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Cops and guns; citizens get hands-on training

Former St. Croix County deputy and firearms training specialist Tom Vandeberg instructs Pam Brokaw on what to expect from the deadly force simulator that students at the Citizen Police Academy got a chance to experience at last week's class. Photo by Meg Heaton

When it comes to the use of deadly force, even a simulation can lead to some real stress.

That's what students at the HPD's Citizen Police Academy found out last week when they got a chance to use a training simulator that had them deciding whether to shoot or not.

Sgt. Eric Atkinson opened the class by detailing the Hudson Police Department's policy when it comes to using deadly force, primarily an officer's revolver. Department policy says officers should use only the amount of force that is "objectively reasonable to achieve a lawful objective....that required to overcome the resistance being offered by a subject."

Deadly force is defined as the "intentional use of a firearm or other instrument, the use of which would result in a high probability of death." Before deadly force can be used, Atkinson said there has to be an immediate threat. And for there to be an immediate threat, three criteria must be met:

  • A subject indicates intent to cause great bodily harm or death to an officer or someone else.
  • A weapon that the subject has could inflict harm or cause death.
  • A delivery system by which the subject could use the weapon would inflict harm.

    Atkinson said officers can use deadly force in their own defense, to defend another person in immediate danger or to prevent the escape of a fleeing, violent felon who presents a significant threat to the officer, another person or the community at large. He used the August 2007 Ward Avenue shootout where officers exchanged gunfire with a suspect who shot at them and later wounded a man in Lakeland.

    Atkinson noted that HPD officers are prohibited from firing warning shots and cannot fire from or at a moving vehicle unless very specific conditions are met.

    Fortunately HPD officers are not called upon to use deadly force often but they are regularly trained in the use of their guns throughout the year. One of the most effective training tools is a computer simulator that has 250 scenarios that patrol officers and other law enforcement agents might face in the course of their jobs. Each scenario has up to five possible outcomes, and an officer must decide whether or not to use deadly force.

    The simulator training in the Hudson area is done by retired St. Croix County deputy and firearms special Tom Vandeberg. He trains between 600-700 officers annually for departments throughout the area. He also teaches the use of firearms at WITC.

    Just like the police officers he trains, Vandeberg first told the students how the simulator works and explained the use of the "gun," which weighs and feels very similar to a police weapon but fires air pellets when the trigger is pulled.

    The scenario is played out on a large screen and involves real actors. Once a few practice shots are taken, Vandeberg sets the scene. One example was of a call to a private residence for a possible burglary in progress. As the officer arrives on the scene, there is a man in a dark kitchen holding a large knife looking into a drawer. The officer by talking to the man and observing his actions must decide if deadly force should be used.

    If the officer fires the weapon, the computer records the officer's actions and the amount of time it took him or her to fire the gun. Playback allows Vandeberg and the officer to review the simulation and critique the action taken by the officer.

    "It always surprises people how real the simulations are and how stressed you can get even though you know it isn't really happening. In that way, it just doesn't create the scenario but also the emotions and stress that making the decision one way or another causes," said Vandeberg.

    Each student experiences three different scenarios and a variety of outcomes, some requiring deadly force, others not and some surprises in between. After each student's experience, he not only questioned them about their decisions but also talked about what might happen as a result -- everything from professional review to a possible lawsuit by an innocent bystander or the suspect themselves.

    Does an officer always have to shoot to kill?

    Vandeberg said the objective of using deadly force is to stop the threat, whatever it takes. He explained that if an officer determines a threat exists, he fires his weapon to save himself from harm as well as anyone else. When officers fire their weapons, they are trained to aim for the "central nervous system zone," between the forehead and the torso.

    "Simply wounding someone, does not mean you have stopped the threat. And one shot, especially from a police revolver, is not an immediate way to stop someone. That's why it sometimes takes multiple shots," said Vandeberg. Several scenarios from the simulator demonstrated that.

    Vandeberg said officers in deadly force situations can opt to use a TASER or some other tool like pepper spray to subdue a suspect but only when they have what they call "deadly force cover," another officer standing by with a weapon drawn ready to shoot if necessary to stop the threat.

    The computer simulator costs about $80,000 and officers are trained for about $20 apiece. HPD Chief Marty Jensen said his officers get training on the simulator about once a year and do other weapons training about once a month. "But the simulator is a very effective training tool and I wish we could do more of it."

    The first Citizen Police Academy concludes Tuesday with a graduation ceremony for the nine participants at City Hall. There will be a graduation ceremony on May 26 at City Hall. Jensen said he expects that members of the public will be able to participate in another Citizen Police Academy in the fall. A nominal fee will be charged. For more information, contact the HPD at (715) 386-4771.

  • Meg Heaton

    Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

    (715) 808-8604