Spirit of St. Louis – Pick Your Charity, Pick Your Car

Inside the Academy – Firearms and VirTra Training

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - Studies show most police officers will never fire their service weapon on the job, but an officer must be ready and able should the situation ever demand it.

Recruits in Class 193 at the St. Louis County and Municipal Academy arrived with a wide range of prior firearms training. Some had extensive training while others had none.

Recruit Mary Mills completed firearms training during her time in the U.S. Coast Guard. She qualified in the Coast Guard using the same type of gun used to qualify at the academy.

Recruit Octavia Hearon completed one day of firearms training in the Air Force Reserves.

"It was way more training (at the academy) than for the military," she said.

Before joining Class 193, Recruit Trevor Green said he’d never held a gun.

"I was one of those people who didn't think you necessarily needed a gun," he said. "But now, shooting that gun, controlling that weapon, that machine has kind of changed my mind about it."

Recruits get at least 94 hours of instruction and training over eight weeks at the academy, but they must continue training to stay proficient.

"It’s something that I have to continue to work on, and my fellow recruits and future officers have to continue to have to work on because it is a skill,” said Green.

Recruits become skilled marksman using multiple firearms and shooting from varying distances. They learn to shoot with both their dominant and support hand. They learn which type of firearm is appropriate for different situations.

"You have to trust your gun, you have to trust your grip, you have to trust your arm strength, and you have to, basically, know that what you're about to do is potentially going to destroy what's in front of you," said Green.

Recruits are trained to shoot for their target's core. If that fails to stop the threat, recruits are trained to shoot the subject in the head. Civilians often ask why officers shoot to kill and don't shoot the suspect in an area that is less likely to be lethal.

"You only have, literally, split seconds to make a decision so you don't really have time to think, 'Oh, let me shoot them in the leg,'" Hearon said.

"If I have my gun out, and I feel like I need to use my gun, then it's because it's a deadly force situation," said Mills. "They are threatening my life. They are either going to cause me serious physical injury or they are going to kill me if I do not shoot them, and that is why I am justified to use that firearm."

In addition to the training they get at the range, recruits also get a chance to combine their shooting skills with their understanding of human behavior.

Earlier this year, the St. Louis Police Foundation purchased a new tool for officers in the county. Class 193 is the first group to have the VirTra V-300 judgmental use-of-force simulator as part of the training from day one.

"It's an invaluable tool," said Sergeant John Wall, Basic Training Supervisor at the academy. "There is no way, other than them being there, to get any sort of training like this."

The 300-degree, state-of-the-art virtual reality training system uses scenarios from real life encounters, Wall said, and he can control what happens next - including the character's words and actions - based on how the recruits perform.

"They have to decide, not only when to speak, but what to say," said Wall.

Instructors continue to emphasize that an officer's ability to speak with a person and de-escalate the situations with words is always the preferred method. Based on how effectively a recruit is talking to the subject, the training instructor can choose to end the scenario peacefully.

The VirTra V-300 expands upon the range training and gives recruits the chance to actually decide when to shoot and when to hold back. Some scenarios are intense and force the recruits to learn to control their adrenaline response. There are more than 100 scenarios including domestic violence, hostage situations and active shooter encounters.

"I have to decide who's a suspect? Who has a gun? Who's a student just running down the hallway?" said Green. "We don't get those opportunities at the gun range."

Some scenarios force recruits to look beyond their target.

"On the scenario you saw today, it was in a front yard, we don't want people shooting through a house, and then hitting an innocent victim two houses down," said Wall.

Details like that are often discussed in a debrief with an instructor following the exercise.

The VirTra V-300 is used to train recruits and current officers in St. Louis County on tools like a pistol, less lethal shotgun, assault rifle, O.C. (pepper spray) and a Taser.

Participants wear an electronic pulse device called a "threat fire" on their waistband which emits a Taser-like jolt for seven tenths of a second. The training instructor controls when the participant gets shocked due to inattentiveness or inaction during a scenario.

Like many of their lessons, recruits learn the foundations of self-defense and concepts of use of force, but each department has its own policy for when to use force and how much force to use. Recruits will gain that knowledge and training during field training with their hiring departments.

Next, Class 193 will be called to respond to an active shooter. Recruits will shoot and be shot at as they work together to stop the threat.

For more on Fox 2's exclusive look "Inside the Academy," visit www.fox2now.com/academy.