At St. Paul’s new $18M police training site: shoot/don’t-shoot tests but also de-escalation

A new $18 million training facility for St. Paul police officers includes virtual training, a gun range, and rooms that can be reconfigured so officers don’t know what’s coming around the corner as they practice scenarios.

The building also includes space for training less dependent on technology, but which the police chief and community members say is just as important — responding to those in crisis and learning about implicit bias.

The Richard H. Rowan Public Safety Training Center, which took years of planning to get off the ground, will benefit both officers and the community, said Mayor Chris Coleman at the building’s ribbon cutting on Tuesday.

People who live and work in St. Paul “deserve the absolute best police department possible and the best police department begins with the best training,” Coleman said.

The new facility on Lafayette Road, west of Desoto Street, and just under half a mile from police headquarters is named for a previous St. Paul police chief, who died in 2005.

When Rowan took the department’s helm in 1970, “it was a turbulent era and the role of the police officer was changing,” said his son, John Rowan, on Tuesday. Improving and expanding officer training programs was high on his agenda, he said.

Today, some community members are paying attention to how officers are trained.

The West Side Community Organization, along with another district council, passed resolutions this month timed to the opening of the new facility. They urge the police department to focus on diffusing conflict, providing officers with strategies to overcoming “the implicit bias that we all carry with us,” and focusing on approaches to people who are mentally ill and youngsters.

People are particularly concerned that the St. Paul police department previously hosted training called “Bulletproof Warrior,”which St. Anthony Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez attended, said John Slade, a board member for the District 1 Community Council, including the Eastview, Conway, Battle Creek and Highwood Hills neighborhoods, which also approved the resolution. Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in July 2016.

Though Police Chief Todd Axtell ended the Bulletproof Warrior training after he became chief last year, Slade said they want to be sure that the attitude implied in the training’s title does not persist.

“We need to have police that are here to protect and serve and don’t see themselves as warriors dodging bullets in the streets,” Slade said. “… We wanted to encourage Chief Axtell to continue the community-based policing approach as opposed to the kind of militarized policing that is a problem across the country.”

The St. Paul police department has been putting its officers through Crisis Intervention Team training for years, and it will have most patrol officers trained by the end of the year, according to Cmdr. Stacy Murphy, who’s in charge of the training unit. St. Paul officers also receive annual training in implicit bias.

Axtell said St. Paul officers get training that exceeds state requirements and national expectations.

“Compassion, combined with skill, is at the heart of every officer who is committed to serving the public and that’s what St. Paul police department is about,” Axtell said.

A 40,000-SQUARE FOOT BUILDING WITH CLASSROOMS, GUN RANGE

Beyond classrooms in the new 40,000-square foot building, there are areas for officers to practice various scenarios. There are small walls that can be moved to create different configurations of a “home” as officers or recruits practice responding to a burglary, for instance, when they don’t know if a suspect is still inside and they have to search.

“Instead of having the same layout every single day for a scenario where you literally know which way you’re turning with your eyes closed … this way you can change it up, so you don’t already know exactly what you’re walking into,” said Officer Seth Snedden, who works in the training unit.

There is also simulated training that is “almost like a giant video game,” Murphy said.

A big screen plays various scenarios that officers interact with during judgment-based training. It’s not only shoot/don’t-shoot scenarios with laser-type guns, but also de-escalation scenarios, Murphy said.

Also in the building is an indoor gun range with space for 12 people to practice at a time vs. the previous range’s capacity for six.

Staff can use a computer to move targets in a split-second — there could be a silhouette of a person holding a cellphone behind one target and a silhouette of someone with a gun on the other side — which allows for “more decision-based shooting” about whether there is a threat, said Sgt. Steve Smith, who supervised the department’s gun ranges.

The new facility came about after the St. Paul Port Authority bought the former J.H. Larson Co. building for $1.5 million using funds donated by the St. Paul Police Foundation and a construction loan. The city of St. Paul will be leveraging city bonding funds to pay off the construction loan.

The project’s total price tag is $18 million, of which $3 million was donated by retired West Publishing executive John Nasseff and his wife, Helene Houle.

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