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January 20, 2005
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High-Tech Simulator Keeps Training Real

Area cops test their responses to situations

COLLINSVILLE - Deputy Lora Acra approached the fellow officer''s car and saw him slumped across the seat.

In the woods along the road, she spotted a man carrying an AK-47, walking toward her.

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"Drop the gun! Drop the gun!" Acra yelled as she aimed a handgun at the man.

The man said he hadn''t done anything wrong, and continued walking toward Acra.

Acra kept yelling, "Drop the gun!"

"I was in the woods," the man said. "I heard the noise."

Then he put the gun on the ground and put his hands on his head.

"I was getting ready to shoot," Acra said after catching her breath.

Acra''s encounter on Monday wasn''t real, but it''s about as close to real as it gets.

Inside a trailer parked near the Collinsville Police Department, 100 police officers from across the region are experiencing simulated encounters with bad guys and others. The simulations are made with a computer-controlled video system that -- get this -- can even fire nylon balls back at the officers.

The system is so high-tech that the ending to each encounter changes based on how the officer responds.

"I know it sounds like you''re up here playing a video game, but it really doesn''t seem like it," said Acra, a Madison County sheriff''s deputy. "You get into this, definitely."

The scene is played out on an 8-foot by 10-foot video screen. Officers use a real gun that has been modified. The system tracks the officers'' shots and, if they''re lethal, will put down the attacker.

The system''s operator, Matthew Bobo, sits in a rear area of the trailer in front of computers, video monitors and a joystick. The joystick allows him to fire .68-caliber nylon balls at the officers, who have to use walls in the trailer as cover to avoid getting hit.

"It stings," Bobo said. "It doesn''t hurt the officer, but it gives you that pain association: ''I need to get back (behind cover).''"

Bobo, vice president of operations for Aegis Interactive Systems, based in Tennessee, said the company''s mobile Prisim-brand simulator is one of 15 in the world and the only one that is privately owned. He said the set-up was "very expensive," but he declined to be specific.

Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, which provides training for police officers in the region, is paying Aegis about $7,000 for one week of the trailer''s use.

In one of Acra''s scenes, she killed a man who drew a gun on her.

"Good two shots right there," said J.D. Roth, a trainer for the law enforcement comment and Caseyville''s police chief. "Good placement."

The system can replay the encounter and freeze frames to show where the officer''s shots went. The officer''s actions, such as how he or she takes cover, can also be replayed on video.

Acra''s final encounter was the one with the man in the woods. Before it began, Roth and Bobo suggested she be more vocal.

"You feel dumb yelling at a screen," she said.

"Would you feel dumb getting shot?" Bobo answered.

Roth commended Acra on her handling of the man in the woods.

"Nothing like an AK-47 to make your pipe light up," Roth said.

After Acra, O''Fallon Patrolman John Dilday went through the simulations, including the man in the woods.

"That was tense," Dilday said.

Roth asked why he didn''t shoot.

"I didn''t think it was necessary," Dilday said. "That''s a rural area. He could be a hunter."

He added, "As long as he can comply with what I tell him, we''ll let him have his day in court."

The training commission has its own simulator which uses a video screen, but it''s not as sophisticated and can''t fire back at the officer. Roger Richards, director of the Southwestern Illinois Law Enforcement Commission, said the capability of firing at the officer raises the stress level.

"When stress goes up, sometimes reasoning power goes down," Richards said. "It''s all about judgment and putting officers in scenarios. Unfortunately, before we had these systems, officers had to learn under fire, so to speak."

Richards said the law enforcement commission might rent the simulator again, based on evaluations by the officers and available funding. The commission is funded by the state and local governments in the area it serves: St. Clair, Madison, Clinton, Bond, Washington, Monroe and Randolph counties.




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