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September 23, 2017

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Texas grand jury shooting simulator called biased toward police

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.

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