Municipal officials get rare glimpse into OPP training at open house

The inside of Sacred Heart School here hasn’t changed much since the school was closed. But what goes on inside the school these days is considerably different from the time when students roamed the hallways.

On any given day, an OPP armed tactical unit might be roaming the halls in a training exercise to secure the building. As part of the exercise, shots can be heard allowing the team to identify where a potential shooter is.

Wellington OPP has been operating the training centre since leasing the building in 2010 and annually hundreds of officers train and upgrade their skills there and at a nearby shooting range. They come from Wellington and detachments in Grey, Huron and Perth counties, South Bruce and the Bruce Peninsula.

In a rare move, the county police services board approved an open house for the media and municipal representatives at the urging of Inspector Scott Lawson, head of the Wellington County OPP and its 130 officers.

“My goal was to give a rare opportunity to show the kind of things that people don’t know about,” Lawson said. “There were certain things we did show, but there were things we didn’t show (because) we don’t want everyone to know.”

It’s the first time the facility has been open to the public with OPP instructors talking candidly about what is taught and some of the hardware officers on daily patrols use.

The training officers talked about being prepared for any situation officers might encounter when responding to a call.

“The mindset is we’re no good to the safety of the public or ourselves if we don’t have the equipment,” Lawson added, referring to the modern equipment available and at-the-ready for OPP officers.  “The majority of the people in Wellington County have no idea and it’s not that they need to.”

Sgt. Kevin Convey talked about some of the weapons used and available to officers,  including tasers or “conductive energy weapon.” The officer dismissed media criticism about the use of tasers spawned by reports about a man who died as a result of being tasered by police in a Vancouver airport incident in 2007.

“It’s not as the media presents,” Convey told those attending the open house. “It’s not deadly.”

The officer speaks from experience having been tasered in training several times and, he added, a female officer who also experienced being tasered said it was less painful than giving birth.

The taser is not part of everyday weaponry carried by the OPP. It requires a supervisor’s approval and deployment. And as Constable Ron Dedman explained its use is “a less lethal option,” for officers.

The taser, according to Convey, produces a 50,000 volt charge over five seconds that can be repeated. They can either be fired with two electrodes piercing the skin of the target or directly applied.

“Fifty thousand volts is not a lot of volts. It’s extremely low and extremely safe,” Convey said.

OPP officers are equipped with a baton, .40-calibre pistol and bullets, pepper spray, handcuffs, personal protection kit with glasses and a mask, and a bullet-proof vest. Also available, depending on the severity of the call, is a C8 rifle similar to an M16, that is locked in the cruiser and a shotgun. The C8, with a collapsible stock, can be used in close encounters.

Weapons are signed out from a locked vault at the beginning of the shift and returned to the vault at the end of a shift.

Officers also assess the degree of danger they encounter at a specific call. The assessment allows the officer to determine the type of force needed to resolve an incident.

Dedman said officers are prepared to handle all types of situations as part of the immediate rapid deployment structure where a shooter has entered a building. He pointed to the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut where a lone gunman killed 26 people, including 20 elementary students, late last year.

“What we’re training our officers is in IRD,” Dedman said. “If we put pressure on an active shooter what they’re going to do is give up or off themselves.”

It’s those types of scenarios that have necessitated upgrades in protocol officers follow and train for.

“If it’s an armed, active threat we get in there and save innocent people. It’s a swift and immediate deployment to a situation that can’t be delayed. We have to go in and contain that threat.”

In the past two years there have been five incidents involving weapons within the counties covered by the training centre, said Constable Jeff Mercey, who is involved in firearms training and testing.

“We have to assess, plan and act,” Constable Willie  Smith said, of the evaluation needed at each call. “It depends on how the situation plays itself out.”

Mercey characterizes his fellow Wellington OPP officers as being the best equipped  and largest force in the area.

“Everything we do is legislated by provincial regulations,” Mercey added, referring to safeguards officers are governed by which dictate their conduct at individual calls.

The canine unit is another part of policing and in Wellington County that falls on Constable Barry Reid and his German Shepherd, Dekker. The handler is stationed out of the Rockwood detachment and is on call 24-7. He’s been with the unit for 10 years with Dekker being his second dog. There are some 25 OPP canine units across the province with dogs trained to detect explosives, find drugs and search for missing people. Dekker came from a Belgium breeder and possessed the characteristics that make a good OPP dog.

According to Reid, the dogs have to have high prey drive, stable personality, be aggressive when they are challenged, curious and, above all, healthy.

Reid has trained Dekker to deal with all possible scenarios that might arise on a call.

“We teach the dogs how to fight for themselves,” he said. “We do all the training ourselves as the handler.”

The training is based on a reward system. In Dekker’s case the dog has learned to carry out tasks in exchange for tennis ball that Reid carries with him.

“What Dekker does when he finds something, he sits until he gets rewarded,” Reid said of the process.

Dekker, (who lives with Reid), and Reid are inseparable. The dog is housed in an outdoor enclosure year round to keep him “motivated” for what are largely outdoor calls.

“The open house was very interesting and informative,” said Wellington North executive assistant Cathy Conrad. “It was an excellent opportunity to learn about the training centre, the work they do there and the tools they use.”

“The event was quite impressive and the officers that participated showed their knowledge and dedication,” said Wellington County clerk Donna Bryce. “The types of incidents that the officers are confronted with and how they are trained to handle them showed a side of the operations that the general public doesn’t normally get to see. It was noteworthy to hear that over 500 officers are trained annually.”

Lawson said the open house was also an opportunity to show township representatives the value of the facility to the OPP. Council has been discussing the possible sale of the building which could mean OPP would have to find another location.

“This was a bit of a thank-you for letting us stay there,” Lawson added.

Mayor Ray Tout, who is a member of the county police services board, said the open house offered insight in police training.

“I thought it was an excellent opportunity for frontline officers to talk about the training they must have,” Tout said. “They’re job is just not easy. They don’t know from one day to the next what they’re going to face.”