HOUSTON — The armed carjacker projected on a large screen threatens to kill you if you don’t give up your keys. Holding a modified gun that emits a beam, you pull the trigger when he draws his weapon, and seconds later fire again at another person who jumps in front with something in his hand.
The second person turns out to be a bystander holding a cellphone.
This interactive way of illustrating the use of deadly force is part of unusual training that Houston-area grand jurors can receive before they begin hearing cases, including those involving police officers.
The Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston calls the shooting simulator — which experts believe is only being used in Texas — an educational tool that helps grand jurors better understand what someone sees when confronted by a threat.
But amid a streak of nearly 300 cases in which grand juries have cleared Houston police officers in shootings, the training has become a point of contention among critics who say the simulator promotes a pro-law enforcement mindset. One defense attorney recently unsuccessfully challenged the simulator’s use, calling it mind manipulation.
“(Grand jurors) should not be naturally in one camp or the other,” said Joseph Gutheinz, a retired federal agent who served on a Harris County grand jury in 2008 and is critical of the simulator’s use. “They should be after the truth.”
Prosecutors say that’s exactly what they’re after. They say the simulator — introduced a decade ago in Harris County — does not make grand jurors favor one side over another in deciding whether to issue an indictment. The scenarios that the simulator presents can apply to situations involving both officers and civilians, said Julian Ramirez, chief of the civil rights division at the DA’s office.
“When a claim of self-defense is raised, whether by an officer or a civilian, the law requires the circumstances be viewed from … the person using deadly force,” he said.
Ramirez said he would be willing to meet with any groups critical of the simulator’s use.
The Bexar County district attorney’s office in San Antonio is the only other major DA’s office in Texas that offers the computer simulations to grand jurors. In Harris County, it’s part of an orientation that can include a tour of the medical examiner’s office and a police ride along, which are also voluntary.
Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said he doesn’t know of any other jurisdictions in the country that offer this kind of training.
It’s unclear whether the simulator has affected indictment rates of law enforcement officers.
While Harris and Bexar counties do not keep tallies of how many shooting cases are presented to grand juries for review, Ramirez said that in the 10 years before the simulator was used, three officers were indicted by Harris County grand juries for wrongful shootings and that three officers have been indicted during the decade it has been used.
However, an investigation by the Houston Chronicle last year found that Harris County grand juries have cleared Houston police officers in shootings 288 consecutive times since 2004.
The streak may not be entirely unusual. Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said grand juries usually give officers the benefit of the doubt in shooting cases because of the dangerous nature of their jobs.
She called the simulator’s use “very out-of-the-box thinking.”
Speaking to reporters after a recent demonstration, Ramirez said the different scenarios show how individuals often have to make split-second decisions on whether to use deadly force.
Burns said his district attorneys’ organization supports “anything that is educational and helpful to jurors in finding the truth.”
The district attorney’s office in Los Angeles and a spokeswoman for the court system in New York City confirmed they do not use such simulators but declined to comment on the practice.
Randall Kallinen, with the Greater Houston Coalition For Justice, believes the shooting simulator promotes a pro-law enforcement bias because it only presents situations where shootings seem justified or can be excused as accidents.
“Instead of looking at the facts of the case, (grand jurors) will go back to the (simulator) video,” said Kallinen, a civil rights attorney.
Harris County’s simulator has so far withstood scrutiny by the courts. A judge last month ruled against defense attorney Paul Looney, who challenged his client’s indictment by saying the simulations place grand jurors “subliminally in the shoes of the police officer.” The defendant, an oil company executive, is charged with assaulting a Houston police officer last year.