Santa Rosa police put high school students through lifelike arrest scenarios
Confronted with a life or death situation Saturday afternoon, Trina Salmon of Santa Rosa failed to draw her weapon and died.
Fortunately for the 16-year-old Elsie Allen High School student, her plight was part of a realistic but entirely risk-free drill in a high-tech, $200,000 video simulator at the Santa Rosa Fire Tower, a public safety training center on College Avenue.
“The first time I couldn’t even get the gun out, so I died instantly,” said Salmon, one of 21 teenage participants in the Youth Citizen Police Academy put on by the Santa Rosa Police Department.
Tanya Guzman, 17, a Santa Rosa High student, did the right thing during her session. With a police gun belt around her waist, she faced a life-sized emergency scenario unfolding on the super-wide screen in a darkened room. “I ended up shooting the guy who came out of the house with a knife,” she said.
Asked by an instructor why she “fired” the police standard Glock 17 pistol equipped with a laser instead of ammunition, Guzman said she saw the person moving toward her partner.
Her answer was correct, but Guzman said, “When I heard he was 17 it made me regret it because he was so young.”
Instructors said the brand new use-of-force simulator is designed to put people in high-stress situations requiring the split-second decisions law officers sometimes must make.
“There is some foul language in some of the scenarios. In real life, people swear,” Officer Luis Peña advised the students.
Operating a computer console during the drills, Peña was able to alter the progress of each scenario in response to how the student was handling it.
“You guys are going to be put on the spot,” he said.
Students were faulted for failing to shoot, for shooting before it was justified and for failing to try talking to a despondent man who ended up shooting himself in a parked truck.
Saturday was a busy day for the students from 10 local high schools who signed up for the youth police academy’s fourth program since it was started in 2015.
The teens also fired a Taser at a paper target, rode in an 8-ton bulletproof armored vehicle used on SWAT calls, tried on 60-pound SWAT vests and engaged two defensive tactics instructors in mock hand-to-hand combat.
There was also a hostage-negotiation enactment aimed at showing how officers attempt to peacefully defuse a tense situation.
“We always try to use the lowest level of force that we can,” Detective Hiroshi Yaguchi said.
He and Sgt. Summer Black showed the students how to stand, punch and kick, then allowed the teens to try the blows against them while holding thick black pads.
Yaguchi showed the students how to hit with the heel of the palm and their fingers curled downward. “We try to avoid using fists,” he said.
Sgt. Chris Mahurin, who created the youth police academy two years ago, said in an interview it is not intended as police propaganda.
“It’s really just to show them what we do and why we do it so they have perspective when they read about an officer-involved shooting,” he said.
Peña told the students that police have the right to “use as much force as needed” to make an arrest, never have to retreat and can use lethal force in a situation that could endanger themselves or a member of the public, such as stopping an armed felon from fleeing.
But the simulator included some borderline situations, including a domestic argument in which a woman reaches into her purse.
“I’ve seen people shoot her,” Peña said. “She draws out a cellphone.”
Krisz Lindh, 16, a Maria Carrillo High student, said the use-of-force scenarios gave him an appreciation for the dilemmas police encounter.
“They have to live with it, they have to pay the consequences if they’re wrong,” he said. “They’re usually doing the right thing. If they’ve done something wrong, they should be held accountable.”
Guzman, who said she wants to become an FBI agent, said that news reports tend to make police “seem like they’re so horrible, but they’re really not.”
Her high school classmates, she said, wouldn’t buy that idea.
“They have negative views of cops because of all the stories the media puts out,” Guzman said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.