The Town of Amherst on Friday unveiled a $30,000 firearms training simulator, known as FATS, designed to help police learn when -- and when not -- to use deadly force.
The computerized system uses a video screen and computer to run through filmed "scenarios" in which an officer has to determine if he or she can and should shoot, or shout at the suspect, or use pepper spray.
After acting as "back-up" to Officer Ed Bailey -- when she fired her simulated Glock pistol and missed an armed assailant -- State Sen. Mary Lou Rath said:
"I have not fired a gun in a long time, but to think I was that far off the mark. . . . This system is going to be a great help to our officers, because you can go back to see your reaction, you can see how well you shot and, of course, see if you did not have to shoot at all."
Rath, R-Amherst, arranged a state grant for the system after speaking with Police Chief John Moslow early this year and asking what was on his wish list.
"We could never justify a system like this ourselves," Moslow said, "but we have borrowed the FAT simulator from Niagara County and know how effective it was as a training tool."
Buffalo has one that all Central Police Academy trainees use, and Cheektowaga has leased a unit for the last two years to run its 136 officers through a training course.
Then Town of Tonawanda considered a system in 1991, but instead bought a $12,000 system that uses a large paper screen, instead of a regular projection screen, and requires officers to use live ammunition in their service pistols.
"That way you get the feel of a real gun, the recoil, and you can still stop the scenario to see where your shots went," said Police Chief Samuel Palmiere. "The laser guns used on the FAT system don't do that."
"Right now, we have more than 100 scenarios and we plan to videotape more using local bars and other businesses so the officers can get the feel of working in familiar neighborhoods," said training officer Lt. David Baumgartner.
The Amherst system uses high quality video discs that also can be adjusted so that a traffic stop scenario can be done on Main Street, Moslow said. All nine scenarios on the original DVD can be adjusted so that the "suspect" is armed or unarmed, drops the weapon or fires.
Town Supervisor Susan Grelick said that besides being environmentally safe, the FAT system "will save on ammunition costs and wear and tear on firearms."
Pistol ammunition costs $139 per 1,000 rounds, and Cheektowaga officers need to fire 150 rounds at least three times a year -- plus have additional shotgun, rifle and baton training. Amherst's 151 officers are required to shoot a minimum of 50 rounds every four months, and Tonawanda's 105 officers have monthly weapons training using batons, disabling sprays and the simulator.
"Eighty-seven of our officers rank as 'Expert,' scoring 90 percent or better, and only four are ranked as 'marksman,' shooting a score of 70 percent," said Tonawanda's Baumgartner.
"And the simulator has helped train officers NOT to shoot," said training chief Capt. Larry Hoffman. "Maybe that is why, in the years since we've had the simulator, only one police shooting incident occurred . . ."
All departments also use "normal" firing ranges with turning targets that allow the range officer to make it as dim or bright as wanted, move the targets closer or farther away, and turn them so the character either holds a weapon -- or a beer can.
The FATS system can much better simulate what happens after the officer makes a a choice. For example:
Shooting an angry, knife-wielding woman with "pepper spray" on the life-size video screen causes her to collapse to the ground, screaming .
The first time around, Bailey chose to shout at her to drop the knife and kept shouting until she did. The second time he sprayed her as instructed, to demonstrate how that worked on the simulator.
"I would not spray unless I had back-up or she attacked me," he told the audience. "I thought I was answering this call alone, and thought I'd try talking first."
"We want our officers to be the safest in the state" when it comes to using deadly force,Rath said.
All of the larger departments also use simulated rounds "fired from special Smurf-blue Glocks that use a low-velocity plastic round filed with salt," said Cheektowaga training officer Lee Ruth.
"We go to local buildings to do practice drills on sweeping and clearing a structure and the men get to shoot, and be shot at. They wear body armor and a face shield, and if they are hit with a salt round, the salt washes out of their clothes."
Amherst and Tonawanda also use the simulated rounds, sometimes using condemned buildings for training.
The rounds won't penetrate walls, and while they can really sting, don't harm the players in these deadly training games.
"But while a simulator can get your adrenaline going, there's nothing like being in a dark warehouse and having someone shoot at you to improve your reaction skills," Moslow said.