WOONSOCKET – It started out as a garden-variety motor vehicle stop, but the patrol officer's rendezvous outside the convenience store went sideways in the blink of an eye.
Unexpectedly, a man toting a handgun bursts out of the front door and takes off running. Seconds later another man, agitated and cursing at the top of his lungs, exits the store carrying a long gun in the ready-fire position.
Shoot? Don't shoot? If so, who's the target? For the officer on the scene, it's a case of so many questions, and too little time.
“If you're going to make an error in judgment, now's the time to make it,” says Police Chief Thomas Oates III.
That's because the above scene played out not in the parking lot of a real gas station store, but on a movie-like screen inside the body of a truck trailer that's been specially outfitted to test – and improve – the decision-making abilities of police officers in live-fire simulations. The only real things about the situation were Patrol Officer Austin Archambault's service-issue Glock 9mm and the bullets in it, which he actually fired.
Owned and operated by the Blue Line Corp. of Sudbury, Mass., the trailer was parked behind the police station for several days recently to give some 90 police officers who work at the Woonsocket Police Department an opportunity to perform live-fire training in an assortment of situations, from armed robberies to active-shooters in school buildings.
Another unique feature about the facility is that it simulates a variety of lighting conditions – required training for the WPD in order to maintain its good standing with the Rhode Island Police Accreditation Commission. Theoretically, the police could do nighttime shooting drills at an outdoor range, but Lt. Mark Cabral, the WPD's training officer, says the price tag would approach $20,000 because many officers would be paid overtime to train outside their normal shift.
Blue Line will cost the city less than half that, Cabral says, but the savings is just a bonus, since the range offers little more than target practice. With Blue Lines' mixed-up array of live-fire situations and lighting conditions, officers are getting as close to a real-life test of situational judgment as there is outside of an actual law enforcement call.
Cabral said this is the second time the WPD has used Blue Line. The first was nearly a decade ago.
“I remembered it and I thought it was a great thing to do,” he said.
One need only flip on the evening news of late to see just how important it is for police officers to use deadly force within the acceptable bounds of professional and legal conformity, says Oates. And that is ultimately why the former second-in-command of the Providence Police Department, with a total of 48 years of law enforcement experience, wants the best training opportunities available for members of the WPD.
When police use deadly force in a manner that is not supported by departmental policy and law, the results increase a department's potential exposure to punitive repercussions in the courtroom. Effective training is the department's most important bulwark against the risk, Oates says.
There are other types of training available in which officers fire fake electronic ammunition – “simunition” – in less dynamic conditions. But Blue Line not only has equipment that mimics dusk, pitch-black night and flashlights, it has a feature that puts officers inside the multi-colored strobe of overhead cruiser flashers.
Amid such distractions, officers fire live ammunition from their own duty weapons, and when they pull the trigger, the bullet leaves a hole in the digitally manufactured crime image they're aiming for, so officers can see if they hit their target.
The trailer is equipped with a steel trap that captures all of the spent ammunition that police fire inside the sound-proofed rig.
“Part of their training is they actually have to draw their weapons and engage the target,” said Oates. “The idea is to put officers in situations they might face on the street and see if their decision-making is in line with what is required by policy and best practices.”
Jerry Tilbor, who's owned and operated Blue Line Corp for 14 years, said the trailer offers a vital training opportunity for law enforcement because “it's judgmental training.”
“If you go to a range you're shooting at a static target,” he says. Moreover, “Seventy percent of all officer-involved shootings take place in some type of diminished lighting.”
Officer Archambault says his experience in the Blue Line trailer was definitely challenging.
“It was a good training moment,” he says.
Members of the WPD have not engaged a suspect in a live fire situation since July 2018, but it's not a episode many will soon forget – especially Officer Travis Young: He still has one of the suspect's .40-caliber bullets lodged in his thigh.
The suspect unloaded an entire magazine's worth of bullets at members of the WPD, who answered with more than 30 rounds of their own as he fled. Ultimately, however, the cornered suspect, Tyler Chandler, 25, of Newport, was subdued without injury in the parking lot of Gateway Condominiums on Social Street with a “flashbang” explosive device and a bump from a SWAT shield.
“We had good eyes on him,” recalled Oates, who showed his own cell phone video of the suspect cowering between parked vehicles, taken from one of the upper stories of the condo complex.
Chandler is presently on trial in Superior Court and faces a mandatory life sentence for shooting a policeman. He has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
For the police, their ability to maintain a visual bead on the suspect was critical in allowing officers to realize Chandler could be subdued without deadly force, but that kind of advantage is a luxury that police can't always count on.
It's just as likely the next live fire situation will require a split-second decision. And, unlike the Blue Line trailer, it won't come with an opportunity for a do-over.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo