Police trainees take live action final exam
A pretty little town in Monroe County is full of unruly, hot-headed citizens who are in constant trouble with the law.
The village experienced a rash of almost nonstop crime recently, including numerous armed robberies, shootings and petty arguments.
It’s called “Yourtown” and its main street is Hazardous Boulevard.
It’s the mock town at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, where would-be law enforcement officers learn to deal with the chaos that can erupt at any given moment.
Last week, cadets were conducting what amounts to a live-action final exam before they can go into the real world with a gun and arrest powers. They were at the end of the state’s 11-week course that certifies people to become officers.
Those who graduated Friday will now go back to the agencies that hired them, and spend three months or more on patrol with an experienced officer before they can go out on their own.
At the mock town, they were not just simulating individual crimes but an entire shift. Calls were dispatched over a radio and the cadets had to respond. They carried blue handguns that were shaped like a 9 mm but fired paintballs. In situations were shooting might erupt, all participants wore masks.
Cadets also acted as role players. In one scenario, a call went out of a disturbance at The Pink Flamingo motel. A customer was arguing with the clerk because she thought her room was dirty and wanted a refund.
When the cadets, acting as the officers, arrived, they saw that the customer had a holstered gun. The clerk also had a gun on the counter, but neither was wielding their weapon.
The officers correctly did not panic and draw guns, because it’s not illegal to have a gun. They did separate the two, still loudly arguing, and got the woman outside. Eventually they diffused the situation and concluded that no one needed to be arrested.
As was the case with many of the scenarios, the training instructor told the cadets they generally did well, but he had plenty of tips on what they could have done better.
One thing he noticed was the cadets seemed to immediately favor the side of the clerk, when the instructor observed the clerk seemed to be the biggest agitator of the conflict.
“Don’t always assume that the person behind the counter is the one (who) is right,” said Bernard Monti, a Henry County Police Department officer who volunteers as a trainer at the academy.
He said he based the scenario, and others he uses, on his own real-world experiences on the job.
One touch of modern law enforcement added to many of the scenarios is that a bystander is recording the events on a cellphone and loudly letting the officers know. The cadets are trained to leave such people alone as long as they are not interfering.
One final word that Monti offered is that the cadets should always be able to explain their actions clearly.
“There’s not, in my opinion, a whole lot of bad shootings,” he said, “but we do have bad articulation.”
After each scenario the cadets fill out an incident report just like they would in the real world. Attorneys will later question them in a mock courtroom about the contents of the report.
Use-of-force training starts with the law
Five weeks earlier, the same cadets sat in a classroom and learned the law that applies to use of force.
Use-of-force instruction is done throughout the training. But Lt. Pete Spahn’s class focused on it for three hours to prepare the cadets to demonstrate what they have learned in a simulator.
If they failed it, they couldn’t become law enforcement officers.
Spahn began with the 1989 Supreme Court case, Graham vs. Connor. It involved the arrest of a man suffering from a diabetic episode, but who officers believed was drunk or on drugs. In the struggle to subdue him, the man suffered injuries.
The ruling set the standard for use of force by law enforcement officers. Spahn referred to the case repeatedly throughout the morning. Among its findings, the case concluded officers should not be judged by the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but by what a reasonable person would conclude in the given circumstances.
It also stated that no set standard can be applied to every situation, because every situation is different.
The cadets, in their fifth week of the training at that time, were a diverse group. The class was well-balanced with black and white, men and women. Most appeared to be in their 20s.
No one was staring off into space or doodling in a notebook. There was a sense they knew the importance of what they were learning, that this could be what stands between them and a future date with serious trouble. All eyes were forward and the group was fully engaged, quickly answering in unison whenever Spahn asked a question.
That happens when he gets to the heart of the matter.
“Do we want to try to not use force every chance that we can?” Spahn asked.
“Yes,” came the immediate answer.
“If we can verbally convince somebody to do something,” Spahn continued, “we would much rather do that, guys. Your careers will be a lot longer. Your health will be a lot better, and you won’t be having to roll around on the ground.”
A couple of minutes later, he also said, “I don’t want you being scared to use force if it’s time to use force. That’s what we can’t do. There’s going to be people out there (who) are going to try to commit violence against you, and you have to respond with force.”
Academy has many hurdles to complete
The training center is a 900-acre facility that serves law enforcement, corrections officers and firefighters throughout the state. It has a real prison.
All sorts of training can be seen in a tour of the facility, but most of that is current law enforcement officers getting additional training.
The academy that gives basic training for people who want to enter law enforcement is a small part of the center. It has five instructors, headed by Tim Melton.
Anyone in the area who wants to become a police officer or deputy has to go through the center, and successful completion of the course is not a sure thing.
About one in 20 will wash out. In addition to academic tests, there are 32 performance tests throughout the course each cadet must pass and failure at any one would mean expulsion.
One of the most common test that leads to dismissals is the driving test. Students practice maneuvers on a coned course, then have to complete it in a set time without knocking cones over. It’s not pursuit training but a test of basic emergency driving skills, and some do not pass it.
The other test that knocks people out the most is the use-of-force simulator as well as live training that comes at the end of the training.
The course also has daily physical training, a particular challenge for the summer class. There is no fitness standard to pass, but they do have to show improvement.
Ethics are also a big part of the training, and cadets can get kicked out if they have a lapse. Melton said there was a recent incident in which a cadet put money in a vending machine at the center. He got his bag of chips, but his money came back out. Another cadet saw him take the money and chips and leave.
The cadet wasn’t kicked out but he was disciplined, and the incident was discussed in the class. The lesson, Melton said, is that ethical lapses in law enforcement are a slippery slope.
Simulator puts cadets to the test
After Spahn’s class, cadets one-by-one began using the use-of-force simulator. They faced a giant screen, with an electronic gun in their holster.
At a laptop behind them, Spahn could control what happened on the screen. In the exact same scenario, the suspect could react differently depending on the actions of the cadet.
At that time, they were just practicing. But the next day they would have to do it as a performance test. If they made the wrong decision, they would get some additional training and one more chance. If they still made the wrong choice, they would be kicked out.
And it’s not just a matter if they are supposed to shoot one suspect or not shoot another. They have to explain what they did and why, and specifically what they saw that made them believe there was a threat or there wasn’t. They also have to cite case law to back up their actions.
Among the cadets using the simulator was Jaleel Brown, a Monroe County Sheriff’s Department trainee. Spahn’s biggest advice to Brown, a soft-spoken man, was that he needed to speak louder when addressing unruly suspects.
Brown said he found the simulator training, and the entire course, good preparation to become a law enforcement officer.
“I love the training,” he said. “I think we, as law enforcement officers, should maybe have training every year.”
Cadet Dustin Dixon is a trainee for the Fort Valley Police Department. He grew up in a tough neighborhood in Decatur and respected the importance of the job police officers did. His interactions with police were positive when he was growing up, he said.
“I always looked at them as that I wanted to do that,” he said.
Social media brings challenges to law enforcement
Melton did not want to discuss any particular incident involving use-of-force by police.
The training program does sometimes use those incidents, and related videos, but only after the case has been fully investigated and all the facts are known.
Melton did have a thought for people to consider in general when videos of those incidents hit the news.
“Don’t rush to judgment,” he said. “What unnerves me is that we will go ahead and try to convict the person, and it’s not just the media but the public in general. Either the officer or the suspect is already convicted before we get the facts out and we need to really slow that down because it’s not fair to anybody.”