Criminal Justice students gain physical and emotional skills through dynamic criminal incident response exercise

On Monday, March 13 the apartment in the May School of Natural and Health Sciences simulation lab became a crime scene.

A simulated crime scene, of course. The simulation, led by Instructor of Criminal Justice Derrick Lail, was designed to teach Criminal Justice practical skills, such as dynamic room clears, as well as impart an emotional and somatic lesson about the way the body responds in high-stress situations.

Experiential learning lessons like this are an essential part of the college’s Criminal Justice program because of the physical demands that are integral to many careers in the field. The “Perspectives on Policing” class that participated the practical scenario-which Lail refers to as an “evolving criminal incident response”-is particularly important in establishing this on-scene knowledge, as police officers often have to make split-second decisions and operate under high pressure.

This scenario is one that Lail has been leading up to throughout this semester, with previous lessons focusing on patrol, investigations, courtroom testimony, and mishandling of evidence. While the in-class lessons gave students the background knowledge about the protocol and steps they would need to take into the field, the evolving criminal incident response exercise allowed them to apply those lessons in real time.

“The reason we do roleplaying and training in policing is because you can read something on paper all day and make the right decision, but you get tunnel vision in real life. You get caught up in decision making on the fly. You get nervous. This isn’t as high stress as police training, but it gives the students a perspective outside of just reading a paper and having time to process,” Lail said. “The stress side of it, there’s no way to simulate that on paper. This gives them a better perspective going in as attorneys, police officers, whatever they decide to be, and even as just citizens of the U.S.”

In addition to simulating the emotions of a high-stress crime scene scenario, the day of the exercise focused on nailing dynamic room clears-where a group or pair of officers enters a space and does a safety sweep-and hammering home the principle behind the exclusionary rule. Lail explained that the exclusionary rule places restrictions around how evidence can be lawfully obtained, which means it’s something every investigator needs to understand thoroughly. If evidence is unlawfully obtained, it cannot be used in a court of law and may result in the case being thrown out.

The exercise began with a measurement of the students’ heart rates. Measuring this rate before and after running through the dynamic room clears allowed the students to understand the way their bodies might react when having to navigate an uncertain and potentially unsafe scenario. After measuring their heart rates, Lail instructed the students to begin drills of the dynamic room entry. Lail and two other volunteers positioned themselves around the apartment armed with toy Nerf guns to make the scenario as realistic as possible. After running through the heats a few times and getting a feel for the movement, the criminal investigation scenario began.

Broken into three groups, the students ran through three different scenarios in which they were approaching suspects following a crime. Each of the teams performed a dynamic room entry at the apartment where two suspects of a murder were found, but from there the scenarios diverged, each presenting their own problems and decisions for the students to navigate on the spot.

While in the past Lail said he conducted similar lessons in a more traditional classroom setting, or even on paper, he believes his students have a lot more to gain from learning these lessons in an experiential environment. Not only does he say it is impossible to replicate the bodily responses to stress and anxiety with a paper scenario, but by actually executing the movements helps students gain confidence in their ability to perform under pressure. He said it is also helpful to debrief with students following the exercise. After running through each scenario Lail asked students to reflect on how they performed and what choices they made, including the number of “bullets” they fired, the questions they asked of the suspects, and any mistakes that they may have made.

Much like real-world field work, this scenario was not a one-and-done exercise. Not only did Lail’s lessons leading up to the exercise prepare students for the case, but the information the groups collected about the case from each of their scenarios will be used for their final projects in the course.

“After this practical they will then write up their decision about who they arrested, what evidence they are using, and in their final project as a group they will record a mock courtroom testimony. One of them will play the detective providing the testimony and the other will play a defense attorney who is combatting their information,” Lail said. “With this they’ll really start to wrap their heads around what they did wrong in the scenario.”

Lail said he hopes to be able to do even more experiential Criminal Justice lessons in the future. Down the line he said he would like to teach lessons in virtual reality, make use of firearm simulators, and more.

“A lot of our students aren’t going to go be police. They’re going to be defense attorneys, prosecutors, legislators, whatever, but this at least gives them a perspective on policing for whatever they decide to go do,” Lail said. “We are all consumers of the CJ system in some form or fashion, and we are all impacted by the system, so it’s good to have this knowledge.”

Read about a previous mock crime scene at Lees-McRae

Read about a mock trail at Lees-McRae
By Maya JarrellMarch 22, 2023