‘Best training in the world’: Despite scrutiny, local police express confidence in firearm training (VIDEO) | TheUnion.com

‘Best training in the world’: Despite scrutiny, local police express confidence in firearm training (VIDEO)

Grass Valley Police Department officers draw their handguns and fire as they take part in their twice annual firearms certification last month at the firing range.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

“I just shot him.”

In video footage of the April incident, veteran Brooklyn Center Officer Kim Potter seemed to be in disbelief when she fatally shot 20-year old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop gone wrong in Minnesota. Potter claims that she did not mean to kill Wright, but that she instead mistakenly drew her handgun instead of her taser before firing.

In the aftermath of Wright’s death, some critics argue that police departments should heighten the standards governing officer use of firearms.

In Nevada County, law enforcement undergoes rigorous levels of training and practice with firearms before even being allowed to carry a gun. And it doesn’t stop there — officers with the Grass Valley Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office, and the Nevada City Police Department all undergo regularly scheduled range training for their officers to verify that personnel are competent, confident, and capable when it comes to using a gun. If someone fails to achieve the base score, it’s very simple — they don’t carry a gun on the job, said Grass Valley Capt. Steve Johnson.

“If that officer fails, they cannot carry a gun on patrol until they pass. We have remedial trainings that are set up with range masters to give them a chance to try again,” Johnson said.

Grass Valley police use their private shooting range to make sure officers are familiar with their firearms as well as learn other tactics.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

To even carry a gun, Grass Valley officers undergo 16 to 24 weeks of training with a certified field training officer, where they practice with a firearm regularly as well as learn other elements of policing, according to Police Chief Alex Gammelgard.

Once on the job, Grass Valley police are formally evaluated twice a year by range masters for precision and competency in using different firearms, Gammelgard said. Officers also receive a separate training biannually in accordance with standards set by the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) program, a statewide curriculum that is mandatory practice for GVPD personnel.

Nevada County deputies also follow POST guidelines for firearm training, and are required to attend range sessions during the year like their Grass Valley counterparts, sheriff’s Lt. Sean Scales said. NCSO deputies are also evaluated on a quarterly basis at eight-hour training days where officers are assessed for their skill with a firearm, he added.

At the range trainings, officers not only shoot at immobile targets, but are also asked to demonstrate skill with a firearm in different scenarios, where they may have to shoot from one knee, shoot at moving targets, or switch weapons. On range days, as well as at the quarterly training sessions, police instructors check personnel firearms to ensure that they function properly and are clear of any mechanical defects, Gammelgard said. Nonfunctional weapons or magazines are sent to qualified armorers to be repaired, he added.

Grass Valley police officers go through their twice annual range certification. Officers are tested on the accuracy of their shooting from close range and from afar.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

In addition to training with their firearms — which for police are most often a standard pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun — officers with Grass Valley, Nevada City, and the Sheriff’s Office all receive training on when and how to use non-lethal devices, such as Tasers.


Scales said that incidents like Wright’s death have pushed police departments to emphasize procedures and training aimed at preventing mistakes, like confusing one’s Taser with a gun.

“The awareness in California is really heightened because of that case and others, and because of the riots after that happened,” he said.

Many agencies, including the Sheriff’s Office in Nevada County, require deputies to carry the Taser on their weak hand side — meaning that a right-handed deputy would carry their lethal firearm on their right holster, and their Taser on their left holster. Such a basic procedure can help reduce the chance of an officer reaching for the wrong weapon, but not all police departments have this requirement, Scales said.

In the case of Potter, Scales said that he had watched a video of the incident and believes that she may have inadvertently transferred her Taser to the same side as her firearm, which could have led to the mix up.

“I think in this case she was carrying on her non-dominant side, but then transferred it to her dominant side without thinking. It’s terrible, it’s tragic, but I could see how it happens,” he said.

Officers are judged by how many times they hit the target, and how many times they miss.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com

The Sheriff’s Office, as well as law enforcement departments nationwide, have shown video of incidents like Wright’s death to help their officers avoid similar incidents, Scales added.

“That case was big here, and it prompted a lot of agencies to tell their officers to carry the Taser on the opposite side,” he said.

Other standard steps taken to prevent confusion with Tasers include having the Tasers colored bright yellow, which helps distinguish it from a handgun, as well as training officers to call out “Taser” when they deploy the device, Gammelgard said.

Gammelgard added that his personnel are often tested in scenario-based training. That training includes sessions where officers put on virtual reality headsets to enter live simulations, where they are pressured to make quick decisions as to which weapon to use.

“When officers have virtual reality headsets on, the proctor can make the individual they’re interacting with do something different each time, and potentially put that officer in situations where they choose between Taser use and firearm use.”

The twice yearly range sessions and POST evaluation are not exhaustive of the various ways in which Nevada County police are tested for competency with a weapon. Both Gammelgard and sheriff’s Capt. Mike Walsh said that their officers receive additional firearm training in accordance with POST guidelines.

At POST sessions, officers are evaluated with a different set of standards than those which they are tested with at their regular training days, and in the case of the Sheriff’s Office, deputies receive specific shotgun training through POST that differs from their departmental rifle training, according to Scales.

The training doesn’t stop here either — for Grass Valley, Nevada City and the Sheriff’s Office, officers constantly practice with each other throughout the year to sharpen their skills with rifles, shotguns, and handguns. Additionally, personnel can even attend distinct schools of instruction to master the use of specific kinds of firearms under the direction of specialists, Gammelgard said.

Nevada City interim Police Chief Ted Stec said in an email that his department’s agents for the most part have the same standards and protocols regarding firearm training and maintenance as Grass Valley and the Sheriff’s Office.

Gammelgard, Walsh, and Scales all expressed confidence in the quality and effectiveness of the firearm training available to county law enforcement.

“Here in California, I think we receive the best training in the world,” Scales said.

Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at swyer@theunion.com

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