Police Lieutenant Michael Sitoski was standing in a dark basement room as a nightmare unfolded on a wall-size video screen in front of him. A young boy lay bleeding against the wall in the virtual hallway and a teenage girl raced past him, shrieking in terror. “What does he look like?” Sitoski yelled as the girl sprinted by. As he moved down the corridor, the screams grew louder and a gunshot rang out. Sitoski quickly stepped behind a table in the middle of the basement, triggering the screen to show him behind a wall. Peering around the table, he could see a classroom on the screen. Inside, a girl in a hooded sweatshirt held a boy from behind, the barrel of a pistol pressed into his head. Sitoski stepped behind the door to the room, gun raised, and ordered the girl to drop the weapon and get on her knees. She resisted until his third command, when she put up her hands and Sitoski calmly entered the room. Then the screen went white.
“What did you see?” asked Thanos Milios, a public safety trainer. “Shouting. Gunshots,” replied Sitoski, a member of the Upper Macungie Township Police Department in Pennsylvania. “How long would it take people to come and help you?” Milios asked. “Too long,” Sitoski said.
“Right. You made it down there in 18 seconds. It would take backup at least a few minutes. But why didn’t you attempt a head shot?” After thinking for a moment, Sitoski replied, “I wasn’t comfortable with it.” From the back of the room Emanuel Kapelsohn, a firearms training consultant, spoke up in agreement. “It’s terrible if she kills that guy. It’s worse if you kill that guy.”
The incident and subsequent performance analysis was a training exercise meant to help Sitoski respond correctly in an actual school shooting. From traffic stops to gun massacres, law enforcement personnel face a range of unpredictable situations. Increasingly, they’re using realistic, technology-enabled live action simulations to prepare.
The training method is called “use of force” and it’s designed to hone responders’ skills by testing them in real life situations. It depends heavily on technology like lasers and motion sensors. In some cases hearing and vision are inhibited to replicate the real-life tunnel vision that can occur in high-stress situations like shootings. In Sitoski’s scenario, his gun fired a laser that recorded his reaction time and tracked hits and misses. If a character on the screen fired their weapon at him, a pneumatic cannon would shoot a hard plastic ball toward him at a speed of more than one-hundred-feet per second.
“It’s certainly way ahead of the times when you’d just go to the shooting range, empty your ammo and go home,” says Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former Israeli National Police officer. “There is much more sophistication to this.”
The aim of any use of force exercise is to condition the right response. At the Pennsylvania training session, run by Kapelsohn for a number of neighboring law enforcement agencies, officers were tested on rapid-fire reactions. As two sheriff’s deputies from the Berks County tactical unit fired on a shooting range from behind the door of their squad car, trainers yanked a set of ropes, spinning two targets to face the officers. One was an obvious street tough pointing a gun, the other an undercover police officer wearing street clothes and holding a badge over his pistol. The officers saw them for less than two seconds before they were turned back around. Seconds later, Kapelsohn blew a whistle to end the scenario and inspected the targets. The undercover cop had a bullet hole in his chest. “The problem with being a good shot is if you shoot at the wrong person, you’ll probably hit him,” Kapelsohn said. He scored the target negative $4.7 million – his assessment of the cost of a lawsuit if a similar misfire were to actually happen.
This sort of training is essential for law enforcement, experts and participants say, but it is in relatively short supply as departments struggle to find the time and money for it. “I can’t think of an agency today that has enough training in any area, including use of force,” says Haberfeld. And even the most realistic simulations remain just that. “There is absolutely no environment where you can simulate the fear,” Haberfeld says of responding to shootings. “You can envision 100 different situations and the next thing you know you’re facing the 101st situation.”
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