Public safety vs. use of `deadly force'. Realistic simulations help train Florida cops how to respond in crisis situations

The call suddenly comes through for officer Tina Hicks, on patrol in Unit 474, to check out a reported shooting in a South Miami residential district. Pulling up at the Oak Avenue address, she sees a black Lincoln parked out front that fits the description of a car driven by two wanted felons. One man is behind the wheel. Suddenly, a second man approaches the car from the house, toting a briefcase.

The officer crouches behind the police cruiser door, pulls out a gun, and yells at the second man to ``show some ID.'' He says it's in the briefcase. She tells him not to open it. He does anyway and pulls out a gun. ``Blam!'' she shoots him, just as he fires at her.

A scene from ``Miami Vice,'' this isn't. But neither is it authentic: It is a simulation taking place in a police training center here, where officers confront lifelike street crimes created by an elaborate system of computer, visual, and audio gear.

Police departments across the country are increasingly looking at such technologies as a way to cut down on the misuse of deadly force.

Proponents see these simulators as a valuable new tool in sharpening officers' reactions in crisis situations. Some critics dismiss them as expensive ``Pac-Mans'' for police.

Certainly police departments have a good, practical reason for exploring new methods of training. In recent years, a growing number of lawsuits have been brought against police for firing without justification in incidents where injuries and deaths have occurred. The growth stems largely from a 1978 US Supreme Court decision that made it easier for people to recover damages against cities and law enforcement agencies, not just the officers involved, if inadequate training could be proved.

The awards can be high. Miami recently settled out of court for $1.1 million a claim brought against the city by the family of Nevell Johnson, a black man shot and killed by a policeman in 1982. It was the community unrest that broke out after this shooting, as well as a recommendation by the US Justice Department, that helped influence the city in buying the simulator.

The predominant methods now used in police training are the shooting range and role playing with other officers. Many of the nation's 21,000 departments also use 8-mm films and slide shows that challenge cops with relatively simple ``shoot, don't-shoot'' situations.

The new generation of simulators is far more sophisticated. Only a handful of simulators have been installed around the country so far -- in Los Angeles; Seattle; and Flint, Mich., for instance. But some believe that almost all departments will eventually use some kind of audiovisual simulator.

``There is no question that within five years there won't be any policeman that won't be trained on them,'' says Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the American Federation of Police.

Miami has gone to great lengths -- and expense -- to set up its system. It has turned an old brick-and-stucco fire station on the northwest side into a training facility. The simulations are created using a 16-mm film, a bank of 30 slide projectors, a theater-size screen, and a computer that sits in a control room that looks like something at NASA mission control.

To work it, a policeman first sits in a patrol car in a blackened room and waits for a call from the ``dispatcher.'' The computer then activates a tape and the film begins to roll, giving the officer the sensation of cruising down a Miami street (all scenes are local). Street noises reverberate through speakers in the car.

Once the car reaches the scene, the action switches from film to rapid-speed slides, so scenarios can be varied. The officer is wired to a heart monitor, and the computer changes scenes based on the trainee's ``anxiety'' level: The faster the heartbeat, the more difficult the decisions become. In officer Hicks's case, for instance, both suspects might have brandished guns. The idea is to teach a cop to react calmly in tough situations.

Once the trainee shoots (the gun is loaded with blanks), the screen freezes. The results are then reviewed, including whether or not an officer followed correct procedure -- calling for backup, for instance. Miami police want to put all 1,050 officers on the force through the simulator, just now becoming operational, four times a year as a training supplement.

``We want to reinforce getting the thinking officer to the scene,'' says Col. Ken Harrison, commander of the Miami Police Department's operations and support division.

Not all law enforcement authorities are enamored with the devices, though. One snag is the cost. Miami put out close to $1 million for its system (including renovation of the training center), and it has been controversial since its inception more than three years ago. Cheaper, more-portable versions now exist, including ones with laser-fitted guns that test shooting accuracy. But even these may be too pricey ($24,000) for most departments.

Some critics argue, too, that money could be better spent on alternatives that might prevent confrontations to begin with, such as improving police-community relations. Others believe more emphasis should be put on other types of training, particularly role playing.

``It's a video game, really,'' says Jim Fyfe, senior fellow at the Police Foundation, a Washington-based research group, of the simulators. ``It's not the same as battling wits with a human.'' An occasional feature

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