Alexandria, Virginia (CNN)In a cramped, windowless basement of a corporate office building here, ex-cop Bryan Patterson, a hulk of a man with booming voice and a shaved head, shouts in my ear while I try to unlatch a Glock from a plastic holster without getting shot.
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"Take cover!" Patterson hollers, and I leap behind a mailbox with the gun in hand.
On a screen projected onto the wall in front of me, I watch a madman go on a workplace shooting rampage. Bodies line the floor. I'm the only officer on the scene. If I don't act fast, more will die. Everything is moving so quickly that it's almost impossible to tell between shooters and victims. I eventually take down the intruder, but obviously not soon enough.
The exercise is part of a campaign by the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that defends police officers who face legal scrutiny for decisions made in the line of duty. The group purchased a simulator traditionally used for training police officers to prepare them for use-of-force situations.
Only this time, the simulator is meant for journalists, not police officers.
It's all part of a new public relations push after a year of negative press about the law enforcement community. It is intended to give reporters an understanding of the challenges that face men and women in uniform.
Police work has come under sharp scrutiny in the aftermath of several controversial -- and often fatal -- encounters between citizens and police, and the simulator is a way the industry hopes to build understanding with media. In just the past year, Eric Garner died in Staten Island, New York, after police officers placed him in a chokehold that caused him to suffocate. In Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing in a park near his home with an Airsoft toy gun when police responded to a call and shot the child in the torso. Both fatal encounters were caught on video.
And, of course, the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a national conversation about police treatment of minorities.
After the spate of violence, LELDF President Ronald Hosko is seeking to provide "some context."
"In the wake of Ferguson, we were appalled by lack of understanding of what a police officer may see and sense when they're making a use-of-force situation," said Hosko, a former assistant director of the Criminal Investigative Division at the FBI.
After a weaponry training from Patterson, reporters are armed with a mock case of pepper spray and a handgun equipped with a C02 cartridge to give the firearm a semirealistic kick. Instead of bullets or chemicals, the weapons have lasers attached to mark the shot on the screen, much like a video game.
When it's time to take on the simulator, Patterson provides a vague set of details before sending the reporter into a life-sized scene that plays on the wall.
The scenarios are based on actual encounters. Participants are asked to respond to a situation in which a father who had stabbed his wife and threatened to throw their baby from a balcony, a locker room where one man is pummeling another on the ground with a series of kicks and an armed robbery. In others, a man wielded a machete in an office park, and in another, a man appeared to be stealing a bicycle with a set of bolt cutters.
Based on how the participant responds to the situation, the trainer at the controls changes the course of the interaction. If you say the right things, the situation might de-escalate. Say the wrong things, and the actor on the screen may attack. Or, even if you do everything right, the scenario can still go horribly wrong, just like real life.
When an officer does come under investigation, the LELDF provides financial and legal resources to cases when they determine that an officer acted properly. In the case of former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown, the group was prepared to defend him in court had he been indicted.
Hosko does concede that in some cases, frustration with police is justified.
"There's absolutely merit to that frustration," Hosko said. "It merits a long-term conversation, and one that does not necessarily flare up in the immediate wake of one of these catalyzing events. Let's have a mature discussion with all of the elements on the table."
He added, however, that he doesn't think police have been treated fairly. And his group has been vocal about it.
"The conversation has not been a helpful one," he said. "Too often people guess about what it is to be a police officer. There is another side. A human side on the cop side."
That's precisely what the law enforcement community wants to highlight by running reporters through their simulator.
Indeed, after a few rounds down in the basement, the untrained participant becomes attuned to the possibility that at any time the actors can attack before you can ever hope to respond. And that's one realization this group hopes to provide: In the heat of the moment, the decision to use force is hardly ever clear-cut.