Putting a little SWAT in every cop

Who do police officers call when they need help? The movie "S.W.A.T." answers with the tagline: "Even cops dial 911."

But the law enforcement community says police officers can't wait for Special Weapons and Tactics teams anymore when people are in mortal danger. This serious self-examination emerged after April 20, 1999, when two students went on a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 other students and a teacher before committing suicide.

The initial responding officers at the high school acted exactly as they were trained: They established and maintained a perimeter, contained the situation and called for SWAT. That's because the officers didn't have the know-how to deal with "active shooters," whose intent is to cause as much harm as possible.

"Most of the time the public thinks these people who wear uniforms and drive around [in] patrol cars are equipped to deal with any emergency," said Quint Thurman, chairman and professor of Southwest Texas State University's criminal justice department. "Well, they're not. They receive virtually no tactical training unless they're in a specialized unit like SWAT, and then it's all they do."

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Thurman added, reinforced the need for better first-responder training to deal with new terrorist threats, such as suicide bombers.

Following several school shooting tragedies, the law enforcement community realized all police officers needed some tactical training to deal with active shooters, said Sgt. Terry Nichols of the San Marcos, Texas, police department. New training programs have emerged, he said, but they haven't been widespread, affordable or accessible.

So last year, an alliance — composed of the police department, the university, the Hays County Sheriff's Office and the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association, among others — created the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center to provide a national, cost-effective, intensive training program for all law enforcement agencies.

The program includes classroom instruction, mock exercises using paintball-style weapons and interactive simulation technology that re-creates a variety of dangerous real-life scenarios.

Video-based training allows officers to practice in a hands-on environment in situations they may not have encountered and it ultimately provides a measurement tool to test their judgment in such situations, center officials said.

So far, ALERRT has trained about 750 individuals — including patrol, school resource and Drug Abuse Resistance Education officers in Texas — over the past year, said Nichols, an ALERRT trainer and 15-year department veteran. The center has also trained units of the U.S. Border Patrol, the Coast Guard in Corpus Christi and the U.S. Army in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, he said.

The center has three operational, state-of-the-art firing ranges on its nearly 200-acre site — donated by alliance partner Gary Job Corps Center and adjacent to the San Marcos Municipal Airport — but it does not have a central facility for classes, training and exercises. Instead, trainers have been traveling to schools and other public facilities throughout Texas.

The center has received a $485,000 Justice Department grant and some state grants to cover the training, but is seeking $6 million to build a state-of-the-art training facility. Although federal grants exist to pay for equipment, training and vehicles, ALERRT officials haven't found any that cover building construction.

A longer-term goal, Thurman said, is to create a "train the trainer" program. This two-week intensive program would allow the center to train officers from around the country so they, in turn, can train their colleagues. That could spread better skills in smaller police forces that don't have the financial resources or manpower to spare for tactical training.

Larger police forces, such as those in Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas, provide in-house training, but they don't likely extend that to suburban neighbors, Thurman said.

Sometimes regional cross-agency tactical units are established, but even then they might take 30 minutes to an hour to spring into action. And while the National Tactical Officers Association recognizes the need for tactical training, that organization is primarily geared toward SWAT units, he added.

Currently, ALERRT offers a two-day class for about two-dozen sworn officers at a time. The first day, instructors provide lectures about incidents and the fundamentals of working as a tactical team. The following day, the class is divided into three groups: one works on tactics in low-light environments, another learns to identify and deal with improvised explosives and the third works with the firearms simulator.

'Use of force' training simulator

Firearms simulators have been around for some time, but the technology has advanced to a point where trainers operating the simulators have some flexibility to change the direction of a video-based scenario and even its outcome.

Nichols describes the "use of force" simulator as an interactive "mini-movie" designed to test officers' decision- making skills in a dangerous real-world situation.

"So we're checking their judgment to make sure they're in the right mind-set," he said. "But at the same time they're seeing tactics and techniques that they've been practicing for the past day — they're seeing them on the screen."

ALERRT is using Littleton, Colo.-based IES Interactive Training's Range 3000 XP4, which is also used by the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the U.S. Federal Protective Service, which provides security and enforcement for the General Services Administration.

IES President Greg Otte said older simulators offered only the option to shoot or not shoot, and were limited in weaponry. IES simulators are the first generation of digital ones, using Microsoft Corp.'s Windows to introduce branching scenarios where trainers can introduce different stimuli depending on an officer's actions. Officers can even shout commands during the scenario.

Older models also had a tethered weapon, but newer ones have unattached ones that feel and act like the actual firearms but shoot a laser beam at a screen. Otte said his company has also developed other police instruments — flashlights, chemical sprays and tasers (high-voltage stun guns) — that also emit laser beams to mimic the tools' functions.

IES is "making it a true judgment trainer, no longer a shoot-don't-shoot" simulator, he said.

Camera's eye

For ALERRT, Nichols said they film, edit and produce their own videos of different scenarios. He said that two officers typically interact with the simulator at the same time. The simulator initially alerts officers of the situation they're entering, such as a shots-fired call at a school. The camera represents what the officers are seeing so that no matter what transpires in front of them, they are prepared to take some action.

For instance, if an officer responds by shooting and hitting a gunman, the gunman falls down. Similarly, if an officer misses, the gunman will continue to do whatever he's doing. When the scenario ends, the operator debriefs the students on what they did and plays back the scenario with their choices.

Most do well, Nichols said, but many initially don't communicate with the scenario's characters the same way they would in a real-life situation.

And because simulators can depict dimly lit scenarios, Nichols said it has become valuable for officers to train in such environments and get used to them in case they encounter a similar setting. User feedback on the simulators has been very positive, he added.

Apart from IES, there are two other major manufacturers of training simulators. Otte said about 60 percent of law enforcement agencies across the country are using various training simulators, but that doesn't mean officers spend a lot of time on them. Washington, D.C.'s metropolitan police force has three IES simulators and 1,400 officers, yet they spend about 20 minutes each annually training on the technology, Nichols said.

The cost of simulators is about $35,000 to $40,000, more than half what it used to be a decade ago, Otte said.

Nichols said the center is working to produce various scenarios that might eventually be used throughout the country and internationally. Although they may have to be customized to reflect a particular jurisdiction's procedures, he said, the training is the same.

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