This spring, I’ve been a student in the Alexandria Police Department’s Community Police Academy. It’s a ten-session program to learn about the police department and its policies and tactics. It’s a solid education. Even as an attorney, I understand my community’s police far better than before.
One fascinating session focused on effective decision-making surrounding the use of deadly force. Here, students ran through the department’s MILO Range training system, a room-sized computer simulator that allows students to experience various decision-making scenarios. Participants fire a dummy pistol modeled after a Glock 23 with a trigger feel like a real Glock, but otherwise inert. The computer tracks the shots fired and computes where they landed, allowing replays for instructors to examine the participant’s choices and effectiveness.
I ran through the simulator twice. In the first scenario, I responded to a call for service at a motel where a man and women were fighting. Inside their room, the woman was seated on the floor by a bed, crying and possibly injured. The man was standing by the sink, wielding a baseball bat. Our instructor encouraged us to act as if were real police, so I identified myself as an officer and attempted to speak with the man to get him to drop the bat and resolve the matter peacefully.
The man refused, instead lunging toward the woman with the bat. He was able to land a hit on the woman before I got my first shot off. I fired several follow-through shots and did not stop firing until the man broke off his attack. Most of my shots hit the man, but not all landed in the “kill zone,” the part of the human body containing a person’s heart, lungs, and brain.
Compared to my classmates, I had two things going for me. As a Marine veteran, I’m familiar and comfortable with firearms. As an attorney, I’m familiar and comfortable with the law surrounding the use of deadly force. Nevertheless, in this scenario, I hesitated to shoot until I felt certain the man would strike the woman with the bat. I could have (and should have) acted sooner, before the man hit the woman, given the potential for death or serious bodily injury. I would have well within my rights under the law if I did.
In the second scenario, I responded to a call of a man holding a person at gunpoint in a residential backyard. There, I observed a man moving in front of me, about twenty yards away, with a handgun drawn in his hands. So threating was his posture, although I didn’t see what he was pointing his gun at, I thought the use of deadly force justified. I order him to drop his gun, and when he didn’t, I fired. Despite thinking that my shots were on target, I noticed that the simulator did not advance to show a hit, so I kept firing. I noticed then that the man I was shooting at had a metallic badge attached to his belt and was yelling orders as if he were a policeman. I realized that I had been firing upon a plainclothes officer.
I spun around in horror. “Damn it, I shot a cop!” I yelled.
But as I turned back around to face the screen, I realized that the scenario wasn’t over. Now the actual assailant was firing on me. I dropped to a knee to return fire but soon ran out of ammunition. None of my shots landed on target.
Suffice it to say my performance here was disgraceful. In this scenario, I never considered the possibility of an officer in plain clothes. The audio was such that I didn’t fully appreciate that orders I heard for the assailant to drop his weapon were issued by the plainclothes officer. And I completely missed the visual cue of the officer’s badge on his belt until it was too late. Instead, I saw only the drawn gun. Locked in tunnel vision, I missed crucial information that I needed to process to make better choices.
Later, we observed our instructor run through a scenario. He first attempted to defuse the situation peacefully. When that failed and the assailant fired upon him, he quickly found nearby cover. He attempted to seek a surrender during a lull in the fighting. He repeatedly landed difficult shots. In the end, he clearly prevailed.
All this spoke to this officer’s professional competence and the value he places on life—here, the life of an assailant shooting at him. An artificial training scenario, sure. But nevertheless, evidence of intense training and a commitment to functioning effectively in defense of human life when confronted with difficult choices.
For me, this training was eye-opening. If I already respected the Alexandria police, my respect has increased even more. I learned a lot about how I function under the pressure of instant life-or-death decisions—and where I need improvement. I wish a tool like MILO was readily available for private citizens who wish to improve their own ability to make good decisions when defending themselves—or for police critics who mistakenly conclude that life-or-death decisions are easy.
For these decisions are not easy, and we know all too well how a bad life-or-death call can devastate a community. I’m glad Alexandria’s police have this and other tools as part of their own training. No doubt a tool like this helps.