February 24th, 2010 5:33 pm | by Leah Dimatteo News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, Cops and Courts

What I Learned in Police Firearms Training Class

April Baer shoots Tracy Chamberlin
I "shot" a police officer last Friday. And though the gun was fake, the fear was certainly real.

On the morning of Feb. 19, a handful of journalists from local media (including OPB's April Baer in the photo above with the Portland Police Bureau's Tracy Chamberlin) showed up at Camp Withycombe in Clackamas for a four-hour firearms training session presented by the Police Bureau.

Portland police spokeswoman, Detective Mary Wheat began the session by answering the obvious question on everyone's mind. “We're not here to answer questions about the shooting [of Aaron Campbell],” Wheat said. (See today's cover story for more on that shooting.)

Instead, the mock firearms training session was meant to show that officers have been well-trained.

Tracy Chamberlin police training
(Tracy Chamberlin teaches class about physiological effect of stress on the body)

The morning began with classroom presentations on everything from the bureau's “use of force” policy to the physiological effects of stress on the body and the body's natural action/reaction defense mechanism. It ended with simulations that put those teachings to the test. Replacing pens and microphones with Glock-17s loaded with blanks, lead defensive tactics trainer Sgt. Don Livingston tested journalists' reaction time by instructing us to point the gun at the armed subject (played by Chamberlin) and to shoot the moment the subject moves his weapon. Even though the morning discussion sought to prepare us with what to expect when the body is pumped with adrenaline, nothing could have prepared me for how I felt when it became my turn.

My vision narrowed, hands shook, and I could hear nothing except my own racing heart. Time seemed distorted. I winced and closed my eyes as I pulled the trigger, feeling the weighty gun kick back in my hands. The loud, assaulting blasts from the gunfire conflicted with the delicate chimes of hollow metal shells bouncing off the cement floor.

Even in this contrived simulation, I couldn't concentrate, focus, or even react reasonably. But that, says deputy city attorney David L. Woboril, is exactly what Portland police are expected to do in such high-pressure situations. According to the bureau's “use of force” standards and policy, an officer may use force only when warranted by the "totality of circumstances." In other words, deadly force is permissible only if the officer can articulate it was the best and only possible solution to remedy a dangerous or threatening situation.

As Woboril sees it, the policy is about reasonableness. “It is well thought-out, it is progressive, and it is a move towards results while taking into consideration the human experience.”

To determine whether an officer can correctly identify and respond to a “use of force” situation, trainees are frequently evaluated on their reaction to random scenarios generated by a video-game-like simulator. Called a Professional Range Instructional Simulator, the apparatus is in a dimly lit trailer where video is projected onto a screen. Each time a trainee shoots, the simulator tracks when he fires and exactly where those shots end up. After each simulation, trainees are questioned about the details of the situation, and asked whether their use of force was justified given the totality of the situation.

In the discussion that followed this portion of the training, it became clear that even when faced with the exact same scenario, each individual's perception is slightly different—especially in high-stress situations.

When faced with the decision-making tasks that police make every day, I made loads of amateur mistakes and had difficulty mustering up the courage to properly defend myself.
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