Shoot or don’t shoot? Training simulator puts police in real-life scenarios

Last week, I put myself in the most stressful situation I could imagine: Pointing a handgun at a suspect who was holding several students hostage at a school. It was clear from verbal cues that the male suspect was intending to shoot his victims. As he paced nervously, I trained the gun on him, remembering my earlier instruction: Watch for the split-second opportunity to get a clear shot — with the goal of keeping the hostages safe.

Fortunately for me — and the hostages — this was a training exercise using the PRISim training simulator at Edmonds Police Department headquarters, and it provided an eye-opening glimpse into the real-world scenarios that police officers face on a regular basis.

According to Edmonds Police Sgt. Shane Hawley, the department uses the PRISim simulator — basically a big video game — to run officers through a variety of encounters they might face on the job, ranging from school shootings, to bank hostage situations, to car prowls to irate employees in the workplace. Armed with a Smith and Wesson handgun modified to shoot a laser rather than bullets, officers are confronted with several rapidly-unfolding scenarios and are rated on everything from their weapon handling and deployment skills to use of voice commands, proper use of cover, and judgment on whether to shoot.

While the exercises don’t replace on-the-job training, they are a critical tool in ensuring that officers are ready to make the best decision they can under the most difficult circumstances, Hawley said.

It would be an understatement to say that my experience with the PRISim simulator was uncomfortable. Until participating in last week’s training exercise, I had never held any type of firearm, let alone fired one. (And I recognize that my experience doesn’t really count as firing an actual weapon, since it was a laser rather than bullets and there was no recoil from the gun, which I’m told provides yet another set of challenges.) So before I could even run through the simulator, I received a crash course in target practice.

I also realized that I had many preconceived notions about how police make decisions about firing a weapon. For example, I’ve often wondered why police don’t simply target a less-lethal part of the body to disable suspects rather than kill them.

Both Sgt. Hawley and Sgt. Bob Barker, who runs officers through training on the PRISim simulator, explained that the goal of police is to stop the suspect from doing harm, and that means firing a shot into the midsection of the body where internal organs are located, a carotid artery, or the head. Many times — due to an adrenaline rush or perhaps mind-altering drugs — suspects will not be immediately disabled by bullets that hit them outside of those areas, the officers explained, putting both the responding officer and the public at risk. In addition, suggestions such as trying to shoot a gun out of the suspect’s hand instead of firing at the suspect are equally impractical given the split-second decisions that must be made in the heat of the moment.

Prior to each scenario I experienced, Sgt. Barker was kind enough to give me a heads up on visual and verbal cues I should watch for. But I have to say that I missed many of them. There was so much to think about and to watch for. Where are the suspect’s hands? Does he have a weapon? Are there bystanders who could get hit if miss the target? “We are responsible for every shot we take,” Hawley said, explaining what police think about every time they are faced with such a scenario. “Bad guys don’t care — they just keep shooting.”

After each exercise, Barker peppered me with questions. What did the suspect look like? What was he wearing? What did he say? Did I notice what the witnesses said? It was an overwhelming amount of information to process, all while holding a weapon in my hand.

In the case of the school hostage scenario, I was able to shoot the suspect, but not before taking a few shots that missed the mark — including one that grazed a hostage. In many of the scenarios I missed the target altogether — usually hitting the wall or the floor as I reverted to an ineffective tip-of-my-toes shooting stance. The pride I felt early in my training session, when I was able to accurately hit targets of still figures, faded as the cold reality sunk in: Not only is it difficult to hit a moving target, it’s really hard when you try factoring in all the risks involved before the shot is taken — often with little to no time to make a decision.

While the PRISim simulator has been an invaluable tool for police training, it is 15 years old and has been down for maintenance frequently over the last three to five years, Hawley said. “We seem to be constantly sending something out to be fixed,” he added, noting it’s “hard to train with a broken machine.”

As a result, the Edmonds Police Foundation has launched a fundraising campaign for $54,000 to buy a new PRISim unit, which will include up-to-date features such as HD technology that provides a clearer, more realistic video, and gun recoil action. According to Foundation President Darlene Stern, over the years the foundation has worked to provide funding for a variety of items not covered in the police department budget, from training equipment to K9 dogs, with the goal of “protecting and serving the public.” You can see the complete list of items funded on their website.

“When the foundation learned of the immense value this training software has provided to the department and therefore the public over the last 15 years, we felt it was essential to continue to have this specific training feature onsite,” Stern said. “The price tag is high but so is the return to the public in having well trained officers that have experienced a wide range of exposure to life-and-death decision-making experiences.”

Anyone who wants to support this effort can donate via edmondspolice  — make sure to specify the PRISim unit when you donate.

— By Teresa Wippel




  1. As a retired LEO, I wish everyone in the media could participate in training like this. It would help dispel some urban myths about the use of deadly force, such as “Why didn’t the police just shoot to wound or disarm?”

  2. Thank you for the great article on the Prism system. Certainly a benefit to the Edmonds Police Department. Please visit the Edmonds Police Foundation website and make a donation toward the replacement of the Prism system. We need the citizens help regarding this worthy fundraiser….

  3. Thank you Sgt. Hawley and Sgt. Barker for spending your time to help educate the public. And thank you, Teresa Wippel, for your well written article and acknowledgement of your pre-conceived notions. Good job all around.

  4. many areas of a “Citizens’ Academy”

    they run for a number of weeks and give a good introduction to all of the departments in the department

    they usually give a the students a ride along

    that’s the place to have the general public get an idea of what it’s like – to fire or not – to have an opportunity to go thru that scenario

  5. We have been exploring the logistics involved in presenting a citizens academy. Coordination of instructors and equipment coupled with staffing and fiscal concerns are a significant undertaking. We will continue to examine this opportunity as we move into 2017.

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