke with my partner about hitting white whales on black backgrounds.
That’s when the guy on the ground flips over, pistol in hand.
Holding the Glock only in my left, shooting hand, I quickly aim and with a snap shot put a single round perfectly into his center mass. But, caught up in the moment, I return to the proper two-handed stance and let loose six or seven more rounds as he falls, until my partner pulls me back to reality: “Easy, Tex, you got him.”
In one simple scenario, I’ve learned three important lessons: 1) shoot straight and remove the threat, 2) don’t assume a situation is over until every possible threat has been checked and 3) it’s a lot easier to get caught up and blast away—known as “sympathetic shooting” moments—than you’d think.
That’s the point of the Firearms Training System, or FATS—to expose deputies to real-life decision making and teach them to evaluate a situation, even when the truth isn’t always obvious.
According to DFC Tony Boer, the Sheriff’s Office rangemaster, the $80,000 system is used to train new deputies and those in need of extra instruction without wasting ammunition at the agency’s range in Broadcreek. A compressed air tank and tube cause the gun to recoil, and each trigger pull causes an authentic gunshot sound, though both are far less intense than the real weapon causes. A hit camera tracks where the weapon is pointed and determines whether each shot is a miss, a wounding hit, or a likely fatal hit.
In that way, the system resembles a complicated video game. But while the class members of the Citizens Police Academy were allowed to enjoy the experience on that level, actual deputies would be required to speak to the non-responsive screen. Officers would not necessarily have their gun out when the scenario began (Boer: “We don’t walk into every situation with our weapon drawn.”), and would have to choose when to draw it, how to call out for their digital opponents to explain their actions, and when to them to drop a weapon, before ultimately firing at a suspect.
“That’s our biggest tool—verbalizing, talking people down from something,” Boer said. “We have to go straight to the gun sometimes…but most of the time, we will try to talk a person down.”
When that doesn’t work and a deputy is forced to fire, Boer said they’re trained to aim for a suspect’s center mass. Head shots are covered, he said, but only in the context of past incidents, such as the infamous North Hollywood shootout in which suspects wore body armor which protected them from patrol officers’ standard weapons.
“We don’t teach deputies to kill people, we shoot to remove a threat,” Boer said. “If I was teaching them to kill, I’d arm them with the best rifle I could find, like the military does. That’s not what we teach.”
The scenarios included in the FATS computer run the gamut from situations which obviously call for a weapon to be fired to longer ones in which Boer can control certain elements, such an active shooter in a school who might surrender if the deputy is convincing in their efforts to speak to him, or who might choose to fire on the officer if they aren’t.
For the Citizens Police Academy, most of the scenarios trended toward the former—sometimes laughably so. A few scenarios were more nuanced, including several in which the suspect does not draw a weapon and one in which a suspect reaches to his back and pulls out…his wallet, oddly presaging the Amadou Diallo incident, since the video for the FATS system was filmed sometime in the 1980s. But others seemed more like a highly realistic version of “Duck Hunt,” such as when a suspect attempting to break into an ATM was confronted by officers and, after a long moment of reflection, said “Aw sh*t” and drew a weapon on them anyway—only to go down in a hail of simulated bullets.
But, for the most part, the scenarios felt at least a little realistic. Even without the protocols followed by regular deputies, the system was effective in instilling a moment of doubt in each situation, before the bullets began flying.
“No officer out there can tell you when to shoot. It’s a life or death situation,” Boer said. “You have to be not just tactically ready, but morally ready, because you may be about to take someone’s life.”
After 15 weeks of detailed explanation, on June 14 the 18th class of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Police Academy graduated in a ceremony held in Edgewood Hall at Harford Community College.
In his commencement address, Sheriff Jesse Bane highlighted the mental toll the job takes on his deputies, saying he himself is haunted by the death of a young child, which he investigated years ago.
“I dream I am there at the time, and try to stop the father from beating and severely damaging an 18-month-old child,” he said.
Bane said the academy class members had gained an inside understanding into the agency, and the sacrifices made by those who wear its uniform.
“Hearing this, one wonders why we do what we do, and now you know,” he said. “Without the support of you and those we serve, our jobs become that much harder.”
“You are our ambassadors,” he said. “Come to our defense when others speak badly of us.”
The Dagger extends its thanks to the graduates of the 18th class of the Citizens Police Academy, which include:
Lou Ann Bane
Sherryl Del Colliano
The Dagger also thanks the men and women of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office, who dedicated their time both to explain their work to the class.
Sheriff L. Jesse Bane
Major Christina Presberry
Major Dale Stonesifer
Capt Duane Williams
Capt Jim Eyler
Capt John Bowman
Capt Mike Gullion
Capt Steve Thomas
Capt Tanya Jackson
Capt Tim Keggins
Captain Dan Galbraith
Captain John Bakie
Lt Doug Reppar
Lt Mike Crabbs
Lt Veto Mentzell
Sgt Chris Parrish
Sgt Chris Crespo
Sgt Dan Staniewicz
Sgt Donald Gividen
Sgt Ian Loughran
Sgt Kevin Thomas
Sgt Lynn Chester
Sgt Paul Cole
Sgt Rich Miller
Cpl Bryan Oleszczuk
Cpl Ken Perry
Cpl Lisa Lane
Cpl Pete Georgiades
Cpl Ron Sherman
DFC Brad Crossley
DFC Javier Moro
DFC Jamie Krampert
DFC Jan Ryan
DFC Ken Smith
DFC Khalid Mitchell
DFC Lori Denbow
DFC M Schleper
DFC Marty Hoppa
DFC Nick McGowan
DFC Richard Hardick
DFC Ryan Hall
DFC Shawn Forton
DFC Tom Walsh
DFC Tony Boer
Sheriff’s Office Coordinator – Cpl James Pangratz
Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association Liaison – Christine Sullivan
Sheriff Jesse Bane and the author