Halfway down the hall, past wounded civilians laid out on the floor, a crowd ran out of a door. Tyler Trowbridge raised the training pistol as a man wearing a ballistic jacket and carrying a handgun walked out behind them.
Trowbridge was the first member of his group to strap on a police equipment belt and step in front of the Missoula Police Department’s training simulator on Saturday, the last meeting of the department’s Citizens’ Law Enforcement Academy.
The simulator is a large projection screen in a basement room of the department. If the situation, shown as a video on the screen, involves the use of force, trainees can interact with what’s happening using a training pistol, Taser or canister of pepper spray, with dots on the screen showing where their shots hit.
Patrol Captain Rich Stepper told the academy members before the simulations began to interact with the screen as though they really were there. When Trowbridge, put into the scenario of responding to an active shooter, told the man to drop the weapon, he instead turned toward him and began to raise the pistol, causing Trowbridge to fire.
Detective Captain Michael Colyer said the simulator has more than 360 different scenarios that are preloaded into it. Many of them also have branching paths, with a trainer able to adjust on the fly what is going to happen based on how the trainee performs.
“This is not meant to test firearm proficiency,” Colyer said. “This thing is all about decision making. What is really important to us is are they making the right decisions quickly.”
Another simulation session had the trainee acting the part of an officer coming to a disturbance between a husband and wife. As the couple argue back and forth, the woman tells the trainee she’ll grab some identification from a backpack to show them. After digging around in the bag, her hand whips forward, holding the ID card, and the situation calms down quickly.
“Want to see how else that could have gone?” the trainer at the controls asks, loading the video loop again from the start and choosing a different branch.
This time, the woman instead pulls a handgun out of the backpack and jumps behind her husband, holding the muzzle to his head. The trainee has only a few seconds to pull out a weapon and fire before she kills him.
Saturday’s wrap-up meeting of the Citizens’ Law Enforcement Academy also included a tour of the entire police department, including allowing participants to squeeze through the tight spaces between crowded racks in its evidence rooms.
Detectives set up a mock crime scene to show how they go about collecting evidence, including gathering fingerprints or DNA to be sent to the State Crime Lab for analysis.
At the end of the course Tim Harrington, the K-9 officer, held a demonstration of his work with Halo, currently the only police dog in the department after its second one was retired last year. In May, officer Todd Horton will go through the training process to become the second K-9 officer.
Halo works with Harrington and lives with him when he's off duty. Originally born in Slovakia, the dog came to the department from another law enforcement agency in Washington, and responds to commands Harrington issues in German or Czech.
Harrington had Horton don a padded sleeve to show how Halo apprehends a suspect, calling the dog off after it sank its teeth into the material. The officer can then handle the offender, with Halo looking on from a distance, but the dog is trained to protect Harrington if he is attacked.
“So if I ask Todd to hit me, this is what happens” Harrington said, motioning for Horton to pretend to punch him. Halo leaped up and reengaged immediately.
“Out of all of the apprehensions we have done, I haven’t had the dog bite anyone,” Harrington said.