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Shawn Vestal: Police training requires more alternatives than shooting or not shooting

Spokane Police Department recruit Trisha Lemming practices aiming and reloading a clip with her service weapon, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Spokane Police Academy gym.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Department recruit Trisha Lemming practices aiming and reloading a clip with her service weapon, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 at the Spokane Police Academy gym. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

I had a pretend gun and a hypothetical badge.

I had been called to deal with a tense and potentially deadly situation at a bank: A man sitting in a pickup had a gun and was threatening to rush in and do harm to others. I was standing behind the pickup and couldn’t see in because the back window was tinted.

What should I do? This was my question on that day, six years ago, when I went through some virtual-training scenarios that Spokane police officers undergo at the Police Training Center.

On my first attempt, I tried to talk the suspect into surrendering and he ran into the bank and killed a bunch of innocent people.

Big mistake.

On my second attempt, I fired at the suspect as he seemed to be stepping out of the pickup – only to discover that I had misread his actions, shot too quickly and killed a man who was suicidal and not threatening others.

Big mistake.

On my third attempt, I held off as the man stepped from the truck – and shot me faster than I could respond.

Big mistake.

Every decision led to death. Every choice a big mistake. I was left with a lot of reactions that I might have boiled down to this: In a nightmare scenario of bad choices, maybe the best choice would be to shoot first.

It’s not the goal of the training. But what if it’s a consequence?

These life-size, virtual-reality scenarios, known as VirTra, are part of a training regimen for police officers in how to deal with life-or-death situations. I had been invited to go through a couple of them, I guess, because I had written columns about police conduct and use-of-force and the SPD administration, under former Chief Frank Straub, thought it might help me be more understanding and less critical of officers.

It has been common, over the years, for the department to either show the training scenarios to the public or put them through some of the scenarios as a way of illustrating the challenges officers face. They surely do that – showing vividly the consequences of practically impossible decisions made in an instant. They are incredibly difficult to get right.

But now – as the City Council and the department wrangle over whether the community can have any input into the training methods at SPD – questions are being raised about whether that training might not be orienting officers toward shooting, by offering situations in which the only paths are to shoot or not shoot.

The department is seeking to update its training package with more de-escalation options in the scenarios, seeking to broaden the range of options officers see in those hypotheticals and encourage a wider range of choices. These updates would dramatically expand the choices presented to officers, from just three, often, to between 10 and 20. This training is also just one relatively small part of the overall training officers undergo.

The City Council has raised the possibility of allowing community input on which Virtra scenarios the department uses – which the SPD has balked at. I think both steps – updating and improving the scenarios, and allowing some form of community feedback into them – would be good steps and welcome additions to the range of possible reforms under consideration now.

I say this as a layman without the range of other training that officers receive, and one who went through just a couple of the VirTra simulations on one afternoon.

But I have never forgotten that afternoon, and I have long wondered whether – if I had to apply what I experienced to real life, as I thankfully do not – it wouldn’t make me more likely to shoot, quicker to shoot, and more likely to view the world as more full of deadly threats than it really is.

The VirTra sessions occur, at full life size, on floor-to-ceiling video screens; the officer in the scenario is given a “gun” that can trigger changes on the screen, and an electronic unit clipped to your belt gives you a jolt when you’re shot. The scenarios are set to respond to your actions, and branch off in different directions based on what you do.

Going through the scenarios rattled the hell out of me. It left me thinking that there were no good choices. It left me appreciative of those who enter those deadly situations on the community’s behalf, even as I want them and the system they work in to be better.

And it had me all but convinced that under the terms of the scenarios I was presented, the safest path, for myself and for others, was – probably, most of the time, given the range of uncertainties and bad outcomes – to shoot first, because the odds were quite high that the someone was going to shoot me or others if I didn’t.

In one scenario, for heaven’s sake, I entered a domestic quarrel in a home to find a man in a wheelchair with a blanket in his lap.

Guess what was under that blanket?

I died in that one, unsurprisingly. Driving home, I wondered: Does this training leave officers viewing every lap blanket on every elderly man in every wheelchair as a likely hiding place for a gun?

And how does that affect the way they do their jobs?

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