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St. Louis officers train for active shootings in simulators

June 8, 2018

O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — Officer Joshua Gregory was on his third day on the job when he got the call to report to police headquarters for some training.

Once there, he was looking over the modified versions of his duty weapons — a handgun, Taser and rifle — that Training Officer Bryan Shepard gave him when something caught his attention.

“What’s this for?” he asked of a box that was about the size of a brick that attached to the back of his duty belt.

“You’ll find out,” Shepard replied.

Gregory then stepped inside a semicircle of five screens, each large enough to show life-size actors on a realistic background scene. Head Training Officer Ed Smith told Gregory he was about to enter Fort Zumwalt North High School to investigate social media rumors about someone with a gun in the school.

The screens lit up and Gregory was inside the lobby of a building he had never seen. Gregory asked two teenage girls what was going on when suddenly, shots rang out. Gregory fired shots at a distant gunman, darted toward a pillar for cover, and yelled into his radio that shots had been fired and students were down.

All the while, training officers watched Gregory’s every move, critiquing every step, analyzing every word. The simulator tracks an officer’s shot placement and cameras perched atop the screens also film the officer. The scenario can be replayed once the officer is finished.

The training officers can show department policies on the screens should he violate them or seem unsure, or they could take him to the range to improve his aim.

The exercise is the latest way police departments locally and across the country are trying to prepare officers to respond to an active shooter at one of their schools. Several area police academies, including the St. Louis County Municipal Police Academy and Jefferson College Law Enforcement Academy in Hillsboro, use the system, known as VirTra.

But O’Fallon officials believe they are the first department to film scenarios inside their own schools. St. Louis County police officers also are planning to start filming local school shooting scenarios sometime this year.

The O’Fallon police department is the second-largest municipal law-enforcement agency in the area, with 118 officers, according to Chief Roy Joachimstaler. The department sends every officer on the roster through the training, and starts it over again once everyone has participated. So officers such as Gregory will visit the shooting simulator about every three weeks.

The training and the real-world locations projected on the screens are important. The more real the experience, the more the body remembers how to react if confronted with a scenario again, Smith said.

Some call the phenomena muscle memory, and the more officers learn about how their bodies handle stress, the more prepared they will be when confronted with it in reality, Smith told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch .

“I call it sharpening the knife,” he said. “He’s going to go back out there a little sharper than he was when he came in.”

Shepard sat comfortably behind a desk monitoring two computer screens and manipulating how the scenario would unfold based on Gregory’s performance.

If Gregory used good de-escalation techniques, the situation could cool. Victims might escape. The shooter might peacefully surrender.

If not, the confrontation could intensify. More victims could die. And he might have to use deadly force.

Gregory served as an officer with the Cape Girardeau Police Department for three years before coming to O’Fallon, and said the new system at his new department was different from any training he’d done previously.

“I’ve been through training before, but not necessarily your situational type of stuff,” he said. “This puts you out in the middle of what’s actually going on.”

The modified weapons fire compressed air to simulate the kick of actual shots or Taser prongs being fired.

And that brick-looking device on Gregory’s back?

He yelled an expletive as it delivered a 50,000-volt jolt to his flank to simulate the feeling of being shot as a gunman he didn’t see behind him fired.

Smith said he got the idea to film schools as he was meeting with representatives from the manufacturer on Feb. 14. That day, a shooter killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

The department paid the company $300,000 for the simulator, which comes with about 175 shoot-don’t shoot scenarios. Smith said the department had opted to pay an extra $50,000 for the software it needed to upload scenarios filmed at area locations. Funds came from a public safety bond issue passed by voters.

Schools came first. To film them, Smith went to Fort Zumwalt North and West high schools as well as Liberty High School in the Wentzville School District armed with a cellphone to take panoramic photos inside. He then uploaded the images into the program and superimposed actors from other scenarios into the images.

Back at police headquarters, that left Gregory taking cover behind the image of an actual pillar that stands inside the lobby of Fort Zumwalt North, grabbing his back in pain from the electric shock he’d received.

After Gregory grabbed his back in pain from the electric shock, another shooter appeared to his side. He immediately repositioned his rifle and returned fire.

After about three minutes, the screens went white. Gregory re-holstered his weapon, and caught his breath as if he had just run a marathon inside the roughly 20-foot semicircle. Sweat beaded near his brow. His face was flushed.

“Well, now I know what that box was for,” he quipped.

His fellow officers chuckled.

“Yes, but you did exactly what you were supposed to do,” Smith told him. “You kept fighting.”

In addition to schools, training officers in O’Fallon have created scenarios from footage from inside area churches and City Hall and are in talks with businesses as well, Smith said. Officers have also gone through more generic scenarios.

But it’s the school scenarios that really resonate, with several school shootings since Parkland and innumerable threats around the country that have brought police response.

Bernard DuBray, longtime superintendent for the Fort Zumwalt School District, attended one of the training sessions to see the program, and the officers, in action.

When DuBray walked back inside the auditorium at one of his high schools after the training, he said the feelings he experienced while watching the training — uneasy stomach, heart racing, palms sweating — returned.

“I’ve been a superintendent for 33 years, and there was a time when this kind of thing was the furthest thing from your mind,” he said. “Now, we must do our lockdown drills and have armed officers in the schools. It’s a pretty different world for education.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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