Inside the Academy: Building searches, active shooter scenarios

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - Recent mass shootings at seemingly safe spaces reinforces that law enforcement must be ready for the unthinkable. It is rare that an officer will ever be called to an active shooter situation, but the basic skills needed in that type of scenario are commonly used in police work.

All eyes were on St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar the night he dropped by the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy to teach Class 193 the foundation of building searches.

“When they hit the street, this is something they’re going to be doing all the time," Belmar said of building searches. "Alarm soundings go off, they find open doors... They’re going to have to go in these open spaces and figure out how to do it safely.”

Before becoming police chief in 2014, Belmar worked in several precincts and specialized units throughout the county including Tactical Operations, Arson and Explosives, Crimes Against Persons and Special Operations.

“It’s a wide array that we have to teach recruits in six months,” he said. “I give them the very best. These instructors are outstanding.”

Belmar spent hours with the class watching as pairs of recruits navigated a hallway and a dark room full of obstacles.

“The fact that he cares so much about our education and what we’re doing really means a lot to me,” said Recruit Trevor Green.

Belmar offered honest feedback on each recruit's performance. He offered compliments and critiques as needed. He encouraged recruits to ask questions.

“You can learn about it in a PowerPoint, but when you actually go out there and you’re feeling the movements and thinking about where your gun is pointing, and flashlight management, it becomes a whole different ballgame,” said Recruit Mary Mills.

For their safety, academy instructor Eric Austermann teaches recruits to treat every building search as if there is a potential threat inside. Officers often have little to no information when they are called out to search a building and because of that, there can be a lot of anxiety with those types of calls.

When it comes to building searches, Austermann said, officers are systematically searching spaces. If there is someone inside, they are often hiding and do not want to be found.

In an active shooter situation, police are looking to stop the person or persons engaged in deadly actions at any cost and as soon as possible.

As part of the training, Austermann brought in actors to play victims. The actors wore ripped clothing and costume make up to appear as if they were injured.

Recruits were equipped with airsoft guns. Two of their instructors were identified as "shooters" at the beginning of the exercise so recruits knew who their targets were. The "shooters" also carried airsoft guns. Recruits, instructors and actors wore safety masks to protect their faces.

The goal of the training was to over stimulate the recruits' senses and exhaust them physically. They began outside in the field behind the academy. They worked in groups of four to strategically approach the building.

When recruits entered the building the lights were dim and loud music played through the hallways. The music simulated noise the recruits might come across as officers like a fire alarm, sirens or a crowd of people yelling.

Recruits had to continue working in their group of four to navigate the hallway to find the target. They learned they had to be loud and clear with their commands.

“A lot of us took a couple rounds to the back because we didn’t know there was a threat," said Mills. "Not because the person wasn’t identifying there was a threat there, but we didn’t hear it.”

The recruits also struggled to hear over the screams of the "victims" begging for help. While recruits knew the actors were staged and no one was actually injured, this element to the training provided an important lesson.

"Even though you don’t want to, you have to basically walk past them,” said Recruit Octavia Hearon. “You can’t save anyone if there’s still someone shooting people.”

In a four-man diamond, one officer will lead the group. They communicate with the others about which rooms to clear, and they keep an eye on the potential threat coming at the group from up ahead. The rear command is responsible for watching their backs to make sure no threat approaches from behind.

In one scenario, recruits reach a room where they're told an active shooter had just shot someone. They quickly strategize among the group of four how to enter the room and who will go first.

“They always say the first person who goes most likely is the person who’s going to get shot,” said Green who was the first person to enter the room in his group. He was greeted with several rounds of airsoft pellets fired by an instructor acting as the active shooter. The recruits again had figure out how to approach the threat and work together to stop it. Once the instructor surrendered, the recruits cleared the room of any other potential threats.

In another scenario, a group of four was working their way down the hallway when, suddenly, they were ambushed from behind by an instructor acting as an active shooter. This challenged the rear command who had to call out the threat and get the other three members of the group to redirect their attention.

Austermann said most officers will never face an active shooter, but every officer should know what to do when duty calls. Calling in specialized units takes time, and, statistically, most active shooter events are over within minutes.

“The first police officers there, the uniformed officer, those are the officers that are really neutralizing it and winning these types of scenarios. Those are the people that are saving lives.”

Class 193 of the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy graduates Thursday, December 14, 2017.

Tune in on Monday, January 15, 2018 at 6:30 p.m. as Fox 2 brings together some of the recruits and instructors for a live 30-minute special to recap the experience and discuss the training the new officers are getting in the field.

To watch all of Fox 2's exclusive series of reports "Inside the Academy," visit fox2now.com/academy.