Georgia Lodewyk—Staff Writer
The small-sided building is located on a gravel road near the Sioux City airport. The Dordt University bus, carrying five Dordt criminal justice students, passes through the metal fence with a sign that says, “Warning: controlled area.” professor John Moeller leads the group of freshmen into the building where they sit at a small conference table.
It’s firearms training simulation day. The room is full of anxious excitement as the students wait to try VirTra: a $180,000 simulation system that has been used by law enforcement officers in Woodbury County for the past four years. Woodbury County officer Sergeant Chris Jansen, head of the simulation training, joins the students along with Sergeant Peterson, the head firearms instructor for the county, and Sheriff elect Chad Sheehan.
The officers and Professor Moeller feel this type of training is especially important in today’s society. Police officers need to know how to react to violence while learning proper communication in situations to lower tension.
“If you get to reholster, it’s a good day.” Sergeant Jansen tells the students. “[Shooting someone] forever changes your life and mind.”
Jansen reminds the students that, as public safety officers, the police’s job is to protect the general public. But there are worst-case scenarios. Those are the situations the students will practice today.
Three giant screens are propped up in the room at an angle so one student can step up to an X marked in the center of the screens. It takes up almost the entire room. In the student’s hand is a P229 Sig Sauer handgun: standard issue for many law enforcement agencies. But instead of bullets, it contains a laser so the computer can tell where he shoots. Sergeant Chris Jansen monitors the simulation from two computers in the back of the room. He controls the sounds, background, scenario, and how the people in the simulation respond to the de-escalation tactics. The simulation begins on the left. A man appears with a screwdriver near the back door of a house. A dog barks.
“Drop your screwdriver.” The student says.
The gun is still at his side.
The man puts his hands in the air, explaining that it is his sister’s house, and he is fixing the lock. He says he needs to go find his sister when a rustling is heard from the bushes on the right screen. When a person emerges from the bushes to the right, the student notices, lifts up his gun and shoots.
The simulation is over. He survived and shot the person in the side.
Professor Jon Moeller uses these simulations as teaching moments. He asks the student to recall the scene before them in detail, from the ages, gender, and race of the people in the simulation, to the objects in the background and what they were wearing. Moeller explains it is vital for officers to remember the details.
“Did you see the gun?” Moeller asks.
“I saw a flash.” The student said.
“So you saw the flash, but you did not see the gun.”
These details allow police officers to be held accountable for their actions. If they do come under fire through a lawsuit, a thorough report of their events and actions will help their case. But the purpose of the simulation can be boiled down to one simple question: When are you justified to pull the trigger?
When I received the opportunity to try a simulation, I realized the answer to that question is more complicated that most people will ever realize.
A man held a gun to his wife’s head as she sat blindfold and tied to a chair in the kitchen. A baby was in a carseat on the counter behind. I tried to tell him to drop his gun, but it wasn’t working. I dreaded my final option as I aimed the gun and shot.
I missed. The man shot his wife in the head before I shot him again.
“You survived,” Sergeant Peterson said. “You killed him, but now we have an orphan.” He pointed at the baby directly behind the dad, crying in the carseat.
There are no easy choices in situations like these. Not every situation is fixed by communication. Officers are trained to know how much time they have before they need to pull out their weapons. They look for signals in body language and keywords. Moeller explains the 21-foot rule: if a person is holding a weapon that could kill you and is closer than 21 feet away, an officer can use his weapon.
“He gets to make a decision in 2.1 seconds.” Sheriff elect Chad Sheehan explains. “The media gets to see this 5,000 times to see if he made the right decision in 2.1 seconds… you don’t get second chances.”
The opportunity students had to experience this firearm training this past October was a unique experience; one they will not easily forget.
“I learned that talking is hard.” freshman criminal justice major Luke Jackson said. “You’re worrying about what the other person may or may not be about to do.”
Like Jackson, freshman Katey Wieringa also attended the simulation training, though she’s actually an education major, not a criminal justice major.
“You never know what’s going to happen to you. Are they going to listen to you?” She said. “I could deal with kids like that depending on what age I teach…kids who have to deal with domestic violence…I need to know how to talk to them.”