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Firearms simulator helps Willmar, Minn., law enforcement officers train for real calls

Willmar Police Officer Chad Oakleaf participates in a training program that uses a laser-equipped handgun and large video screen to simulate a wide variety of real life scenarios. Oakleaf joined 65 other officers from the Willmar Police Department and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office for the training at the county's Emergency Operations Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The screen image of an apparently intoxicated man randomly firing a handgun in an empty parking garage wasn't real. But, then again, neither was the spray of lethal bullets from the red and blue gun in Officer Chad Oakleaf's hand. What was very real was the use-of-force and firearms training this week for Oakleaf and 65 other officers from the Willmar Police Department and the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office.

The local law enforcement agencies rented a firearms simulator from Alexandria Technical College and conducted the training on-site at the county's Emergency Operations Center, part of the Law Enforcement Center complex on the north edge of Willmar.

The simulator system uses a laser-equipped handgun and large video screen to simulate a wide variety of real life scenarios to train officers on the department's use-of-force policies, weapons use and marksmanship.

Police Capt. Jim Felt and Oakleaf demonstrated the simulator Wednesday for local media. In addition, sheriff's reserve officers, Police Department community service officers, People on Watch volunteers, dispatchers, civilian workers at the Law Enforcement Center, city and county elected officials, attorneys and staff members from the county attorney's office and public defender's office were invited to use the system.

The goal is help the officials and civilians understand what it feels like to enter situations during which law enforcement officers encounter angry, disturbed or impaired individuals who may be armed with guns, knives, axes and other weapons, Felt said.

Each of the officers with the Willmar Police Department and Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office had a 30-minute training slot using the system. Another trained officer operated the computer that can change the scenarios, making the person on the video screen comply with or disregard the officer's spoken orders. The training includes discussion and analysis of the officer's decisions during the simulation.

"You have to make snap decisions," Oakleaf said after shooting the guy with the gun in the parking garage. "Because in real life, things happen quick."

There are more than 1,000 scenarios in the computer's system, ranging from a corrections situation, such as a fight in a jail, to SWAT team situations. Other scenarios may include courtroom or school shootings, domestic situations, suicide threats, workspace arguments, bank robberies, burglaries and just about any other possible incident requiring police involvement.

As each scenario begins, officers receive a verbal briefing similar to the information they would receive via radio from dispatch. The point-of-view video shows the officer entering the situation just as he or she would in real life.

The simulator makes the situation feel very real, so much so that the officers put away their Glock service weapons so that they don't accidentally draw and fire the real weapon instead of the laser-equipped gun. They also use their official, take-charge voices, so much so that their shouting can be heard down the hallway of the building, Felt said.

As much as the scenarios teach officers how to respond to the danger of someone shooting at or attacking them, they also teach officers how to successfully de-escalate a situation, Felt said.

"Officers also learn not every situation is a shooting situation," he said. "People do comply with the orders."

The scenarios put forth by the system are much more realistic, showing the complex situations that officers are called into, Felt said. Just as realistic are the officer's choices in how he can respond -- with words, physical confrontation or restraint or weapons ranging from pepper spray, a stun gun jolt or bullets fired from his gun.

"This is a really good tool on use of force decision-making," he said.

Officers have to qualify each year by passing marksmanship tests, which used to be shooting a silhouette with their handgun, shotgun or rifle. This technology makes that test much more real.

"This system pushes officers past marksmanship and into real life," Oakleaf said.

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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