by SARAH SQUIRES
The fire truck roared through Winona's East End on the way to the scene: a two-car accident, two angry men outside the cars ready to fight. Firefighters soon recognized one as Winona County Sheriff's Office (WCSO) Investigator Kraig Glover, the other, a drunken, irate man ready to kill.
"Who you callin' drunk," the man, clothed in rags with a hat obscuring his face, screamed. The men struggled, the drunk pulled out a gun, turned it on Glover, and fired several shots into his body. Glover fell to ground and stopped moving.
"Officer down! Officer down!" the horrified firemen screamed over the radio, quickly moving into emergency mode. Each firefighter measured his own life, the life of Glover, their training.
Police officers listening in on patrol wondered, "What is going on?"
Smoke billowed from the drunken man's pistol. He took off his hat and faced the firefighters. It was WCSO Investigator Rob Averbeck.
The scene witnessed by firefighters June 16 was a situational awareness training conducted by the Winona Fire Department (WFD) and WCSO. The bullets were blanks. The firefighters did not know that it was a training. They thought they had just witnessed a cold-blooded cop killing.
Winona Police Department (WPD) Officers patrolling the streets in which the mock shooting occurred had no idea what was happening. Dispatchers were aware a training session would be taking place that evening, but whether anyone other than Glover and Averbeck themselves knew how far the two investigators would take their deadly role-playing is unclear. There are conflicting accounts of the organization of the mock police shooting, including who was in charge and whose responsibility it was to inform police and other law enforcement officials.
The training session and its planning have spurred criticism from local and state officials, who wonder what might have gone wrong after the shots rang out that June evening.
'Recipe for disaster'
Rick Loveland of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters Association said that all of the agencies affected by a training session are normally included in planning for the session. "I can't imagine not involving someone from the police department," he said of a training involving a shooting within city limits. "If nobody was involved in the planning, that doesn't seem like a normal type of training; that seems more like freelancing," he added.
One law enforcement official explained that officers are trained to use lethal force when encountering a situation such as the one that occurred on June 16. The same official added that if an officer had witnessed the mock police shooting and had not been aware that it was a training, he would likely not have hesitated before pulling his own trigger that night.
Asked if police should be alerted to simulated shootings in future trainings, Winona Police Chief Bostrack said, "That is one of the things that I would hope would be shared with our people, because it would help prevent an event that no one would want to see accidentally happen."
"God forbid it had been deer season around here; all kinds of problems could have happened," Bittle said, referring to the possibility of armed bystanders intervening. Noting that streets had not been closed off in the area, Bittle added, "they probably could have done something in a more secure area."
Bittle shared some of his concerns with Winona County Chief Deputy Ron Ganrude after the training. Summarizing Bittle's conversation with him, Ganrude said, "The [firefighters] reacted as most people would, not understanding that it was a training. It could have turned out badly."
Another law enforcement official explained that while that type of situational training is extremely important and relevant, it can also quickly become dangerous if not properly organized or communicated to other law enforcement officials. “When you fail to communicate to the citizens and other emergency service entities, it’s a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Many local law enforcement officials were hesitant to speak on the record about the incident, citing concerns about interdepartmental relationships. Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said he was informed of the training session, but was not told exactly what Averbeck and Glover had planned. He said he received several complaints about its organization and the lack of communication.
"I didn't know it was going to be a kind of blow up," explained Brand of agency reactions in an interview.
"None of us did," added Glover.
"I don't know if anybody knew it was going to be that intense or dramatic or stressful," said Assistant Fire Chief Jason Theusch, who was not involved with the training.
Who knew what was going to happen that night? WFD Assistant Chief for Training Britt Hendrickson planned the training with Glover and Averbeck and knew that the two would act out a road rage scene including firing off blanks; however, he said he did not know that they would stage an actual shooting. Bittle knew that Glover and Averbeck were going to act out a road rage scenario, but he thought it was just going to be two men fighting. He did not know about the plan to fire blanks or to simulate a shooting.
How much did dispatchers and patrol officers know? Dispatchers were told about the training, but that message was not relayed to police. Bostrack said that both dispatchers and patrol officers were told that "a training" was going to happen, but they did not know the details and they did not know a shooting would be staged. Averbeck and Glover said that they believed it was Hendrickson's responsibility to inform the police about the training. Hendrickson said that when he contacted dispatch about the training, they had already been told about it and they told him the police knew, too. Later Hendrickson found out that had not been the case. When asked about Glover and Averbeck's claims that it was the WFD's responsibility to inform the WPD of the training, Bittle said, "I can't believe that. That was their drill." Bittle added, "They were the ones actually doing the shooting." In a separate interview, Hendrickson took the blame for not contacting the police directly. "If the ball got dropped, it got dropped by me," he said.
The value of training
Glover stressed that the training was a benefit to the WFD. “We didn’t get paid for any of this,” he said. "This [training had] nothing to do with the county at all, or with the sheriff’s department.”
Glover said the reason the firefighters were not told they would be facing such a dramatic training event was because it added value to the purpose of the session. “Even in training, these guys get complacent,” he explained.
Situational awareness trainings that involve violent or dangerous scenarios are not new to the WFD. The department has undertaken trainings involving violent citizens and even guns. This is the first training, however, in which a gun was actually fired and a shooting was simulated. Bittle noted that the department has responded to medical calls involving violent drug addicts before; the potential for firefighters to face a threatening situation is real. He said despite the problems with the mock shooting event, such sessions are valuable and he still wants to have the rest of the department go through them. "This could very easily save a firefighter's life," he added.
Following the mock shooting, when Averbeck and Glover revealed the ordeal was part of a training, Averbeck said that he and Glover “shut everything down and told everybody to gather.” Averbeck also said that he was not sure if the training was successful in making the firefighters more aware of their surroundings, and that he “would have to survey them to find out.”
When asked about the reaction from the WFD after it was revealed that the mock shooting was a part of a situational training, Averbeck said that the WFD seemed fine with it, and that they left after the debriefing. “We asked if they were OK, if they had any comments,” he said. “Everybody left and they didn’t have any comments.”
At the scene, the firefighters initially thought Hendrickson had played a prank on them and they were angry, the assistant chief acknowledged. Personally, Hendrickson reflected, "It was a hard drill. It was a hard and intense drill."
Hendrickson had not planned on the firefighters recognizing Glover. "It would have been a non-event if they had not recognized Glover," he said. The plan was for firefighters to observe warning signs of a violent situation and stay away until police arrived. However, because they recognized Glover and reasoned that he counted as an officer on the scene, they approached. According to the plan, if the firefighters approached, Glover and Averbeck were supposed to intensify their scenario, Hendrickson said, though he said he did not know how far Glover and Averbeck would take it. "That was the drill then. Then it's going to escalate. You've got to, otherwise there's no impact to it," Hendrickson said. "Personally I do not fault [Glover and Averbeck] at all. There were just a few things that once the dominos started to tip, they kept tipping," he added.
Hendrickson said that he wants to improve communication for future drills.
"I think, yeah, the [WFD] felt it was valuable. They realized something could happen. It opened up their eyes. But it's the last time we are going to use that style," Glover said.