Oregon Public Safety Academy survival skills instructor Corporal Scott Willadsen demonstrates lethal force on firing range using video simulation scenarios. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell

Deadly Force

Simulated deadly force confrontations take place within seconds and sometimes within a few feet — known as "bad-breath close" — at the Oregon Public Safety Academy in Salem, where recruits training to be cops learn that one shot may not be enough to stop a threat.

"The problem with handguns is they're notoriously bad people-stoppers," said Cpl. Scott Willadsen, a survival-skills trainer.

The academy trains recruits for 16 weeks in topics from criminal law to how to make split-second decisions that could save others' lives or their own.

Some of the training scenarios bear an almost eerie similarity to Medford police officers' use of deadly force Jan. 22 to stop an 18-year-old man armed with a knife who reportedly advanced on them. Elias Angel Ruiz could not be subdued by a Taser, and was wearing a bullet-proof vest underneath his clothing, police said.

It was the second law-enforcement shooting in two weeks. On Jan. 5, U.S. marshals shot 20-year-old federal fugitive James "Jimmy" Georgeson outside a west Medford grocery store after he allegedly rammed their car with his vehicle.

Officers involved in both shootings have been placed on administrative leave while they await a grand jury's decision on whether their actions were justified.

At the 212-acre academy run by the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, recruits learn techniques for diffusing situations before they turn violent. But they're also trained not to hesitate if an attacker puts an officer or bystanders in a life-threatening position.

Three officers were killed in the line of duty last year in Oregon. A total of 177 were killed in the U.S., a 16 percent increase over 2010, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

The police academy runs recruits through different scenarios that require quick decisions that are subjected to instant review by instructors. A large set of life-size city scenes is used to give students a taste of real-life scenarios in bars, buildings and houses.

Other scenarios use computer simulations.

In one computerized bank robbery scenario, shots are fired and a man runs out of the building holding a gun.

Many recruits instinctively fire on the man, even though he's not pointing a gun at anyone when he steps out of the building, said Willadsen. He said the man could be a plainclothes policeman, rather than the bank robber. He said officers need to make sure before they fire or an innocent person could get killed.

Willadsen said some scenarios provide a dozen or more clues that a situation is escalating toward violence.

The amount of time an officer has to make the decision to pull the trigger can be only a few seconds, but the events leading up to the decision have to be considered and remembered because they will be part of a grand jury inquiry.

Even new recruits at the academy realize what will be required of them as they patrol the streets of Medford.

"It can escalate very fast," said Michael Smelser, a 25-year-old from Ashland who is undergoing training at the academy after advancing from a community service officer position in the Medford Police Department.

During his third week on the job, Smelser was one of the first two officers on the scene of the murder of Tabasha Criado and her four children at a west Medford home on July 18, 2011.

"I was completely taken aback," he said.

Smelser, who had dealt with difficult situations as a CSO, said he is fully aware that he might be called upon to use deadly force, even though most officers go their entire careers without using that option.

"Before we apply for the position, that is definitely running through your mind," he said.

He said that every day he is on the job, he mentally prepares himself for potentially stressful situations.

"You always read people's body language," he said.

Other Medford recruits are in their fourth week of training at the academy.

"You are always very aware when you approach any situation," said Elizabeth Muck, 22, of Eagle Point. "You have to be aware of everything around you."

Medford recruit Christopher Moore, 23, of Central Point, said situational awareness is a skill that officers must develop and confront constantly.

"Complacency kills," he said.

The new officers are just finishing classes in law and other subjects as they progress into hands-on training that will include learning to safely operate a patrol car, cleaning and operating a firearm and undergoing realistic and computer simulations.

Recruits learn that Tasers aren't always effective, and that bullet-proof vests require shooting the suspect in the head — a more difficult target than the chest and stomach area — or the groin, which might not incapacitate.

Volunteers are brought in to get drunk and be belligerent with the recruits. A simulated bar on the campus offers the recruits a chance to deal with riots. Even school-shooting scenarios are played out.

"The tendency for many students is to call in the SWAT team," said Lt. Rob Anderson, class coordinating instructor.

But because many of the recruits will be posted in rural areas, they are taught to deal with situations where backup might be hours away.

In one computer simulation, a domestic violence call reveals a woman screaming that her boyfriend just beat her up.

When the husband appears, he is confrontational with officers.

The instructor has the option of having the husband reach for a knife, a gun or even just a wallet. Officers have to size up the situation in seconds, gauging the intent and actions of the attacker.

In another simulation, an officer pulls over a biker, who rapidly turns belligerent.

Willadsen said many recruits watch body language, but they might not pay attention to the biker's comments about the small size of the officer or how they're all alone on a quiet road. At one point, the biker moves his helmet from his right hand to his left, then clenches his right fist.

"People give a lot of clues before they start doing something bad," he said. "You need to listen to what they say."

Other factors come into play when an officer resorts to deadly force.

The effectiveness of a hollow-point bullet can be diminished by thick layers of clothing, which can clog up the tip. Shooting through glass, such as a car window, can deflect a bullet, and the glass can fill up the end of the hollow point, also minimizing its effectiveness.

The size of the attacker and his mental state also can be factors.

"A big, obese person — you can shoot them all day long, and they won't go down," Willadsen said.

Willadsen demonstrated a training exercise in which a mass murderer guns down students in a school. During a frantic scene of screaming and fleeing students, Willadsen is confronted by the attacker at a distance of about 20 feet. When the attacker raises his gun, Willadsen rapidly fires three shots.

Because the attacker is wearing a bullet-proof vest, Willadsen aims for his head. His first shot misses, according to the simulation. The second shot hits his head, but the attacker still has the gun raised. The third shot drops him to the floor.

Willadsen said some officers might continue shooting because even though the attacker doesn't appear to be moving, he still has the gun in his hand and could potentially fire the weapon.

Even though deadly force is an important issue, Willadsen said the majority of training shows officers how to control situations through a serious, confident manner. Otherwise a potential attacker will spot weaknesses and potentially exploit them, gaining the upper hand.

"You lost," he said. "This guy knows you're not serious."

Officers are trained to ignore personal problems or their own emotions when confronting a tense situation. Willadsen said they need to learn to breathe through any fears or emotions they might have.

If someone doesn't obey, officers could resort to pepper spray, batons, take-downs or just drawing their weapons. In 99 percent of situations, an officer in a uniform is enough to make people comply, Willadsen said.

"Most give up when you show up," he said.

During the training, officers shoot fake bullets at each other that contain a plastic tip filled with blue paint.

There is enough gunpowder in the fake bullet to sting, reinforcing how important it is to not get shot, Willadsen said.

Tasers, which incapacitate with an electrical charge, are "finicky," Willadsen said.

They work best a few feet from an attacker because the two darts that are ejected don't always hit the mark on the attackers. Too far away, one of the darts could miss. Too close, and the darts only send a shock into one part of the body, but don't incapacitate.

Students at the academy need to learn self-control, so instructors are always pointing out deficiencies in their conduct. Sometimes, the students themselves can get out of control during role playing.

"You have to reel them back in," Anderson said.

Lt. Lee Farmer, a class training coordinator with the academy, said the type of training offered now differs markedly from the '70s.

"Then, they were training you to be robots," he said. "Now, we're trying to be thinkers and peace officers."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email

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