STANFORD — Law enforcement officers in Lincoln County have been dealing with everything from active shooters and bomb threats to kidnappings and murders over the past week, but fortunately, it's all taking place in virtual reality.
Lincoln County Deputy Sheriff and weapons expert Sim Thacker has been putting other law enforcement officers into all kinds of difficult situations using a $150,000 simulation system on loan from the Kentucky Association of Counties.
"It's basically a use-of-force trainer," Thacker said. "You may have a situation where a hostage is taken and they're saying 'drop your weapon or I'm going to kill this person.' Well, do you drop your weapon? Do you just stand there? Or do you act? If you don't act, then that innocent person may die. Your job is to preserve life and your job is to save that person."
The system uses a software program operated by Thacker to run video-based scenarios on a big-screen projector.
Trainees carry a laser-equipped gun and taser, which can be "fired" at the screen. As each scenario in the system plays out — Thacker said there are close to 100 different situations with up to 10 different outcomes per situation — trainees can fire their simulation weapons at the screen, and the system pinpoints where they fired and what they hit.
Trainees can kill or injure suspects and victims, and they often have no more than a split second to react and make the right choice.
Thacker said the system helps train law enforcement officers on high-stress situations, so if such a situation happens in real life, they'll be cooler under fire and more prepared to react appropriately.
"The use of force — especially deadly force — is justified on the basis of (whether) you perceive an imminent threat of serious physical injury or death to yourself or others," he said. "That's always a last resort."
Training scenarios range from pulling over a suspected drunk driver to handling a suspect with a bomb strapped to his chest.
Sometimes, all a trainee has to do is use appropriate communication to gain compliance from their virtual suspects and successfully navigate a scenario. Other times, they have to unholster their weapons and begin firing without warning.
"I try to educate them at all levels and aspects of it," said Thacker, a 17-year law enforcement veteran who has extensive training and certifications in firearms. "What I do as an instructor, I watch their verbal communication. What I'm doing back here at the computer is controlling the outcome."
Thacker said nearly all the scenarios available in the system are based on events that have happened in real life, including one scenario where a man in the northwest U.S. was pulled over because he had a paper license plate with handwritten numbers and letters.
The man had bomb-making materials in the back of his vehicle and wound up in a firefight with the officer who pulled him over, Thacker said.
Many of the scenarios may be extreme situations officers will never encounter, but Thacker said officers should always be prepared to think quickly on their feet.
"You've got to keep your head on your shoulders," he said.
Thacker offered a real-life example from a night he and Sheriff Curt Folger responded to a report of a drunken male threatening neighbors in Waynesburg with a firearm.
Thacker and Folger arrived on the scene and confronted a man who had his hands in his pockets. As Folger approached the man, Thacker kept him in the sights of his rifle.
Then the man began to move and Folger turned to get out of the way.
"I saw the gun coming out," Thacker said. "He was coming around with the gun in his hand. I'm getting ready to shoot and about that time, I see the gun falling. I come up, I'm still on target — 'get your hands up! get your hands up!' — but I didn't shoot."
Thacker said he's seen "very noticeable improvement" in the ability of his trainees to make the right use-of-force decision.
"I tell them, 'Do not look at this as we're trying to train you to be a more proficient killer. That ain't it," he said. "We shoot to stop the threat. We don't shoot to kill."
Following a training session, Thacker can jump back to various points in the simulation and show trainees how accurate their shots were, or discuss whether they took appropriate actions.
Thacker is using the system to help Lincoln County law enforcement officers meet training requirements before the system is returned to KACo. Officers have the option of participating in more training sessions than required if they desire.
Before the system leaves the county, Thacker said he expects to have personally logged 150 hours on it. The training means Lincoln County residents can have "peace of mind," Thacker said.
"The officers that are out there patrolling are getting adequate training, they're getting the knowledge, and that's the important part," he said.