By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Its a routine traffic stop, but when the driver gets out of his car and starts firing a machine gun, the rules change. The cops on duty, Sergio and Ed, aim their pistols and fire, pumping bullets until the man collapses in a heap.
The lights come up, and suddenly Sergio and Ed are transported back to reality. As both men holster their simulated guns that shoot electronic bullets into a large screen, a uniformed police officer begins the breakdown. He asks, "How many shots did you fire?" Sergio looks at Ed, Ed looks at Sergio: They both work as NYPD radio dispatchers, but neither has a clue. Behind them, the three tourists from Scotland watching from the back of the room can't tell either.
Welcome to the Fire Arms Training System, or FATS, a new exhibit at the recently opened New York City Police Museum. It is the only venue in the world where the general public can try the same kind of simulator that trains policemen.
The officer moves to a computer terminal and replays the shoot-out in slow motion. Twenty-nine shots fired. Two lethal hits. Five nonlethal. One shot to the groin. Twenty misses. The officer, 18-year veteran Nick Pasquerello, compliments the two rookies on their good judgment.
Mayor Giuliani describes this shooting gallery simulator, which offers nine different scenarios such as "Disgruntled Employee" and "Drunk Man With a Baby," as something every civilian should try, so they can discover how tough it is to be a cop in New York. But there's another way of looking at this: It's a virtual defense of the NYPD. It's "Now you can understand how four cops can shoot an unarmed West African immigrant 41 times."
Opening a month after one of the most tumultuous years in the NYPD's history, the mu-seum, located on the second floor of the old Cunard building across from the big bull in the financial district, serves as one big blue spin campaign. Its theme is "I am policeman, understand me." There is the usual museum paraphernalia: police uniforms and handcuffs through the ages, a collection of old firearms and police radios, motorcycles, scooters and cars for the kids. But the firearms trainer is the most popular game in the joint.
Each time you engage in this mock police work, the drama can take different twists. Angelo Vestano, a former New Jersey cop who now sells FATS machines and installed the unit at the museum, explains that the story unfolds based on how the player acts. "If he's making proper verbal commands, I'll make it easier," says Vestano, who controls the action from a computer in the back of the room.
In the traffic stop Ed and Sergio encountered, there are four possible permutations: The guy can either lie down across the front seat of his car, drive away, comply, or come out shooting. Vestano almost always has him come out shooting.
The museum received the system, worth about $70,000, as a donation from a company called FATS, Inc. The memory disc that is used at the museum was designed by the Sacramento force, which explains why all of the scenes take place in sunny California. (The NYPD has just completed filming their own set of scenarios.) There are over 200 weapons that can be drawn on the screen, from antitank cannons to 20 different types of pistols, according to Bobby Chung, a FATS executive. According to Chung, most law enforcement agencies rely on the machine to teach judgment rather than simply accuracy.
"They really don't care too much about shooting," Chung says of smaller police departments. The small-town police forces rely on the machines to teach them how to deal with unruly domestic disputes and traffic stops. "The NYPD, FBI, who are liable for lawsuits, they care about accuracy. Other law enforcement agencies, they train their people not to use their weapons," according to Vestano.
None of that matters to Sergio, who is on another call. He knocks on a door to serve a felony warrant, and the man and two women who answer immediately begin to yell at him to "get the hell out." The man picks up a rock, holds it like a baseball, and yells, "I'll bash your head in with this rock." Sergio reaches for his electronic pepper spray, but it malfunctions. "I'll bash your head in with this rock," the man repeats. "I'll bash your head in with . . . " BAM- BAM. Sergio empties two rounds into the guy's chest. He looks behind him at the three tourists from Scotland and smiles sheepishly.