Stress test: Virtual training helps local police prepare for tense scenarios

By on May 11, 2016

First in a series on the stresses and split-second decision-making police face, and how that anxiety and tension is heightened in today’s politically-charged climate.

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The Lititz Police Department invited the Lititz Record Express to participate in stress/reaction training with the Lititz and Manheim police departments.

At Lititz Fire Co. No. 1, reporter Patrick Burns learned first-hand (well, virtually anyway) how officers train to make multiple, simultaneous, critical, split-second decisions.

Yes, he failed miserably, but lucky for us, he’s still around to tell the story.

Manheim Police officer Hudson Hughes aimed an AR-15 assault rifle down the hallway while directing dozens of screaming students running for cover.

Hughes, who responded to a dispatch report moments before for a “school shooter,” was looking for a white male, presumably a man, not a student. He believed he spotted him among a small packs of kids rushing at him.

Since he’d already directed the mad rush of students to his left side (the students were screaming vociferously, which only heightened the tension), Hughes cleared the sight line on his right.

As he glanced left, Hughes notices it’s not the shooter among the students. He then looks up to see the gunman, who incidentally doesn’t fit the description given by the dispatcher, raising a handgun at him.

Hughes didn’t hesitate in firing a burst from the semi-automatic weapon and watched the gunman fall to the floor, which seemed like an eternity from the time he entered the school.

It wasn’t.

“When you’re shooting to save your life or somebody else, that’s how you shoot, absolutely, that quickly,” said Lititz Sgt. Stephen M. Detz, who quizzed each participant in the virtual reality training supplied by SIMTAC Services.

“The whole idea is for a participant to ascertain information, process it, and often communicate it to others,” Detz said. “The idea is to get you thinking.”

SIMTAC, a company purchased a year ago by former Pennsylvania State Trooper Jeffrey Seeley, stands for Simulated Firearms Training.

Manheim Officer Christopher Miller, who responded similarly to Hughes in separate training, noted how he was sweating only a few minutes into the simulation.

“I had flashbacks there,” said Hughes.

Two summers ago, Hughes was dispatched to a scene after an anonymous caller reported a male and female were fighting at a residence. In the end, one resident was charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, terroristic threats, resisting arrest, drug possession and other charges following the confrontation.

Hughes confronted the man with his partner and went into the home, where a woman had locked herself inside a bedroom. When they asked her to let them in, she screamed at the officers before opening the door and pointing a rifle at them.

Hughes tackled her, and his partner fired a Taser device to subdue her when she resisted.

Detz discussed Hughes’ reaction to the school shooter.

“It’s good that you yelled,” Detz said. “We train to talk, it helps us to remember to breath.”

Hughes recounted his split-second reactions while in the school, where he first thought he spotted the shooter.

“I figured it was an older male. I called the teacher or whoever he was in the blue sweatshirt; I didn’t see (weapon) on him,” he said. “I started clearing students out, getting people past me, getting them behind me.”

“Do you see the time down there on the bottom of the screen?” asked Detz. “From the time you went into the school, eight seconds.”

The school shooter incident was one of five SIMTAC scenarios used to train officers. The training, which was paid for by Lititz American Legion Garden Spot Post 56, is not entirely new said Seeley.

“There have been similar training tools, but the older ones had officers tethered with wire connections,” he said.

Seeley said the AR-15 assault rifle and Glock revolver used in the testing are similar in weight, feel, and even have a realistic recoil.

The training also provided participants with a stun gun. Having options only made things more challenging for our civilian reporter.

During a scenario of a suicidal man with a knife in a supermarket parking lot, our reporter would have been beaten and/or stabbed because he forgot to turn on the stun gun.

“Hey, it happens in real life,” Detz said.

The reporter also made the mistake of approaching the man, he said.

“(Police) are trained to keep distance between themselves and possible dangers,” he said. “There was a car where you could have shielded yourself from the man.”

Of course, all the officers training with our reporter knew that, and moved behind the vehicle for cover.

Patrick Burns is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4455.

Next up: How officers approach a suspicious vehicle on a traffic stop.

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