The most crucial video game in town

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June 18, 2002 // UPDATED 1:25 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Kevin Featherly
Kevin Featherly

Following police shootings, the city buys a training simulator so realistic that guns recoil, earsplitting blasts erupt and real-life killings can be replayed

The dispatcher radios that there\'s a silent alarm at a nearby office building, so you check it out. You go inside, turn a corner and spot a man walking briskly away down a hallway. You call out, "Halt! Police!"

The guy turns, nervously smiling. He says he\'s the janitor and looks the part, politely saying that he must\'ve tripped the alarm himself. He apologizes. "OK," you smile back, waving him off, "No problem. Just be more careful next time."

You turn to leave. Your life is erased before the gun exploding behind your head even registers in your ears.

Fortunately, you can learn from your mistake.

Minneapolis police officers will have the opportunity to learn from such errors - without tragic consequences - when the department receives the Range 2000 "judgmental use-of-force simulator" from Littleton, Colo.-based IES Interactive Training. The City Council voted 12-0 to buy the $115,000 simulator on June 7.

The programmable virtual-reality system will allow trainees -- and perhaps some citizens -- to stand in the shoes of officers facing life-and-death decisions in armed confrontations with criminals, jealous husbands, suicidal teens and a virtually limitless variety of perilous scenarios.

A necessary upgrade

The system will replace an older one so outdated, says Minneapolis Police Range Master DuWayne Walker, that the manufacturer doesn\'t even make parts for it anymore.

The current machine relies on a series of pre-recorded scenarios filmed in generic settings. The weapon the trainee holds isn\'t very realistic, and only sounds an innocuous click when discharged. Walker admits that the machine isn\'t much more than the video game you\'ll find in the bigger arcades.

"The Stone Age comes to mind," he said.

The new system features a life-sized 7.5-foot-by-10-foot high-resolution display panel. Weapons, when discharged, recoil with 60 percent of a handgun\'s real force. "Spent" cartridges eject, weapons can jam, and earsplitting blasts emit from surround-sound speakers when weapons are fired.

Most importantly, the system is digital, so an infinite variety of "shoot/don\'t shoot" scenarios can be programmed into it. Actual shooting incidents can be recreated using digital video cameras, with actors standing in for weapon-wielding suspects. Alternate scenarios can also be taped. The video can be loaded onto the system\'s hard drive.

Todd Brown, an IES Interactive training manager, said that a supervisor sitting at a computer during training can manipulate scenarios as they play out, drastically altering situations that trainees face. The system also employs voice-recognition software that can trigger altered scenarios even without a supervisor\'s intervention, reacting to words the trainee either says or fails to say, Brown said.

The Range 2000 system is designed to let trainees learn decision-making skills in critical situations that could, in real life, get someone killed. It works because of its stark realism, Brown said.

"When officers step in front of the screen and go through a scenario, it's not at all uncommon for heart rates to increase dramatically, palms to get sweaty, perspiration - basically similar physiological effects to actual encounters," Brown said. "And that's to our advantage. That's what we want."

On the road?

The new Minneapolis system will be housed at 4th Precinct headquarters, 1925 Plymouth Ave. N., where most training will take place. However, the machine is portable, and Deputy Police Chief Greg Hestness said it is possible to take the machinery out to the community, giving citizens a chance to stand in the shoes of officers facing life and death decisions. He said it might JUMP LINE HERE be especially effective if real-life situations are re-enacted using the technology.

"If you could script something like that in these high-profile situations in a way that everyone agrees was an accurate re-creation, I think people might gain an understanding through that," Hestness said.

The purchase comes just weeks after a highly publicized Minneapolis police shooting of a machete-wielding Somali-American man, Abu Jeilani, in March on the southeast side.

Saeed Fahia, executive director of the Confederation of the Somali Community of Minnesota, approves of the simulator. He said he would offer assistance to create a scenario involving an armed, irrational Somali man speaking with a heavy accent, replicating when the mentally ill Jeilani was fatally shot 12 times by police.

The city and the police have been meeting with community leaders to discuss alternatives to violence, but Fahia said he would also be happy to see police take use-of-lethal-force training using the latest technologies.

"Any training that would help the police not kill the mentally ill like Jeilani or Barbara Schneider [an Uptown woman shot in 2000], it would be really very helpful, that's my feeling," Fahia said. "It might be worth its costs."

Might increase shootings

However, IES's Brown cautions people said the technology is no magic bullet. Some cities that have purchased the simulator have seen fewer police shootings, but that can\'t be statistically tied to its use.

"Some would argue that the opposite is true -- that there might be an increase in the number of shootings because officers now have a better understanding of when lethal force is necessary," Brown said.

That\'s one reason the city can\'t afford to rely on mere technology, according to councilmember Dean Zimmerman (6th Ward).

Zimmerman, an outspoken critic of police violence, said training officers to use force wisely means training them to treat people better, especially people who possess different skin tone or come from different cultures than they do.

"The technology is totally beside the point," said Zimmerman, who was absent from the vote to buy the simulator. "We're dealing here with the problem of human relationships, and that's the part that we've got to get straightened out."