As part of Police Week across Ontario, the Niagara Regional Police Service (NRPS) invited members of the local media to experience a morning at their Training Unit in Welland. The Local was one of five such outlets to participate in Use of Force training.
Const. Phil Gavin, NRPS media officer, explained that this year’s theme, chosen by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) for 2022, is Your Police Services: Helping Build Safer Communities.
“This event fits right in with us in building safer communities,” Gavin told The Local. “The media is a major partner for us in how we get our message to the community. Media plays a critical role for us. We rely on them to help share what we do, to help find missing children and to help solve crimes at times.”
Gavin said the day was about strengthening the relationship between the police and the greater community, something that he added has always been important but may have taken on increased relevance in recent years.
The day began with each participant being fitted for a Kevlar vest and a nylon utility belt. The belt was equipped with a fake blue Glock pistol, a taser) and a pepper spray canister.
Though the vest was much lighter in weight than anticipated, the snug fit took some getting used to. At least one colleague remarked, though, that the vest itself was quite slimming. And trying to take my seat for the commencement of the classroom portion of the session was a bit challenging, with the holsters at each side of the belt bumping into the chair’s arms.
After welcoming comments from Gavin and NRPS Chief Bryan MacCulloch, Sergeant Matt Whitely introduced the five members of his training team and began to outline the day, including all the safety measures that were in place.
Whitely then ceded the floor to Constable Andrew Watson, who outlined the police Use of Force Model, developed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and used by police forces across the country. Visually represented by a wheel, it guides the decision-making process from the assessment of the situation through to the application of any necessary action beyond just officer presence.
This is where it became clear that as much as the participants were there to experience drawing a taser, shooting a gun and learning how to strike by hand in defence, it was really all about decision-making. More precisely, it was about decision-making under extreme duress.
It was stressed in the classroom portion that in many situations an officer has only a split second to decide whether force is necessary, and exactly what form that force might take. The consequences of a wrong decision, or even the correct decision, can be devastating.
To put a face on the impact that a use-of-force incident can have on an officer, we were privileged to hear an account of an incident from just a few short years ago from a first responder who was there. Details can’t be shared here, but it is sufficient to say that the memory of the event has clearly had a lasting emotional impact on the officer in question.
Following the classroom session, the group moved into the defensive tactics room. Here, we were taken through the three-strike defence and the drawing and use of a baton, practising each of these several times against a heavy bag.
Const. Rich Vujasic then demonstrated the correct way to draw and deploy the taser, then asked for a participant to step up to give the real thing a try. I volunteered, and Vujasic swapped my training taser with the real thing, loaded with two unarmed cartridges for safety’s sake.
After being shuffled into position by the constable, I took aim at the target, shouted my “warning taser, taser, taser,” and fired. The cartridges flew out from the weapon and attached themselves to the target, about 15 inches apart, a near-perfect strike according to Vujasic.
From there it was on to the indoor firing range. Const. Brittany Wright explained that since the range was currently under construction we were unfortunately not able to use live rounds this day. Instead, we were to use Simunition rounds, non-lethal bullets that give users a somewhat realistic experience.
We turned in our dummy guns for Simunition Glocks, then entered the range. Wright instructed us on the proper stance and how to use the sights to line up our target, then handed us our clips to load into the handle. We took our spots 10 feet from our target, each of us with a training officer at our sides, and followed Wright’s instructions, aiming at the proper area of the target to stop, not kill, an attacker.
Finally, we were ready to apply what we had learned that morning in a practical manner. Each participant was to be put through a training scenario, beginning with a dispatch explanation, then we were to enter a room and act as a responding police officer to the situation.
I was placed first on a stationary bicycle. It was explained to me that this was to increase my heart rate to simulate the adrenaline flow that an officer might feel responding to a situation. As I pedalled, I was told that I was responding to a report of a theft at a Best Buy store, where the perpetrator had fled the building with a security guard in pursuit. He was trapped in an alley, acting agitated.
I disembarked from the bike, and walked around the corner where I saw Const. Chad Davidson, acting as the thief, walking back and forth next to a wall. Perhaps because the previous two participants did so, I took out my flashlight and shone it at Davidson, who was holding a backpack in front of him.
“You’re too close, get away,” he said, as I approached.
“Sir, drop the bag,” I shouted.
“You’re too close, back up,” Davidson said, reaching into the bag. “Here, you can have this. Take it.”
He threw out a cell phone box that obviously had been stolen from the store. It landed near my feet.
“You’re agitated, sir, drop the bag,” I said, still shining the flashlight and holding my ground. It was at this point I realized I was holding the flashlight in my right hand, my dominant one. Not a good idea, in case I had to draw a weapon. I switched hands.
“Here, you can have this too, take it,” yelled Davidson. He reached into the bag and pulled out a bigger box and threw it again at my feet. “You’re still too close, back up.”
“Sir, you need to drop the bag,” I yelled.
“I’ve got something else in here for you,” Davidson shouted.
He reached into his bag and this time pulled out a gun from the backpack and aimed it at me. I immediately reached for my holster and pulled my gun. I shouted to him to drop the gun, and before I could pull my trigger, he shot five times.
The standoff with the gun seemed to have taken a split second. Davidson told me later he had actually counted out five seconds before firing at me. I was wearing the vest, so there would have been a chance that I could have survived the shooting in real life. But there was no doubt I had made some poor choices faced with a clearly agitated subject.
“Don’t beat yourself up,” Davidson told me. “All things considered, you did a great job. It’s challenging, and that’s why we do so much training. A big focus of what we do here is judgement or scenario-based training, in order to put officers in that pressure-cooker.”
He went on to explain that new recruits spend two full weeks at the training unit before shipping off to the Ontario Police College in Aylmer for 13 weeks. They then return to Welland for further legislated instruction. Training is ongoing for all of the more than 800 NRPS officers, as legislation requires them to be retrained annually.
There are of course many, many more aspects to learning how to do the job, as well, beyond the use-of-force activities that the members of the media spent just five hours learning Monday.
Following the live scenarios, we gathered in a computer room, where Davidson and Const. Mike Warnock took us through more scenarios, these via a computer and video simulation by a Colorado-based company.
During this one, I failed to notice the presence of a rifle leaning against a counter in a garage. Afterwards, I tried to blame that on the screen resolution, but nevertheless I misjudged the level of aggression from the suspect. Though I tried to draw my weapon, I was, one more time, shot.
The day’s activities left me, and I am sure the other four participants, with a new respect for exactly how tough it can be to make the right decisions under extremely stressful circumstances. As Davidson said, one has to learn how to put aside emotion and evaluate the situation at its face value. It looks much easier on television.
Gavin would like to roll out similar such opportunities for other community influencers who might benefit by visiting the unit to experience what the NRPS does.
“This isn’t secret work that we did today,” he insists. “It’s all legislated training. Sharing some of the things that police officers do is important in taking that veil off to have an understanding of the specific elements that go into decision-making.”