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To shoot or not to shoot: Simulator offers life-or-death scenarios police face every day

SAN ANTONIO – It is one of the toughest parts of the job for law enforcement officers — deciding whether or not to fire a gun at someone.

SAPD, killing 14. At least eight officers were shot on duty

Yet it is a decision they have to make, in some cases, daily.

San Antonio police officers found themselves in that position numerous times in 2023.

Throughout that year, officers with SAPD shot 22 people — an unusually high number for that department.

To better understand how and why they make those decisions, they offered local media outlets, including KSAT 12, a chance to engage in various high-stakes scenarios in a 180-degree virtual simulator.

The scenarios offered involved actors portraying an unarmed man who was caught dumping trash illegally, a seemingly suicidal man who heads toward a building full of people with a gun pointed at his head, and an agitated man pointing a gun at a blindfolded woman inside a home and threatening to kill her.

In each case, I played the role of a police officer walking into these potentially volatile situations.

In an instant, I had to assess what was happening and determine if it called for using lethal force.

“If you pull that gun out, it’s a real-life that you’re taking. Or if you fail to do it, it’s your life that you lose,” said Sgt. Edward Pedraza with SAPD, explaining the choice officers often have to make all the time.

The interactive scenarios allowed me time to talk to the people involved.

The responses from the actors portraying those people, though, were pre-recorded. Still, they were appropriate responses to the commands I was giving them.

In the scenario involving the man who was illegally dumping, I was able to use only words to convince him to stop.

However, with the suicidal armed man scenario, I chose to shoot him from behind to stop him from entering a building full of people in his distraught state.

That decision, although difficult, was the correct response, according to Pedraza.

“It’s easier to say, ‘I’ll wait until he actually does something.’ But by that point, other people are hurt,” Pedraza said.

In the third scenario involving the man who was threatening a woman’s life, I chose not to shoot.

I incorrectly tried to talk to the man when, according to Pedraza, he quickly could have turned and aimed the gun at me.

Shooting him in the wrong part of his body, though, could have put yet another potential victim in danger.

The man was standing directly in front of a crying baby in a car seat, who was barely visible in the simulated scene.

“If you shoot him here, what’s directly behind him? Did you even notice the baby right there?,” Pedraza asked, after the exercise had ended.

While the simulator offered a virtual reality perspective on these scenarios, the lessons it taught are part of officers’ everyday reality.

Unlike with that machine, though, they cannot rewind their actions and try again.