ATLANTA – Shoot or don't shoot? Eighteen-year-old William Bryant takes a deep breath and gulps before he aims his pistol and shoots a passenger in a van who appears to be reaching for a weapon.
Applause comes from the audience. Moments later, they groan when Bryant "kills" a disgruntled woman who pulled a can of mace from her purse and began spraying it.
The video-game simulation is meant to teach young aspiring law enforcement officials the split-second decisions officers routinely encounter.
Attendees at the Law Enforcement Explorers Conference in Atlanta this month could be part of the solution to fill the void when as many as half of the 600,000 current law enforcement officers become eligible for retirement in the next five years, conference director Bill Taylor said.
Those in the Boy Scouts-affiliated Explorers program work alongside local law enforcement before competing at the conference. They learn the intricacies of routine police work, such as searching a crime scene for clues and investigating traffic accidents, and then show off their skills at the competition in more intense situations like bomb threats or negotiating a hostage situation.
"It's a chance for the kids to go out and experience what it means to be a law enforcement officer — and how they match up," said Eric Akers, a DEA official and conference spokesman. "It shows them what it's all about. People say they want to be a cop when they grow up, and here's their chance to see for themselves and figure it out."
In the "search and arrest" phase of competition, teens with the Broward County, Fla., sheriff's office yell "police" and pound on a dorm room door. They barge in, plastic guns drawn, and open closet doors and drawers, searching for evidence and a suspect. They rip the sheets off bunk beds and find their man.
When the suspect doesn't comply with orders, team leader Jeffrey Aylor shoves his head against wall.
The team was so by-the-books that a few of the veteran DEA agents judging them couldn't help but roll their eyes at times and chuckle. One student asked if he could search the light fixture; another called for animal control after finding a rubber snake.
"Some DEA agents say they're (the students) every bit as trained as some of our agents, like it's the equivalent of Quantico," Akers said of the FBI's training grounds in Virginia.
The Broward County team, each in slacks, a crisp white shirt with a shiny gold badge and spit-shined shoes, won accolades from the judges. They communicated well, conducted methodical searches and weren't afraid to get a little rough with the suspect, who was played by a DEA agent.
"You can sit there and you can read books all day on how to do it and the proper way to do it. But I don't think you can ever get the experience that this competition would give you physically doing the scenario," said Jeffrey Aylor, a 17-year-old from Broward County who dreams of joining the sheriff's department.
More than 60 percent of the 35,000 teens nationwide in the Explores program end up joining local police and fire departments. Nearly 2,000 attended the conference, along with 700 or so advisers, who are often local officers.
Some worked fundraisers and car washes to raise enough cash to get to the competition, which cost about $400 per participant and trainer.
The hard-core training also helps weed out the curious.
Veid Muiznieks, a former Newport, Minn. police chief, said one of his proudest moments since starting an Explorers post in 1992 was when his daughter quit after six months.
"I applauded her and said, 'Lisa, this is what Explorers is about: exploring.' She was looking at how many birthdays and holidays I missed and decided it wasn't for her," he said. "Those stats aren't important. It's important to have a positive interaction with young people. We're imprinting positive lessons on these kids, and the path just happens to be through law enforcement."
Law Enforcement Exploring: http://www.learningforlife.org/exploring/lawenforcement/