URBANA — It's only filled with a carbon-dioxide canister to simulate recoil, but a gun is holstered on Alderman Brandon Bowersox's right hip. He's playing the role of an Urbana police officer on Monday, asking a man on the sidewalk to stop.
Bowersox has been told that the man is suspected in an armed robbery, and he's asking nicely — he greeted the man with a "howdy" — to see the man's identification.
The man on the sidewalk is examining his surroundings and insists that he hasn't done anything wrong. He says he lives in a house across the street, and while he points with his left hand, he's pulling a gun out of his back pocket with his right.
It's fortunate for Bowersox that this is only a video simulation. He never even got his gun unholstered.
"I wish I had a faster response," Bowersox said.
Urbana police hope the training he and other city council members experienced Monday does just that with the department's officers. On first glance, a $42,000 grant-funded system seems not more than a high-powered video game. But Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly says it's unlike any training the officers have ever gone through.
"This is about life-and-death decisions," Connolly said.
The new system is filled with dozens of scenarios like the one Bowersox faced, and an operator sitting behind a computer can change what happens based on the trainee's actions. The officer stands in front of a video screen and engages the subject he sees on the projection.
He can bark orders or ask for identification. The officer also has the tools on his belt that he'll have on the street: pepper spray, flashlight and a pistol, for instance. Except instead of bullets, the gun fires a laser sight that will show where it hit the screen.
Alderman Charlie Smyth fared better when he faced the man on the sidewalk — his draw was faster than the man's in the video.
According to the computer, the man started reaching for his gun 26.96 seconds into the simulation. Smyth fired his shot at the 27.62-second mark — it's a short time, but for an officer in a real-life situation on the street, that could be the most important 0.66 second of his life.
Urbana police Sgt. Jason Norton said the new system will help officers "mentally blueprint" their training and put it into as near a real-life situation as it can be, "so when they encounter it on the street, it's familiar to them and they know how to interact."
The training is about more than whether or not to pull the trigger, Connolly said. With an operator changing the storyline and manipulating the scenario, the trainee's words matter. The vast majority of the time, Connolly said, it's what an officer says that will ameliorate a situation.
That was evident when the city administrators replayed the scenario with the man on the sidewalk again. The second time through, the man pulled his identification out of his back pocket, not the gun. They all wanted to pull the trigger, but none did.
Urbana City Council members got simple scenarios on Monday. But Urbana police can put obstacles — or cover — in the trainee's way so they can move about the training room as they would in a real situation. Officers have to put all their training to use to end a scenario successfully.
And Connolly says it's a good way for the trainers to discover where their officers need extra tutoring on a specific point. If officers make the same mistake in a given scenario, they know what they need to work on, he said.
And, apparently, it's a good way to show city officials how quickly officers on the street need to react.
"That was pure reaction," Smyth said of his successful shot.
"Some of the time," said Assistant Police Chief Anthony Cobb, "that's all you get."
This story appeared in print on Jan. 10, 2012.