Virtual training prepares Lincoln Police Dept. for real-life crises

Virtual training prepares Lincoln Police Dept. for real-life crises

LINCOLN - In a dark, windowless room in the basement of the Lincoln Police Department, officers are under fire from a suspect in a domestic dispute. They radio for more help as an undercover cop goes down, while taking down the shooter on their own.

Next, they are screaming at a man threatening their lives at a traffic stop.

They draw their guns as the man reaches into his backseat and comes out pointing. But they hold their fire - it's only his finger, not a gun.

While it seems like the station basement has become a hotbed of criminal activity in town, residents have nothing to fear. All this action is merely virtual, projected onto a white screen while officers practice loading and firing weapons that have an air tank for recoil, but no ammunition.

Fire Arms Training Simulator, or FATS, is a program that has been available for free through the Rhode Island Interlocal Risk Management Trust since 2001, said loss prevention specialist Paul Brouillette. All participating municipalities - 32 of 39 departments and all of northern Rhode Island - can borrow one of three systems worth between $40,000 and $65,000, he said.

Lincoln had its annual turn two weeks ago.

For 24 hours a day, under the direction of Capt. Philip Gould and Officer Ed Walusiak, officers rotated in and out of the room practicing their responses to high-pressure situations.

Another member of the department sits behind a computer, choosing how the story will progress depending on the officers' actions. Wait too long to fire? The suspect could kill a hostage. Don't spend enough time talking the suspect down? Officers could be on the hook for using deadly force unnecessarily.

"Any training you can get is good training, especially when it comes to use of forces," said Brouillette, who is also a retired Warwick police officer. "It's one of the best training programs that's out there for officers."

Nearly 11,000 officers have been trained by FATS, he said, explaining that while it can be difficult to find statistics relating to the program's effectiveness in the field, there is anecdotal evidence. Brouillette said one officer in Newport credited FATS training with helping him talk down a suspect in a situation that could have turned deadly.

The people on the life-sized screen are actors who have prepared enough scenarios that officers can hardly go through the same test twice.

And after each scenario, officers and their superiors can review the tape, dissecting each decision and even the aiming accuracy of the weapons, if used, which include a rifle, handgun, Taser and pepper spray.

But the exercise is less about target practice and more about taking control of a situation to de-escalate it, Gould said.

"It's an opportunity to go through different scenarios and work through verbal force and verbal commands," he said, noting that scenarios range from school shootings, workplace violence, traffic stops or even just a report of someone in a park who looked like they had a weapon.

The LPD used the training in conjunction with the school safety training and emergency plans, Gould said.

He said FATS gives officers as realistic of an experience "shy of somebody actually shooting at you."

"It's good because you can go from a car stop to a bank robbery," he said. "There's a lot of stressful stuff."

Gould said Lincoln has not had a shooting in close to 10 years, but officers have taken guns from suspects. Unfortunately, he said, school shootings can happen anywhere so the LPD and school resource officers, one each at the high school and middle school, are "constantly reassessing plans," and "going through different ways to make it a more secure environment." This training is a part of the plan.

Anyone can talk about these situations and be tested on paper, Gould said, but FATS provides something extra: "the human element of processing what you see and hear."