Brookings Police Officer Dusty Watson breached the classroom door with his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and pointed it directly at me ... and I realized: I can trust this man with my life.
Officers from different agencies draw guns Tuesday during a training scenario at an abandoned school.
I knew he wouldn’t shoot me, but rather the “bad guy” standing next to me.
I was laying on the floor of a classroom at the abandoned Cape Blanco Elementary school in Langlois on Tuesday, taking photographs of Watson and other law enforcement officers participating in an “active shooting” training session.
I was only “shot at” once. The shot came during the only scenario I hadn’t been briefed on.
In this particular scenario, overseen by Lt. Mike Herbes of the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST), a tactical team of four officers headed toward a room, at the end of a long hallway, filled with the screams of hostages and periodic gunfire.
Each officers was equipped with 9-mm sidearms that shot an FX rounds filled with colored paint similar to that of a paintball marker.
The teams also had at least one person carrying an AR-15 that shot the same type of FX rounds.
As a group of officers led by Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Hensley passed a darkened room, the “suspect” inside opened fire on their backs.
Hensley and his group spun around to return fire and I leapt to the left. Herbes leapt right and the movement drew fire from the officers for a split second, until they identified that the shooter was in the room and not in the hall.
The fact that I had a black camera in my hand and the lens was pointed at the group didn’t help matters, Herbes later told me.
When the scenario concluded, Hensley apologized profusely, but I had to laugh. I knew going into the situation there was a possibility of getting hit and told him I wasn’t worried — especially because he missed.
Besides, the adrenaline rush that comes from being shot at was well worth the momentary terror it produces.
The rest of the day’s training scenarios went off without any non-combatants taking hits and, as the day progressed, each officer improved his response time and decision making.
Students from Gold Beach High School and the Brookings-Harbor Christian School were on hand as hostages. They provided plenty of screaming and yelling during the scenarios that, Hensley said, added realism to the experience.
There were two “bad guy” shooters — Mark Gleason of Brookings — who volunteered for the job — and DPSST trainer Greg Peterson.
“This live fire is as real as it is going to get,” Hensley said. “They have 2x4s that sound like gunfire and all the screaming kids add a level to it. It forces you to put your training forward, rely on your instincts and rely on your training.”
With 14 officers divided into four groups running four scenarios each, the “bad guys” faced at least one thousand rounds of gunfire, some hitting the human targets, some not.
Peterson warned participants that the FX rounds could possibly draw blood or leave welts. Long sleeve shirts were highly recommended.
Of the four groups that participated in the aforementioned “darkened room” scenario, only one group subdued the bad guy before he fired his gun.
The officers learned their lesson and, in subsequent scenarios, made sure to do a full check of possible hiding spots for bad guys as they entered rooms and hallways.
“It’s good training,” said Brookings K-9 officer Kyle Kennedy. “It’s good because there is a consequence when you make a mistake.
“You get hit with the rounds, plus there is that anticipation that when you go through these scenarios you’re going to encounter someone who is going to fire back at you. It pushes the training to a new level because you can’t just go through the motions. You have to do it right or it’s going to look silly.”
He added, “So when you miss things or don’t follow proper techniques, you kind of pay for it, whether it’s being embarrassed or you just get lit up and it doesn’t feel that good.”
After each group finished their scenario Herbes critiqued the officers’ actions, cajoling and correcting bad habits and behaviors while praising efforts that exceeded expectations.
Herbes, who has been with DPSST for 11 years and has been doing active shooter training for six years, was clear on how important the training was.
“The key is, one, they get outside observation of where they’re at with their training and skills,” he said. “Two, we provide equipment that many of the smaller agencies can’t afford.
He added, “It’s a state-wide pool of equipment that we take in the trailer all around the state. So the budget is much cheaper for the taxpayers to pay for two of us to travel to the agencies rather than them sending officer to have them trained.”
According to Hensley, active shooter training has been in greater demand lately because of recent actual shootings in schools, malls and businesses across the nation.
“We need training all the time and since I became detective, active shooter training has been one of my priorities; it’s something I’m always concerned with,” Hensley said. “In light of recent events this training has become more wanted.”
When asked why live action training was so important, Hensley equated it to learning how to dance.
“If you and I learn a dance without any music or people around it is pretty easy,” he explained. “You add music to it and it gets harder; you add other people and it gets a lot harder.
“It’s the same thing with training here. We talked about it in the morning, however when it gets put into practice people sometimes behave in different ways. This programs you as a person as to what is going to happen.”
OSP Trooper Jess Oliver said the training was “extremely important on a couple of different levels.”
“We try to have these guys get the general basic skills to move through a building as a team and locate the shooter and stop them,” he said.
“The other part is because in a county this small, it’s not going to be three or four deputies or city guys who show up on a scene. It’s going to be two city guys, maybe a deputy and maybe a trooper. If an active shooter scenario kicks off at a school or a local business or a retirement home — wherever it kicks off — (the officers) will have an understanding of the movements and priorities they need to address as they are moving through the building.”
Oliver not only is a trooper but a OSP training officer and, according to Hensley, was instrumental in setting up the training event.
“Jess kind of opened the door and I drove the truck through it,” Hensley said. “He made it all happen and organized it.”
Sheriff John Bishop was also grateful for those who helped make the training a possibility.
“I really want to thank the Port Orford/Langlois School district and Superintendant Chris Nichols for donating the use of the school for the training,” Bishop said. “It’s been a great training for everybody involved.”