The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers trained their guns on the woman as she sobbed, clutching a knife in her living room. Her husband lay stabbed on the ground outside.
“Drop the knife!” Sgts. Mark Faulkenberry and Mike Davis demanded.
The woman didn’t threaten the officers, but she didn’t drop her weapon. Making a quick decision, Faulkenberry removed his stun gun and fired it.
The first shot glanced off the doorjamb. The woman ran to a bedroom and pulled out a gun. This time Faulkenberry fired his Taser and hit her.
That shot would’ve ended the danger had it happened in real life.
But the threat Wednesday played out on a video screen in a high-tech training exercise that allows officers to hone their decision-making and shooting skills.
It also lets them make mistakes, without real-life consequences, so they can learn from them, firearms instructor Sgt. Cullen Wright said.
“Every scenario an officer goes through, we can tie into something that can happen in Charlotte,” Wright said.
An instructor who monitors the training can alter what happens in the videos based on the choices the officers make.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have used simulated training for more than a decade. But several months ago the department invested in an $80,500 technology upgrade that makes the exercises more realistic.
It uses Bluetooth sensors to connect the officers’ “weapons” – handguns, stun guns and pepper spray that look and feel real – to a large video screen. Because there are no wires, the officers are free to use the weapons just as they would when responding to a live event.
Officers stand several feet away from the screen. From a laptop behind them, the instructor selects an event – a motorcyclist with a sawed-off shotgun, an armed person at a high school, or a hostage situation in a warehouse.
As the scenario unfolds, officers have to decide how to respond. Sometimes they only have seconds to decide whether to use lethal force.
State law says police can use deadly force when they reasonably believe they have encountered an “imminent threat” to themselves or the public.
The videos demonstrate how difficult it can be to make that determination quickly, Wright said.
For example: Each of the officers Wednesday encountered a man with a knife rushing at them without warning.
Some drew and fired their Tasers. Others hesitated and didn’t have time before the attacker was on top of them. After every exercise, Wright flips on the lights of the dark trailer where the training occurs and evaluates the officers’ performance.
He replays the video, which provides feedback on shooting accuracy, and points out when officers’ verbal instructions to suspects worked – and when they didn’t.
“Great crosstalk, guys,” instructor Wright said after the video of the domestic dispute finished. “I think the Taser with lethal coverage is great coverage there.”
CMPD recruits are required to go through the simulated exercises before they are sworn in. Officers have to take a firearms training course, which includes the video scenarios and live training with plastic bullets, every few years to stay certified.
Training is the only time many officers will fire their guns on the job. A search of Observer archives shows Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers have fired their guns at suspects five times over the past year.
In January, an officer fired his gun at a man who allegedly lunged at him with a box cutter when police were called to a disturbance at a south Charlotte home. The suspect, 55-year-old Spencer Rollins Mims III, later died, and Officers Jeremy Donaldson and Michael Whitlock were placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
The atmosphere during the training is tense. Officers sit quietly in the back of the trailer as their colleagues play out what could very well be life-and-death situations.
“When I do it, I leave and I have a headache for two hours afterward,” Capt. Jimmy Fields said. Observer researcher Maria David contributed
Steele: 704-358-5067 on Twitter: @steelecs
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