In 40 seconds from when police officer Matt Bouleris saw the man with bolt cutters by the bike rack, the man became belligerent, leaned toward the ground and whipped out a gun.
“Hey! Hey! Hey! What are you doing with that hand?” Bouleris asked. “Stop moving. Don’t do it.”
The man fell down.
The lights came on.
And the audience of police and city officials, reporters and others in a conference room at the Durham Police Department headquarters started to breathe again, some noticing their hearts knocking against their chests.
Bouleris was demonstrating the department’s new use-of-force training simulator Friday. The $60,000 low-light system uses video, laser and programming to train officers on de-escalation and decision making during and after a confrontation.
“The idea is every time you go through something like this you are going to get better at it each time because your body is going to be more and more accustomed to the stress,” training officer Nicholas Lynde said. “And your decisions are going to be better each time.”
The simulator, which the department started to acquire early last year, is being incorporated into officers’ annual training.
It comes as the Police Department awaits the results of a State Bureau of Investigation into the Nov. 22 fatal police shooting of Frank Nathaniel Clark at the McDougald Terrace public housing complex. Clark, 34, is the fourth person to be killed by Durham police since 2013. In the first three shootings the district attorney found no evidence of wrongdoing after reviewing the SBI reports.
The simulator, which is portable, has a large screen that took up most of a conference room wall. It replaces a system that Lynde likened to an Atari, the video game system popular in the 1970s and ’80s, with tethered controls and technology that prevented officers from moving around.
The new system includes laser tools that look like a gun, pepper spray and a Taser that can be used in the about 750 different training scenarios with more than 3,000 potential outcomes. The scenarios range from a shooter on a bus and a traffic stop, to a man with a gun to the head and an active shooter at a pre-school.
Such scenes – real or simulated – cause physiological reactions, Lynde said.
Officers’ heart rate and breathing increase. They have tunnel vision, focusing on the hand that could be moving toward a weapon. And their minds are trying to process the information under stress as they make split-second, life-or-death decisions.
“Part of this is exposing them to that, so that it doesn’t affect them as adversely,” Lynde said.
The simulator has other benefits, such as providing insight to the challenges that officers and department leaders face before, during and after a shooting.
One of the scenarios that played out as a Police Department visitor tried out the simulator Friday involved an officer walking into a building and finding a man whose right hand was hidden behind some items on a desk. The person said they worked in the building, and then appeared to aggressively push his right hand forward like he was going to shoot a gun.
The visitor shot twice.
When the man fell, his hand was holding a staple gun.
The shooting was justified, Lynde said. The suspect didn’t comply and moved his hand rapidly.
“How many of you want to be chief of police and stand up at that press conference?” Durham Police Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh asked.