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Training exercise prepares west-central Minnesota law enforcement officers for what 'we pray never happens'

All of the law enforcement officers in western Minnesota's Renville County participated in a training program this week on how to respond and effectively neutralize someone who wants to cause harm in a public setting.

Law enforcement officers make their way down a hallway Wednesday, June 8, 2022, at the former Bird Island Elementary School during an exercise to simulate the mayhem and confusion that would exist in an active shooter incident.
Law enforcement officers participating in a two-day training at the former Bird Island Elementary School make their way down a hallway Wednesday, June 8, 2022, during an exercise to simulate the mayhem and confusion that would exist in an active shooter incident.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune
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BIRD ISLAND, Minn. — Gunshots rang through the hallways of the former Bird Island Elementary School as law officers in tactical gear, weapons raised, dashed toward the source amid blaring music, darkness and smoke.

On Wednesday and Thursday, law enforcement officers with the Renville County Sheriff’s Office and all of the police departments in the county participated in a training led by Mission Critical Concepts. That this training came in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, was by circumstance.

The Renville County Sheriff’s Office had hoped to conduct the training just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but had to hit the pause button due to it, explained Jason Mathwig, chief deputy with the Renville County Sheriff’s Office. Fundraising and donations by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Backing the Blue Line in Renville County made it possible to offer the training now.

It’s all about training officers on how to respond and effectively neutralize someone who wants to cause harm in a public setting, Mathwig said.

“The more training they get, the more professional, the better they are going to be at what they do,” said Dave Sohm, Mission Critical Concepts.

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Sohm is a veteran of law enforcement work in North Dakota and Kansas and with the St. Paul Police Department. He led a team of two trainers who also brought their own years of experience in military and law enforcement service as well as being part of SWAT teams.

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The former Bird Island Elementary School was used for a two-day training program for all of the law enforcement officers in Renville County on how to respond to an active shooter situation. A participant is shown on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Officers with the Renville County Sheriff’s Office and the Olivia, Renville, Fairfax and Hector police departments brought a range of their own experience. There were three new officers to the profession along with veterans who have decades of service in the county and their communities.

Each participant committed to an eight-hour curriculum which included in the mock events in the school hallways. The training focused on "quick reaction force" tactics developed by the military and adapted for law enforcement situations.

The mock events in the darkened and noise-filled hallways were designed to simulate the confusion and mayhem officers would encounter in a real situation.

One of the most important aspects of the training is to acclimate officers to the tremendous amount of stress they would experience when responding to an active shooter incident, Sohm said.

The other is the importance of training itself. Officers need to know how to respond and work together, and to practice, practice and practice.

This recent training is a continuation of an initiative launched by the Sheriff’s Office in 2018. That’s when the office began offering training on active shooter and hostile intruder response to local schools, workplaces and daycare centers, according to Mathwig. The interest and response has been good, he added.

There was a time when training like this might have been met with some skepticism by those who believed rural areas were immune to these kinds of events. Too many recent events have shown otherwise.

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Mathwig and Sohm said all of the officers participating in the training arrived fully aware that they could someday be called to respond to a real situation.

At the heart of it all, the training is about saving lives, Mathwig and Sohm said.

That could include the lives of the officers. Sohm said a Navy SEAL friend of his told him a long time ago: “Your job is way more dangerous than mine.”

As a Navy SEAL, he goes into dangerous situations with a good idea of what awaits. Law enforcement officers usually don’t have that advantage.

“You walk up to the door. You have no idea what you are getting into,” said Sohm.

He and Mathwig said they want the public in Renville County to know that law enforcement is doing something about the threats that exist today. Every citizen should know that these guys are going to be there and able to respond professionally and actively if the worst happens, explained Sohm.

“We are getting prepared for that event that we pray never happens,” he said.

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The hallways of the former Bird Island Elementary School were the location for law enforcement training involving officers with the Renville County Sheriff's Office and the Fairfax, Hector, Renville and Olivia police departments on Wednesday and Thursday. An officer is shown responding to a simulated active shooter situation on Wednesday, June 8, 2022.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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