The man standing before us was choking his wife and screaming at us to get out of his kitchen.
As he cradled his wife’s neck in the crook of his left arm, I pulled my handgun from its holster. So did my partner, fellow deputy Lori Lengsfeld.
“Let her go! Move away!” we hollered repeatedly, wary of his intentions.
Suddenly, the man pulled a pistol from behind him and pointed it right at us. I fired. So did Lori.
The man crumpled. His wife wailed as she watched him fall to the floor.
Lengsfeld and I had just shot and killed a man.
This wasn’t real life, just simulation playing out on a video screen. Yet it felt real to me, and the feeling wasn’t good.
And that was the point of this deadly force exercise — to push Lengsfeld, a City Council member from Landfall, and me, a longtime journalist, into making split-second life-or-death decisions, as real law enforcement officers are trained to do.
The simulator exercise presented other situations that sometimes weren’t as dangerous as they first appeared. Maybe the person dropped the gun after we told him to do so. Or, he didn’t have a gun at all but a hose nozzle. Maybe the person was simply an undercover cop reaching for identification.
Law enforcement requires making decisions about how much force is needed, if any, in the midst of complex and emotional circumstances. Firing a gun is a last resort.
“I always envied the gene some people possess to want to be police officers, firefighters and soldiers,” Lengsfeld said. “But I never appreciated the complexities of the decisions and the split-second timing of the decisions they are called to make until I took part in this exercise. Even after years of training, no one can know or predict what people will do or the eventual outcome.”
The Sheriff’s Office, with responsibility for the county’s only jail, district courts and the 911 communications center, has a long reach into the lives of Washington County residents.
Headquartered in Stillwater, it has 96 sworn officers among its 240 employees, and as many as 150 volunteers. Deputies patrol townships and cities that don’t have their own police.
When Sheriff Bill Hutton invited me to join his new Citizens Academy, I saw an opportunity to better understand the work of licensed deputies and the overall department.
Earlier this year, I joined an eight-session class that, in addition to Lengsfeld, included Mayors Tom Weidt of Hugo and Mary Wingfield of Birchwood Village, City Council members Amy Williams of Lakeland, Richard Brainerd of Mahtomedi and Randy LaFoy of Birchwood Village, County Engineer Wayne Sandberg and Jan Webster, the county’s new human resources director.
All of the cities represented contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services. Hutton recruited the elected officials to acquaint them with the many functions of his office and share that insight with their constituents.
He also wanted us to understand the expectations he’s set regarding behavior, leadership and communication. Much of the work, he said, involves psychology.
“We have to be able to communicate with people in ways they understand us,” Hutton said of county residents. “When I’m hiring nowadays, I’m looking for those who have compassion, who have understanding, who have psyche, if you will.”
The Citizens Academy, the first in Hutton’s tenure as sheriff, resulted from an initiative by Deputy Mark Rindfleisch, a theater major who planned to become a teacher when he turned to law enforcement. Rindfleisch, first in his family to become a police officer, got Hutton’s approval to teach the Academy classes.
Under Rindfleisch’s guidance, our class studied patrol geography, police history, criminal law, jail operations, court security, emergency communications, patrol functions, traffic stops, investigations, narcotics and interrogations. We also learned about the SWAT team from members who showed us their weapons and armor and told us about hostage negotiations. K-9 officers, who brought their dogs, talked about drug searches and apprehending suspects. And most of us went on patrol with Rindfleisch to observe how he did his job.
We also role-played. Reserve officers played crime victims, squabbling parents and even suspects. At least two dozen reserve deputies attended one or more of our classes, too, to help with the teaching.
The same night that our class practiced on the deadly force simulator — using practice “red guns” that were the same weight and shape of real guns — we also fired live rounds on the gun range. Our targets were in the shape of human forms.
Dealing with emotions
Law enforcement work requires substantial training, state licensing and a genuine understanding that it’s often a confrontational and emotional job. It also requires sound judgment, with deputies constantly balancing threats to public safety with violations of constitutional rights.
Another important component of our training dealt with service calls and understanding the “legal continuum,” which determines how law enforcement officers respond to various situations.
Some calls are merely advisory, others will require deadly force. Sometimes deputies will act on a hunch, or reasonable suspicion, probable cause or preponderance of evidence.
Hutton said many residents will have only one encounter with a sheriff’s deputy, or 911 dispatcher, or deputies in the jail and courts, and he wants people treated professionally.
“People see me and think I’m trained to see the worst in people, but I like to think the other,” Rindfleisch said.