The Breezy Point Police Department spent two days in March training with the Laser Shot firearm simulation program to help officers prepare for instances of escalating conflict.
"A lot of people think that nothing happens in small towns, but that's not true," Police Chief Kevin Merschman said. "But 99.99 percent (of encounters) result in no issues so you don't hear about them."
He said his officers have to deal with upset people regularly, when emotions run high and the situation can become threatening if not dealt with correctly. On a weekly basis, the police are called for a variety of situations, including fights over child custody, neighbors refusing to compromise about a dock, active acts of violence and mental health concerns.
More often than not, verbal conflict resolution can de-escalate the situation without resorting to any kind of physical interaction, or the threatening party may be restrained yet unharmed. The use of deadly force is rare.
The intention of Laser Shot training is to help officers decide whether the use of deadly force is ever necessary in a given scenario, and how to safely and effectively neutralize a threat.
"There's less chance for errors if we know what we face," said Merschman. "I'm a firm believer in training. In stressful situations, your fine motor skills deteriorate. You fall back on an instinct, a reaction, like touching a hot frying pan and pulling your hand away. If you have training, then you will fall back on that training instead."
Officers who participate in Laser Shot simulations are outfitted with a replica taser and handgun. The program recognizes when each prop is fired, recording the accuracy of the officers' shots and when during the encounter they decided to use force.
The officer, via a first-person perspective video projected in front of him or her, responds to a simulated scene of a 911 call and attempts to handle the situation however the officer sees fit.
Some scenes involve someone non-threatening, and the officer may never need to draw a weapon. Others show the officer arriving on scene to someone openly brandishing a weapon and endangering those nearby. The officer may attempt to incapacitate the threatening figure with a taser, but if lives are actively at risk, the officer could decide to pull a gun and shoot.
"It's good training in decision making, and it does add some stress to see how a person will react, so it's a little more realistic," said Merschman. "Obviously you can't re-create a real-life situation."
Merschman invited this reporter to observe and participate in the training so that I, as a civilian, could get an inside look at protocol and procedures that officers must follow.
After I watched Sgt. Brian Sandell handle several Laser Shot scenarios, I was given a holster for the replica weapons and took my place in front of the screen.
As someone who didn't grow up in a hunting family, and in fact had never held a gun, much less fired one, until a little over a year ago, I've never been comfortable around firearms. It took a significant amount of coaxing to even get a shotgun in my hands the one time I attempted to shoot clay pigeons recreationally.
Therefore, I was very apprehensive to try my hand at this firearm simulator, and I certainly did not feel confident. Sure, I would be using prop weapons in the simulation, but I would be observed by trained officers who actually know what the right move is, and my decisions about using deadly force in a variety of scenarios would be published for the world to see. I felt, in a word, unprepared.
I realized, however, that all of my nervous thoughts were exactly why it was important to participate and share what I experienced. Outside of a training simulator, police officers regularly encounter real high-pressure situations, and the decisions they make have significant consequences that are public knowledge. The least I could do was learn from the Breezy Point officers and fumble through this program in hopes of educating the public on how police departments train to handle conflicts.
I was first given instructions on the five-point process for safely drawing a weapon from my holster and was allowed a few rounds of target practice at the screen before getting thrown into simulations.
When it was time to attempt an active situation, I tensed up. Not only did I have to determine whether deadly force was necessary for the given circumstance, I also had to attempt to de-escalate the conflict using words first.
I attempted to mimic Sgt. Sandell by asking the person on screen, "Can we talk for a moment?" and saying, "Keep your hands where I can see them," or "Put down the object," if the person in question was not complying.
I felt the level of added stress that Merschman had been talking about right away. Part of that came from my knowledge that officers who knew far more than I did were monitoring my performance, but part of it was just trying to stay aware of everything that was happening within the scene.
During a few rounds, I did decide to discharge the handgun when the subject on screen rushed toward me with a brandished weapon. I was told that I "didn't shoot anyone that didn't need to get shot," which meant I was successful, but that still didn't sit well with me. I felt that I was able to pull the trigger on this fake weapon because there was still a level of separation between myself and any real consequences. It felt, in a way, like I was playing a very stressful video game.
If I had been standing in front of a real human being and holding a real gun, I am absolutely certain that I would not be able to fire, even if that person ran at me like on screen. Merschman acknowledged that this cognitive dissonance exists among trained officers as well.
"It's stressful because we're not just faced with the knowledge that you might be taking someone's life, but you might be making a mistake, or you might die as well," he said. "Training is the best way of simulating that because you know that it could be a real situation, so you want to get it right when it is just a simulation."
The scenario I ended my training on was an active shooter situation in a school. I did not expect to confront this situation, and I certainly was not prepared to hear the screams of children held hostage or gunshots ringing through the hallway.
Sure, it was just actors in a pre-recorded video projected on a wall, but I was so focused on trying to locate the threat and not make any mistakes in the simulation that my mind easily believed I was in a dangerous place. Officer Jay Lorch, who controlled the Laser Shot program for me, said he noticed that I flinched whenever something unexpected happened. I was on edge.
The simulation ended with my "partner" and I confronting the gunman while he was surrounded by student hostages. The gunman killed one of them before we had a clear shot, and when I did fire, I missed four times before hitting my target. None of it was real, but I was shaken nonetheless. The sounds of that encounter stayed with me for the rest of the day. I would never again want to experience what those five fake minutes felt like.
As a civilian taking part in those simulations, I have an appreciation for the rules police officers are trained to follow for a variety of situations. I understand (to some degree) why someone without regular training like this could make a grave mistake in the line of duty because they were jumpy or felt like they lost control of the situation.
Merschman said he invited me to participate in the Laser Shot training as a civilian because he wanted me to experience first-hand how difficult the decision-making process can be in stressful situations. He said the general public often misunderstands police protocol or expects officers to act in a way that isn't on par with regulations.
Specifically, he said, people have come to expect police to rely on tasers more than is reasonable. Tasers may not connect with the target, and they can only be fired once. He said that is not the correct procedure when dealing with a deadly threat.
"We don't shoot to wound, we shoot to get rid of the threat," said Merschman. "And we will keep shooting until that threat no longer exists."
Merschman said he wanted to encourage civilians to better understand why officers, both locally and nationally, make the decisions they do out in the field.
"There is nothing wrong with being scrutinized," he said. "Because of what we do, it's important to have those checks and balances. But it's people jumping to conclusions without all the facts, and not understanding. Because why would you? You're not involved in law enforcement, and you don't know the rules we have to follow, or the limitations we have."
The Breezy Point Police Department, and most of the other departments in the Brainerd lakes area, have not needed to use deadly force in years. However, the officers have been faced with situations that needed a quick decision, and could have ended very differently if they made the wrong choice.
Laser Shot was purchased through a Sourcewell grant for all of Region 5, including Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties. The program travels between departments across the region so all officers can receive the training needed to effectively do their jobs.