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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Getting off a few rounds training with the MPD
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Credit:Dane County Sheriff's Office

Ald. Larry Palm, bless his heart, had the best line of the evening. We were walking toward the shooting range, to try our hand at firing lethal weapons, when Madison Police Officer Linda Baehmann asked whether anyone had questions.

Palm pointed to his bulletproof vest, like the ones each member of our small group was wearing, and asked, "Does this make me look fat?"

Moments later we were at the range, part of the Dane County Law Enforcement Training Center near Waunakee, discharging handguns into a poster image of a menacing man brandishing a pointed gun about 15 feet away. There were four instructors -- Baehmann and officers Jason Freedman, Tim Harder and Minhduc "Kimba" Tieu -- and a dozen of us who accepted an invitation from the MPD to get a sense of the challenges police face and the training they receive.

Our group, which convened for three hours last night, included several members of the Madison Common Council (Palm and Alds. Paul Skidmore, Michael Schumacher and Zach Brandon), a few members of the media, and two people from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. We formed two lines to take turns firing a Glock 9 -- incidentally and regrettably one of the guns used by the Virginia Tech shooter -- and a Glock 40 handgun.

Most of us, myself included, had never fired a handgun before. I won't speak for the others, but I found the experience of pumping shot after shot into a man's face, then into his chest, a bit more creepy than it was exhilarating. I think I would have enjoyed it more if we were shooting at concentric circles with a big dot in the center. But that's not what police officers are trained to shoot.

At the end of our little spray of bullets, I asked Officer Freedman how often police in Madison are called on to use the skills for which they receive extensive training -- that is, how often they discharge their weapons in the line of duty. He said there have been about 10 officer-involved shootings dating back to the mid-1990s, or roughly about one a year.

There are about 400 commissioned officers on the Madison Police Department. That means the vast majority will serve out their entire careers without ever having to discharge their weapons in the line of duty. Which is a good thing.

Of course, cops much more frequently must make snap judgments and decide to use force in situations where a person poses a threat to himself or others. During the evening's classroom component, Officer Freeman broke down some of the dynamics.

He explained how in "critical" as opposed to "strategic" decision-making, officers do not have the benefit of time. They must act quickly, and make the best choice they can based on the circumstances with which they are presented.

"Police are not required to make the right choice," he instructed, citing a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Graham vs. Conner. Rather, the decision they make must be "objectively reasonable," based on the officer's perception "at the time."

This, Freedman stressed, is not a blank check for police to do whatever they want. Cops who react in ways that are unreasonable -- like gunning down a man who gives them lip over a traffic ticket (my example, not his) -- will face consequences.

Through various exercises and demonstrations, the police sought to demonstrate some of the challenges they face in trying to make appropriate judgments. Freedman discussed the "reactionary gap" -- the lost time before an action and any possible reaction. Thus police are trained to act ahead of the curve, based on the stimulus presented.

As a final component to our evening, our group was invited to use a video training device that, a la driver's-ed films, presented various scenarios that required a quick response. Participants were given laser guns to point and fire at a large projection screen. (I didn't take a turn, partly because time ran out and partly because I feared I would yell "Eat lead, punk" and gun down the person in my scenario at the slightest provocation.)

The scenarios, I must say, all struck me as a bit phony. In each, the suspects, confronted by police shouting commands (yes, I know the people in the video couldn't hear the commands but the idea was that the participants were making appropriate verbal overtures) all continued and escalated their aggressive conduct. A man in a car announces that he doesn't need ID when he has "this," brandishing a tire iron and exiting the vehicle to attack the officer. A guy surrounded by two cops decides it's a really good idea to charge one of them with an ax. Two gang-bangers jump out of a car, pull pieces from their pants and start firing. (There, the two group-member participants made the mistake of gunning down the same shooter, leaving the other free to fire away. Tsk tsk.)

I get that these videos are useful in training cops to respond. But my guess is that, in real life, the presence of police commonly has something of an intimidating effect. Most people they bark orders at probably comply. Which is a good thing.

All in all, it was an instructive evening, and it reminded me of a similar event I attended at Monona Terrace a few years back: a MPD demonstration of how Tasers fit into its use-of-force continuum. I learned then, and am glad to know, that police are trained to always take an encounter to the next level to protect themselves and gain control of a situation. If a suspect raises his fists, you pull your club. If he has a knife, you draw your gun. If he points a weapon, you don't wait around wondering if he's serious; you fire to take him down.

Such training usually works to help police protect themselves and others. Another good thing, to be sure.

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