Police training pushes communication first
A man running from the police after he's found breaking into cars. A domestic abuse call with an injured spouse.
A suicidal man with a knife to his throat, asking officers to shoot him. A veteran found pacing in the street and talking to himself. A burglary in progress.
These are situations police face every day, and with the help of ever-evolving technology, officers in Duluth are learning how to achieve the best possible outcome in tense situations.
About 150 Duluth police officers are going through de-escalation and use-of-force training this month with the help of a simulator that presents trainees with various scenarios, which trainees see on a screen from an officer's point of view.
On Tuesday, two trainees went through those scenarios in the police garage at the city's Public Safety Building. Instead of simply reacting to a screen, however, the scenes came alive in the form of police Sgt. Joel Olejnicak, who assumed the role of a citizen interacting with police in each scenario.
Olejnicak is part of the department's training and development unit, and he's the coordinator for the law enforcement program at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
The training is foremost about communication and reinforcing best practices while on patrol, Olejnicak said.
"These are dynamic situations," Olejnicak said. "That's the biggest piece of the puzzle. The voice and the brain are the biggest tools officers have to use today."
Police in Minnesota must undergo periodic training to stay licensed with the state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training. This includes work in areas such as firearms, emergency driving, crisis intervention, racial bias, as well as the current Duluth police training in de-escalation and use of force.
In the past, officers used to focus on just one training subject at a time, and they typically trained alone. But Olejnicak said doubling or tripling up on both subjects — or tools, as Olejnicak calls them — is more realistic.
"The training used to all be separate, but that's not how it works on the street," he said. "You use all of these tools at once."
On Tuesday, Olejnicak suited up in padding that's designed to withstand the force of human impact as police Sgt. Dave Drozdowski and officer Jill Kettleson arrived for their training.
The two prepared to run through nine scenarios, each with different levels of complexity and required force. A life-sized screen was set up for the trainees to watch. Police Sgt. Mike Peterson started each video with a short description of the situation.
The trainees watched and reacted, talking to the screen, before Peterson paused the video and Olejnicak took over, bringing the scenario to life.
Several of the scenes ended with Drozdowski and Kettleson subduing a subject when they perceived a threat — during the course of a burglary, after a man in a park threw a bottle of alcohol at them, when a man lunged at them during a domestic abuse call.
But some scenarios called for a calmer response. The two trainees calmed a man pacing in the street who initially appeared hostile to police, eventually learning that he was without his medication for a mental health issue. The trainees kept their voices soft, and the scene ended with the man accepting a ride to the clinic to get more medicine.
Another scene, without the use of the screen, involved Olejnicak playing a man walking on the street with a semi-automatic rifle on his back. He told the trainees that it was his right to do so, and the officers made a judgment call that he wasn't a threat to anyone. They let him go on his way.
"You choose your battles," Drozdowski said.
After each scenario, Olejnicak, Drozdowski and Kettleson stopped to discuss what happened, what worked and what they could improve upon before moving to the next scene.
Kettleson, who has been with the department for 21 years, said the training gives police a chance to work through potential situations in an environment where they can learn from their experiences.
"A lot of what our job is, we never know exactly what we're going to, what we're doing," she said. "We never know how one scenario's going to work out compared to the next one."
Tuesday's training took a little more than an hour, and Kettleson said she was feeling relaxed once it was done.
"I have no idea what those guys are going to throw at me," she said. "There's always a little bit of nerves that goes with that. I think it's wonderful because it gives us an opportunity in a safe environment to hone our skills and try things out."
Technology, too, has advanced in Kettleson's years on the force.
"It used to be just a video that you watched and reacted to, and it didn't matter what you did — the video was going to play out the same way," she said. "Then it became more interactive, and now we've gotten to the point where Joel (Olejnicak) is out there and we're bringing it all the way from that initial contact and handcuffing and using positioning, doing all those things. It incorporates all of those things."
Drozdowski, who has been with the department for 16 years, said that years ago, most training scenarios ended the same way — with a suspect being shot.
"It was all about making sure you protect yourself," he said. "It's more realistic like this (today)."
The department has several thousand training scenarios available, and Olejnicak said training with those different outcomes is by design.
"If I design all of the scenarios for officers just to shoot, just to kick, then that's what they leave with," he said. "That's what's on their minds when they're out on the street."