It’s training day

Published 10:24 am Friday, February 19, 2010

With his Glock handgun holstered at his side, Ross Johnson moved into the dark storeroom.

Responding to a report of a possible in-progress burglary, Austin’s newest police officer carefully navigated the aisles, shining his flashlight ahead.

Then, a man came bursting from an office door, gun drawn and ready to fire on the lone officer. In the blink of an eye, the 32-year-old Johnson pulled his weapon and shot the assailant dead.

When it was over, the lights came on and Johnson readied for some teaching points.

That dangerous encounter was in fact a virtual scenario, presented to Johnson on a high-tech screen roughly 10 feet in front of him in a Riverland Community College warehouse. Along with various other virtual and live-action scenarios, the “attempted burglary” was part of Johnson’s intense training before he hits the streets of Austin alone.

“Definitely, it’s going to overwhelm you a little bit,” Johnson said of what was thrown at him. “But I think that’s the purpose of the training.”

The scenario portion of Johnson’s training was conducted on Feb. 12, the culmination of two-weeks of “in-house” training that included plenty of book work and weapons handling.

Starting with relatively routine traffic stops, the young cop reacted to situations that presented themselves on-screen. Sometimes, it required nothing more than issuing a simple ticket or talking someone out of trouble. But other times, the people on-screen would draw weapons, forcing Johnson into quick decisions.

If he pulled his gun, a sophisticated tracking system would show him where his shots landed. A direct shot would take out the virtual attacker.

But when the action ended, the real work began for Johnson. Lt. Rene Phan, who oversees new officer training for the Austin Police Department, peppered the young cop with questions, pressing him on why he did what he did.

Johnson often responded confidently, saying that his training prepared him for his actions. But at times, the young cop sounded less sure of himself.

And that’s exactly what Phan was looking for.

To the lieutenant, the scenario training provides an opportunity to expose mistakes and correct them before they ever get made on the streets of Austin. That’s why he said it’s so important that officers like Johnson treat the situations as realistically as possible.

“Training should translate directly to the streets,” Phan said.

Johnson said the scenarios he confronted were authentic enough for that to be possible.

“This is probably the best training I’ve had,” said the former Lakeville cop and National Guard Recruiter. “It really is good.”

To make training even more realistic for Johnson, Phan and fellow training officers Jeff McCormack, Mike Tischer, Brant Strouf and Dustin Wollenburg took the scenarios to a new level. After finishing on the screen, Johnson was thrown into live-action situations.

These ranged the gamut from domestic disputes to noisy parties to traffic stops. Sometimes, Johnson’s fellow cops and several other volunteer actors would cooperate peacefully with the new officer.

But other times, the actors challenged Johnson a bit, fighting with him during arrests or acting belligerently drunk.

The situations were deliberately staged to be very realistic — Johnson was armed with mock weapons, including an inert chemical spray. And the struggles with non-cooperative suspects were very real, with Johnson often wrestling subjects to the ground or handcuffing them while pinning them to the hood of a squad car.

The whole goal, of course, was to keep Johnson on his toes and see what his strengths and weaknesses are.

The new officer, who was sworn in less than a month ago, said the big thing he was looking to do during the live-action training was to shake off rust — Johnson last worked as a Lakeville cop in 2004.

“I’m getting back up to speed,” he said.

Phan said he was impressed with the young officer, making minor tweaks and suggestions but ultimately allowing Johnson to be on his own.

“I think he’s doing really well,” Phan said. “We accomplished a lot.”

But of course, Phan said that Johnson is “doing well” not that he “did well.” That’s because the young officer still has plenty of training left to do.

On Wednesday, Johnson started his field training. For roughly the next three months, he will be tagging alongside training officers as they make their routine patrols throughout Austin.

Johnson’s training will include exposure to morning, afternoon and night shifts, meaning he’s bound to see a number of different types of calls. His primary training officer will be Strouf, but he will learn from all the training officers involved.

The new officer said after his in-house training that he was excited for this next phase.

“I’m definitely looking forward to just getting out in the community,” Johnson said.

When the three months are up, Johnson’s training wheels will come off, and he’ll be ready to go it alone. Though Phan said he’s very proud of the intense, realistic training conducted by the APD, he knows there’s no way of completely preparing someone for what they’ll actually face in real life.

“I think any new officer will have some jitters,” Phan said. “When you’re on the streets, it’s different.”

Johnson said his training has been great so far, but he agreed with Phan that there will be some “jitters” when he first patrols alone.

“Oh, absolutely,” the new officer said. “I’m still going to have to look at the map and get to know everyone in the community … We know we won’t be able to cover everything in three months.”

But with such a rigorous training program, the APD certainly is trying.