MTSU students walk in police shoes during use-of-force simulations

With hopes of one day being an investigator with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, MTSU student Ezekiel Hall felt his participation in the recent “use-of-force” simulation event on campus was “an eye-opening experience” about what police officers face every day.

“It’s a lot more difficult than people think. … This job takes serious experience and serious training,” Hall said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people think.”

The MTSU Department of Criminal Justice Administration partnered with the MTSU Police Department to host the Oct. 26 activity for students, faculty and staff at the Bell Street parking garage just east of the Miller Education Center. In one scenario, the officer is conducting a traffic stop in which the driver is a bit uncooperative. In the other, an officer is responding to a possible auto burglary in progress.

Hall, a junior criminal justice major from Ashland City, Tennessee, said it was a tad unnerving walking into the burglary scenario with so many unknowns to be answered — and armed with a bright blue simulation pistol that fired very real sounding blanks.

“When I walked up on the car, I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Hall, who learned the importance of firm verbal commands in such scenarios. “You get in that situation, there’s no set rules for how to act or what to say.”

Criminal justice professor Lee Wade, who coordinated the simulation, said such insights are the purpose of these events, where students see “just how quickly a scenario can either de-escalate or escalate into a use-of-force situation where they have to use a gun or not use a gun.”

Wade conducts pre- and post-surveys of students during such simulations as part of his ongoing research into use-of-force practices.

“Most of the (survey) results show that it changes their mind about how police officers have to deal with use-of-force scenarios,” he said. “They get to make split-second decisions like a police officer does. The perspective may change. … We’ve gotten nothing but positive compliments from the students.”

MTSU Police Officer Patrick Fajardo, the department’s spokesman, said such events gives officers a chance to show the students “that when we go to these kind of calls, where it’s not an obvious crime being committed, we just don’t know what’s going on … we run into these calls almost every day.”

That uncertainty dictates how officers interact with citizens, such as instructing them to remove their hands from their pockets. Fajardo noted that MTSU police officers undergo a minimum 40 hours of training each year, as well as firearms training, de-escalation training and recently an “I Am Your Neighbor” training to more deeply connect officers to the community.

“When we respond to (calls), we always have to be on our guard for that very low chance (that something goes wrong),” Fajardo said. “We gotta be ready for it 100 percent of the time. … The situations are very tense, rapidly evolving and they change in a moment. And if you don’t control it from the get-go, you’re not going home and that’s a very big deal.”

MTSU sophomore Austin Smith, a criminal justice major from Chattanooga hoping to work for the Secret Service one day, has never even been pulled over by police. So the simulation was a new experience for him on multiple levels.

“I learned a lot of things,” he said, particularly the safety precautions officers need to take in these situations such as making sure a motorist’s hands are always visible. “I learned that the subject isn’t always willing to cooperate.”

Alesia Kahrs, a senior criminal justice major from Knoxville, Tennessee, also went through the simulations last year at a time when public scrutiny of police practices was heightened. A second trip through the simulations this time gave her an even greater understanding of what officers face on a daily basis.

“I think this really helps me,” she said. “I can see where (citizens) are coming from, but I definitely can see where cops are coming from too.”

Scheduled to graduate next December, Kahrs plans to go to law school. She wants to eventually work with programs that help released prisoners get reintegrated into society by assisting them with job placement and housing.

Wade said last year a student who was very “anti-police” participated in the simulations. When she finished, “she was crying” and said the simulations completely changed her perspective on how police do their jobs, he said.

In the burglary scenario, Officer Ricky Morales played the role of the suspect, dressed in a hoodie with pockets, constantly on the move around the vehicle with hands in his pockets, even adding a slim-jim to his wardrobe to see if the student-officers were paying attention.

At least a few weren’t … that is until Morales suddenly drew the blue simulation weapon from his pocket and the staccato of blanks echoed through the parking garage.

Hall said afterward that he hadn’t really thought about the fact that regardless of the situation, there’s always a firearm involved in such calls and traffic stops — because the officer has one.

Officer Fajardo heard similar responses from other students.

“A lot of them are saying, ‘we had no idea that it was this stressful, and can get this stressful that quickly,’” he said. “It’s a great way to get a look into what we do.”

Led by Police Chief Buddy Peaster, University Police is a fully functioning law enforcement agency with 36 commissioned officers, six dispatchers, 20 part-time student workers as well as additional administrative staff.

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