Citizens Police Academy ends with series of simulated crises

Friday, October 1, 2010 | 12:15 a.m. CDT; updated 2:36 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 1, 2010
Sgt. Michael Hestir of the Columbia Police Department runs a gun simulation at the Columbia Police training facility Thursday. Participants had to determine when the use of deadly force is necessary and act or not using a pistol that fires a laser at a video screen.

Keisha Edwards had a shotgun in the house and said she was going to kill herself and her nephew. Tom and Karen Seeger had the police called on them for a domestic disturbance. And Lydia Green was pacing around a classroom because she couldn't find her "angels."

Whether volunteers, reserve officers or employees of the Columbia Police Department, these people and several others helped participants in the Citizens Police Academy graduate from the department's four-week program Thursday by role playing.


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On the last night of the class, which met every Tuesday and Thursday in September, students experienced five different scenarios commonly faced by police and were coached by officers on how to react properly.

"Tonight was really great," said Rosie Weilbacher, a participant. "We got to apply some of the skills that we've learned over this month of class."

One of the stations, a shooting simulator, allowed each person to play the role of a police officer by watching 40- to 90-second scenes of potential scenarios projected on a large screen in a dark room. With a fake pistol in hand, they had to decide upon the most reasonable response.

"As you'll see, when you're the person standing on the bull's-eye, it's a different perspective than when you're back here in the peanut gallery, for lack of a better term," Sgt. Michael Hester said. "The way we decide to use force is (by asking) does someone have the means, opportunity and apparent intent to injure or kill a citizen or police officer, and if those things exist, you can use lethal force to defend yourself or a citizen."

Scenarios included protecting a partner in a drug deal gone bad, playing the role of a sky marshal on an aircraft faced with a bomb threat, dealing with a suicidal and possibly drunken woman holding a knife and walking in on a shooting at a convenience store.

Hester said the simulator has more than 600 other scenes meant to train officers to think on their feet and interpret the subtle details of their surroundings — basically when to shoot, not necessarily how to shoot.

"We have to form an immediate opinion based on rapidly evolving facts and make a split-second decision," he said. "That's the burden that's on police officers when we go out here and try to do the right thing, and it's tough."

The 16 people who received graduation certificates participated in other simulations, including conducting a potentially dangerous traffic stop with guns hidden in the stopped car, calming down a mentally disturbed woman who was not taking her medication, defusing a domestic disturbance where the husband and wife would not admit to abuse, and dealing with a crisis involving a child and a shot gun.

Jessie Haden, the Police Department's public information officer, said the class serves as an educational and community-relations tool and provides the department with a potential pool of new volunteers. A new volunteer orientation will be held on Oct. 16 for anyone interested in joining the team.

The Citizens Police Academy started in 1998 and took a hiatus recently because of departmental reorganization, Haden said. The program typically runs every spring and fall.

"We knew all along that (the hiatus) was going to be temporary because it's been a really important function that we were able to do," Haden said.

Gary Stoner, now a graduate of the academy, said the course helped him shed his belief that police officers were harsh. He now sees them as more sensitive.

Classmate Michael Powelson agreed, saying that when a person doesn't grow up around police officers, only the business side of things is apparent, and it's hard to see them as real people facing difficult decisions.

"Nothing was sugar-coated," said Kevin Rafferty, another graduate. "It's not like an episode of "Cops" where you know he's going to get the bad guy."

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