Staying Operational with the Kalispell Police
As soon as I stepped into the situation, my mouth went dry and the anxiety rose. Dispatch had come through with reports of a suicidal black male in a pickup truck. The police were called to intervene. A man was speaking with the suspect when I rounded the back of the truck.
“Officer!” he shouts. “I had to let him go and he won’t leave! He’s scaring everyone! Please make him go!”
My hand hovers over my holstered Glock. The suspect steps out of the truck after his former employer leaves. He has the gun to his head with his back facing me.
“Sir! Please put the gun down!” I shout.
He ignores me and continues forward. “Stop right there!”
The suspect walks into the office building where I hear the thudding report of pistol shots.
What’s the headline in the news?
Threat Level Montana
This certainly was not a real situation but when the screens went blank on the simulator at Northwest Shooter, it felt like one as I turned to face three officers from the Kalispell Police Department. While I was nervous and had no training, this was a real shock into police officers’ situations. I didn’t know when I could pull my gun out, or if it was considered acceptable to fire.
So, what is considered a threat?
In the state of Montana, lethal force is acceptable for self-defense or in the defense of another. So in this particular case, it would have been necessary to use lethal force to keep the suspect from harming me, himself, or any of his coworkers. By not using lethal force, I had allowed a workplace shooting to occur. One of the officers pointed out to me that either way, the headlines wouldn’t look good.
On television shows, we see police officers tackling suspects…a lot. So, would tackling work in this scenario? In an email, Chief Overman said, “You always hope for verbal compliance. Anything you do to close the gap increases the likelihood of escalation.” The priorities of life the officers work with are always “the innocents…, the officer, and the person making the choices.” In the end, “his choices dictate all of the rest of the scenario.”
Chief of Police Doug Overman took over the scenario with Sergeant Ryan Bartholomew on the computer. What was interesting with this simulator, was how real it made the situation feel. Like the simulator in “Sniper 3,” this one gave the full scene with real people, nothing like a video game. The gun is air-operated and loads in a magazine. When the trigger is pulled, a laser registers where a bullet would go.
Taken from the Northwest Shooter website.
I took a seat to watch a real officer go through one. His scenario was a domestic violence one where a husband/boyfriend had tied up their significant other to a chair, holding a gun to her head. Overman identified himself and told the suspect to put the gun down. He did not comply and Overman pulled the trigger. It was a headshot and I was already wondering why that shot? Were there other ways?
On police procedural shows, you see the officer attempt to talk the suspect down from hurting anyone. I mentioned the show “Criminal Minds” and how the profilers will attempt to talk down a mentally ill suspect even when there is a person in danger. Tim Falkner, Administrative Captain, said that he and his daughter had watched the show as well, and pointed out that for one, profilers aren’t in the door first if they’re even there. In a scenario, as the one Chief Overman went through, if you attempt to talk the person down, then you’re gambling with the other person’s life.
A Police Shootout Study
Why the headshot? Chief Overman told me about a class the FBI had done that he attended. In the class, the agents referred to a 1986 shootout when they found that the human body could go 15–16 seconds despite being shot in the heart. Chief Overman asked me how many shots could someone get off? I suspected at least one magazine. Captain Falkner said that you could put in a new magazine and fire it off. The point was that a body shot would leave the shooter active enough to harm others. A headshot leaves the suspect the only one dead.
Sergeant Bartholomew asked me if I had seen the baby carriage behind the suspect. He rewound the footage and showed a baby carriage on the counter behind the suspect. One round through the body would potentially hurt another life. The flip side of the coin is, the abuser would never hurt the abused. The police officer is blamed for saving a life.
After I had done one and watched Chief Overman, I felt a little more confident. I took the Glock from Chief Overman and stepped up on the platform. Pistol in the holster, Sergeant Bartholomew described the situation to me. There was a suspect with a knife and lethal force is allowed if they come 21 feet to you. He showed the side view of the suspect and the distance markers on the panel to the right.
The simulation started and the suspect started speaking a different language. I wasn’t sure what language because I was focused on the knife and how to de-escalate the situation. How do you talk down someone who doesn’t speak your language, though? My pistol was still holstered when he crossed the 21-foot line. I wasn’t fast enough. My immediate question to the trio of officers was how to talk down someone who spoke a different language?
“Universal language,” Sergeant Bartholomew quipped. He made a downward hand motion. “That and everyone knows things are getting serious when a gun is shown.” One of the other officers agreed and said that the gun doesn’t even need to be pointed at the person but the mere presence is enough.
The incident was rewound and replayed to show how fast someone can clear 21-feet. It was shown the distance was done in 1.12 seconds. I would have tasted steel if this simulation were real. Having the gun out and at my side would have been a better deterrent. I did a simulation similar to that previous one, but they were doing some karate moves before coming at me. I fired and thankfully missed.
“You just shot an unarmed person,” one of the officers said. It doesn’t matter that I would have missed him. It would have mattered that I took the shot.
“Put the baby down.”
On a regular patrol down a rural road like the countless backroads in the valley, a white, middle-aged woman flagged me down. Her husband or boyfriend had taken her baby and car down to the bridge and was going to drop the baby over the bridge. My insides seemed to freeze and for a moment my brain couldn’t register. I’m a father to three and that is inconceivable to me.
I pull up and step out of the car. At this point, I don’t register the gun in my hand. It’s at my side, as though hiding it. The man is obviously distraught and keeps telling me to go away. I stand back and try to tell him to step away from the side of the bridge so we can talk. I find myself invested in the situation and respond as though it were real.
Another cop car pulls up about the time I might’ve ended the situation peacefully. The suspect panics and holds the baby over the side, yelling at both of us. The other officer calls out to me, “Okay, I’m backing off. You got this!” The cop car backs out quickly. Do I? I wonder. It seems a moment later the entire conversation flips and the suspect pulls a gun out, pointed at the baby.
“Yeah, what’re you gonna do now?” he starts forward towards the truck and I know it’s not going to end peacefully. My mind races with what I’ve learned thus far. If I shoot him in the leg, he can still pull the trigger and the head is too small a target with the child’s position. Smart on his part. This wasn’t a western and I’m not a good enough shot to hit his gun hand.
Just when I believed he was getting into the cab of the truck, I squeezed off my shot. He fell back and the baby dropped. It was obviously a fake baby but that didn’t register. My first question to the officers, because I have three children, was how often do you have to push your own emotions to the side? A very simple reply was: “Every day.”
Captain Falkner explained further that police officers are humans, too. Humans have emotions, they have their own personal lives and things to deal with. With that, an officer may go from dealing with a domestic abuse case and then go right to a traffic ticket, with the domestic case still on their mind.
“You have to act diplomatic,” Captain Falkner said. “You are the unemotionally invested one in the situation.”
“So, what you’re saying is someone who struggles with anxiety shouldn’t become a police officer?” I asked jokingly.
They laughed at that and said, “No.” I thought of a coworker I once had who was a police officer in a California city. I think it was Los Angeles, but I could be wrong. He mentioned once having to be on a case with a little girl who had been shot and died in his arms. She had reminded him of his own little girl. It would be incredibly likely that he would have to pull over a car for speeding, and have to switch his mindset.
A Keen Police Eye
The last simulation I did was one that I show up to a group of what turned out to be kids shooting air rifles and drinking beer. Dispatch said the caller saw people shooting guns and drinking beer. Guns and alcohol do not go together, and any shooter knows this. The two young men I came up behind instantly told me they were air guns and put them down. Even with the simulation, I could tell. Another guy came out of the trees and put his air gun down.
At this point, I’m thinking Okay, obviously there’s no serious threat, just some guys shooting off some air guns. How many times have I done that? I try to maybe say the right thing to end the patrol and end the day on a high note. There was a bit of awkwardness, as I stood there waiting for the simulation to end. I was going to test out the taser (simulation) but it seemed like I wasn’t going to get to.
“Hey, what is this?” someone says. I look over to my left where a guy comes out pretty aggressively. He doesn’t leave any time for me to express that there’s no issue just checking on a call. He puts the gun down and gets on his knees with his hands locked behind his head.
“There’s no need for that,” I say a moment before the simulation ends.
“Did you see the weapon he had?” Sergeant Bartholomew asks me.
“Uh…no,” I reply reluctantly.
He rewinds the simulation and sure enough, there’s the grip of an automatic in his pocket. Here’s a situation with someone who is already acting aggressively towards me, “the officer,” and might have a live gun in his pocket. Or it might be an air pistol like the others. From what I’ve learned thus far if you’ve just left a domestic disturbance and this is your next call, you are already on high alert and stress. This was a situation that very well could escalate to something that it didn’t have to be.
Police-issued Sidearms and Jests
As I was leaving with the officers, they were retrieving their sidearms from secured lockers. I then had to ask about these sidearms, since I was always curious if there was a mandate about what kind of sidearm an officer carries. There was not, and Sergeant Bartholomew showed me a 1911-model pistol one could use in the simulation.
“Yeah, but only the dinosaurs carry those,” Chief Overman commented, shooting a humorous glance at Captain Falkner.
I noticed the weapon he carried as a 1911-model, but he himself would not be categorized as “a dinosaur.” This was a conversation among professionals, humans, and great people.
In today’s society, it is important to remember that humans are humans. Fallible creatures that have many doing the very best they can. Of course, some don’t care about good and seek to do evil. This is why first responders like these men from the Kalispell Police Department continually train in many other aspects and have mandatory hours to fill that they “continually exceed,” according to Chief Overman, to stay operational at full capacity.