I stood facing a man who had just stepped out of a red pickup truck. He was yelling. He was angry he had been pulled over.
“Sir, stay in the car,” I meekly said as I struggled to find my voice. “Sir, sir, I need you…”
My heart was racing. I couldn’t think of what to say next.
The man turned and reached for something inside the truck. Before I knew what was happening, I had been shot.
But I wasn’t wounded. I wasn’t killed. I was OK as I stood in a warehouse in Hendersonville surrounded by five large screens wrapped in a virtual reality known as the VirTra 300 system, a real-life training platform for police.
“This is so close to the real world where you just show up and deal with what you have,” said David McMurray, a firearm instructor with the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office.
The VirTra has more than 100 scenarios with thousands of options officers can run through to get ready for the real – and unpredictable – world of law enforcement.
McMurray sat behind two computer screens where he could manipulate my situation.
On my second try, I faced the man who had just shot me. I attempted to give him commands. Again, he didn’t listen. He yelled and threw his hands in the air. He reached into his truck and pointed an object directly at me. This time it had been a cellphone but I still stood there staring at him with my gun glued to my hip.
In about an hour, I ran through six-to-seven scenarios including an active shooter situation in a school. I approached a homeless man who had been living in a vacant parking lot. I talked a man down from attempting to throw a newborn baby over a bridge.
I drove up to a domestic violence situation where a man’s ex-girlfriend was parked in his driveway. She had been threatening him. I told the man and his new girlfriend to get inside but the ex-girlfriend had already fired shots at them. Then, she put her hands up, got out of her car and I tried to talk her down. My gun remained at my side. I kept repeating the same commands. She threw the gun down on the ground but then picked it back up and shot me.
Each scenario I hated. My heart was pounding out of my chest. I had a hard time breathing. I froze. I wanted it to be over.
If I could go back and do it all over again I would handle the scenarios differently. But if it had been real life, I would most likely be dead right now.
But in this virtual reality officers survive.
“Here you can make mistakes and learn from your mistakes and then get it right,” McMurray said.
In one scenario, I approached a man with an aggressive dog in a park. He was aggravated and would not listen. Before McMurray started the scenario, he told me to listen carefully to what the man was saying.
As I walked toward the man, two teenagers stood nearby and I told them to leave. Then, I tried to talk the man. I asked him to calm down, why he was in the park, and to listen to me. I had a hard time hearing him. He grabbed a machete and raised it above his head. I raised my gun but didn’t shoot.
Within a couple minutes the screen had gone black. The dog was cut loose from his leash and I would have been badly wounded or dead.
I had failed to communicate with dispatch to describe what the man looked like, how he was acting or to request back up. Authorities would not have known what their suspect looked like or how I was doing.
McMurray told me I made the right decision not to shoot the man because he had been within lunging distance from where I stood. If I had fired at the man there was a chance I could have been wounded or killed too.
In the playback, I watched and listened. The man said I was evil and said he was going to let his dog have me. If I had been listening carefully I could have had time to pull my gun and shoot the dog to protect myself.
Within the span of 60 minutes I was placed in an officer’s shoes, ones I never want to put on again. I have no future in law enforcement.