A Summit Daily reporter sees firsthand how Summit County law enforcement officers train for the worst

It all came down to a split second decision.

I stood nervously in a cluttered Silverthorne Elementary classroom, my mock gun pointed down on a distressed teenager sitting on a couch in front of me. The training scenario was clear. Gunshots were heard coming from the school, backup is still minutes away and it’s up to me to act.

We talked at first. He told me his name was Donovan and that he had a gun hidden in another classroom down the hall. I asked him to stand up or to come with me, but he refused. For a moment, it seemed we reached an impasse. Suddenly there was a change in his demeanor. His face, which had been calm as stone, turned frantic and his hand moved to pull something black and red from behind the pillow, something that could be a gun.

BANG. BANG. I made my decision.

This is often the reality that law enforcement officials are thrown into: not enough information, not enough time to think, with life and death potentially on the line. While situations like this are terrifying for someone like myself, police officers train vigorously to be ready for dangerous and complicated scenarios. The best practice Summit County law enforcement officials get is reality-based training, a monthly semi-controlled exercise designed to test police on tactics and use of force.

Story continues under video.

Video by Hugh Carey and Heather Jarvis.

“The training is great,” said Operations Lt. Tom Whelan of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. “It makes it real world. We have to go deal with a situation as presented to us. Thank God something like this hasn’t happened up here. But you hear about it on the news all the time, in places in Colorado and all over the United States. It helps us train and be prepared so if it does happen we’ll know how to react. That training helps us prepare for the future.”

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office has been using reality-based training for the last five years, after special operations technician SJ Hamit brought the idea to now-Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons in 2013. It’s Hamit who designs the scenarios, building situations around everything from common traffic stops to active shooters. All county deputies are required to take part in the exercises, and all Summit law enforcement agencies have a standing invitation to participate.

The idea is to put officers in as realistic a situation as possible. They’re given a brief description of a scenario, in this case shots heard coming from inside a school, and are asked to react. They don’t know how many people are inside, whether or not there are hostages, or how any potential assailants will react to their presence. In a very real sense they’re left to their own devices to make decisions just as they would in a real life confrontation.

No live ammunition is allowed inside during the drills. Officers are outfitted with inert pepper spray, unloaded Tasers and either a realistic paintball or laser tag type pistol. Officers are then run through several different exercises based around the core scenario. In this example officers encountered a hostage situation, a suicidal student, an aggressively-behaving and violent student, and an active shooter on the couch as described earlier.

The main purpose of the training is to determine and use the proper application of force in any given scenario, whether that means using verbal de-escalation methods, intermediate weapons or deadly force. Afterward Hamit and others are around to debrief officers on their performance and tell them where they can improve.

“I think it just makes our officers that much better,” said Hamit. “If I look at how we were five years ago to where we are now, [our officers’] use-of-force decision making is remarkable. That translates to how they are in real life on calls…our guys are getting into fistfights, tasering and shooting people every month. It’s simulated, but that experience they can take with them into real life. Of course the true benefit is the safety of our citizens is increased because our guys are making the proper decisions in the application of force.”

Scenarios are also designed to help officers deal with use of force applications they deal with commonly in their jobs, and to prepare them to deal with national crime trends. The training also provides officials with the opportunity for interagency training and to familiarize themselves with the way other law enforcement agencies do things differently, so that they’re prepared to work together if the time comes.

“Nothing will ever truly prepare you for something like this,” said detective Scott Wagner of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. “But at least it gets you in a rhythm and helps you work with other officers. It’s a big county and we may have to respond with people we don’t normally work with on the average day. This training helps us learn how to play along with others, and communicate with each other and be on the same page should something like this happen.”

While there are several different applications for this type of training, simply having experience in highly dangerous situations can make the difference between successfully navigating a tricky situation and disaster.

“The truth is when these situations happen, the science is there that if you’ve worked through it before, your mind remembers,” said FitzSimons. “It’s about removing the shock of a situation from the equation. That moment of shock is where you could lose the battle.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.