Vol. 76, No. 1Cover stories

To shoot or not to shoot?

Simulator training gets members thinking on their feet

Cpl. Dave Falls uses the simulator at National Headquarters to practise his perishable skills. Credit: Mallory Procunier

Last fall, the Gazette's editorial team was invited to try a use-of-force simulator at the RCMP's headquarters in Ottawa. Our group of non-police officers learned some of the challenges faced by police when arriving at an active scene and the many decision-making skills that come into play. Mallory Procunier writes about her experience, and looks at how seasoned police officers can benefit from using this tool.

My hands begin to sweat as soon as my fingers close around the grip of the pistol. It's a lot heavier than I imagined.

Suddenly, I'm standing in a school hallway and I hear screaming. One gunshot rings out through the halls, followed swiftly by another. I begin walking, and pass a young man face-down in a pool of blood. I don't see a gun, so I yell out to my imaginary fellow officers that the casualty isn't armed. We're moving too fast, I think to myself. I don't know what to do next.

The words "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" echo from the room at the end of the hall. I come face-to-face with a teenage girl who has her arm around a student she's taken hostage. She points her gun right at my face.

"Drop your weapon!" I say, probably too quietly. And then, as if I had said nothing at all, she shoots her hostage, and then me. The screen goes blank.

Sgt. Mirza Karimullah tells me to lower my firearm. He's been sitting behind a computer, controlling everything that just happened in this simulation. I turn around to face him at the back of the classroom in the basement of the RCMP's National Headquarters (NHQ) in Ottawa.

A senior policy analyst with NHQ's use-of-force section, Karimullah calmly explains there was a delay in my decision-making, but in my head, everything seemed to be moving at lightning speed.

This time, when the simulation begins, Cpl. Dave Falls, a former member of the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program, stands at the front of the room between two wood pillars that are designed to simulate a shooting range.

He flows through the same scenario, shouting code words to his imaginary colleagues as though he's done this a hundred times before. As soon as he reaches the active threat, he fires – a perfectly placed shot to neutralize the threat and rescue the hostages.

This simulator is meant to teach members about the proper use of force by putting them in a situation where they have to make critical decisions very quickly. It also helps maintain perishable skills, such as muscle memory, target acquisition and the articulation of a member's actions and decisions.

"Much like the RCMP's mandatory scenario-based training, this is far more dynamic than simply firing rounds at a piece of paper that doesn't move," Falls says. "The annual firearms qualification doesn't involve making decisions that relate to use-of-force interventions or their articulation, and anything I can do to stay switched on and remain in the game is important to me."

Karimullah walks me through a few more scenarios – an active shooter in the tunnels underneath Parliament Hill, an office building filled with gun-toting hostiles around every corner, and a jealous wife confronting her cheating husband in the Senate cafeteria.

Sometimes I have to use my firearm, and sometimes I can de-escalate the scenario by talking to the suspect and convincing him or her to put down the weapon.

Karimullah smiles because he can see how, in just three hours, my thought process has changed – I now understand how hard it is for members to make these decisions under pressure.

"We don't have any special training to know when a person will shoot a gun," he says. "You have to read the totality of the situation."

And for Falls, who's very proficient with a firearm, simulator training is just another part of the job.

"The simulator is a tremendous tool to demonstrate the challenges of making those split-second life-or-death decisions – especially for those who have not been exposed to that type of operational environment."

Date modified: