“Once we pull that trigger, there’s no re-dos, there’s no timeouts,” Travis Baker, a law enforcement instructor at Wake Tech Community College, said while looking at the results of the community college’s newest active-shooter simulator.
Baker, a retired Cary police officer, had just successfully calmed down a simulated hostage situation at a high school library.
The action all took place within a small classroom at Wake Tech’s Public Safety Education Campus — projected on a screen at which Baker shouted instructions and pointed a de-commissioned Glock 17 9mm pistol that was reconfigured to work with the simulator.
It looked like a video game, except the gun had the same recoil as a real Glock 17.
Baker didn’t have to use his simulated pistol during that situation, resolving the scenario with verbal commands. But minutes later, during the next scenario, he used it to shoot a would-be attacker who was holed up in an office. The simulator then told him how many shots he had taken, whether they were on target and if any innocent people in the simulation had been hit.
“We pull that trigger, we own it,” Baker said of the reason Wake Tech had invested in the new simulator system — specifically a Meggitt FATS 100P — which can be transported for sessions at law enforcement agencies across the county and state.
Baker is part of a teaching unit at Wake Tech that walks law enforcement personnel through the most challenging situations possible — ones that require an officer to point his gun at another human being. The simulation is meant to teach officers how to respond in these intense situations, when heart rates can spike from 70 beats per minute to 175.
“Stress does a lot of things to the body,” he said. “You can get tunnel vision, you can get auditory exclusion. By exposing officers to this and teaching them ways to deal with stress ... they can make the right decision, and they’re not making a mistake that will cost them their career or some innocent person their life.”
After a simulation, Baker will talk through what just happened, analyzing the words someone used to de-escalate a situation down to whether their fingers were jerky. They go over techniques to reduce stress, like tactical breathing to reduce their heart rates.
By training officers repeatedly every year and teaching them how to handle stress and to follow state laws, Baker said, the outcomes of these situations can be improved.
During a demonstration, Baker went through four scenarios: a hostage situation at a school, an employee threatening to shoot his boss, a traffic stop in which a child has a gun, and a man at risk of shooting himself.
For each situation, there could be multiple endings. The person doing the simulation would have no idea how it would end or what situation could be thrown their way.
“This is a good tool, because there’s literally hundreds of scenarios in here that we can go through, from active shooters to traffic stops,” Baker said. “We put an emphasis on de-escalation, using our verbal skills, and using the right tool to get the job done. You know, some of these clearly are situations where you may have to use a taser or your pepper spray and up to your side arm.”
So far in 2019, police have fatally shot 22 people in North Carolina, according to a database kept by The Washington Post. In 2018, there were 25 across the state.
“It’s been my experience that (law enforcement agencies) have been putting a lot of emphasis for a number of years on this topic, training on de-escalation in shoot-or-don’t-shoot-type situations,” Baker said. “I don’t think it’s nothing new, I just think you’re hearing a whole lot more about it. And departments really are taking advantage of the resources that we have here at Wake Tech.”
The community college has worked with agencies such as Raleigh Police Department, Cary Police Department, Wake County Sheriff’s Office, the Highway Patrol and agencies across Eastern North Carolina. For some smaller agencies, training with Wake Tech rather than investing in their own simulator system can save tens of thousands of dollars they could use elsewhere.
The technology — which Baker said cost around $65,000 — also lets Wake Tech travel to law enforcement agencies to do the training.
Previously, a department would have to send dozens of officers the Wake Tech campus. But if an emergency were to happen back in Cary or Wake Forest, that could put those towns at a disadvantage if they had several officers 30 minutes to an hour away.
The community college thought it should eliminate that potential flaw in its training.
“That’s the biggest reason we invested in this,” said Jeffrey Robinson, the dean and chief campus officer of the Public Safety Education Campus.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate