The Shoot House
“Just like that: Bang! You’re dead.”
Some guy is blaring music in his apartment, so a neighbor calls the cops. You gotta go out there, assess the situation, think fast! a coach tells the cadets. “Action beats reaction every time.”
It’s a chilly Tuesday in December, and the recruits are carrying radios, wearing gun belts. They are lined up across from the St. Petersburg police academy, outside the shoot house.
Where anything can happen.
The upstairs of this two-story building is set up like a shabby apartment: old couch, bookshelf, fake flowers.
Downstairs is an abandoned office complex, or warehouse, or whatever the coaches want it to be.
Today, for the first time, the cadets will pretend they are officers sent to a scene. It’s called “role-based training.”
The scenarios are from actual calls, acted out by coaches and classmates.
You don’t have to arrest someone, the coach says. And remember to keep your guard up.
“Warn the person to turn down their music. If you have to come back, write a ticket. Check halls and bedrooms. Don’t do your business in the kitchen. There are bad weapons there. Find your exit points. Know how to get out of the house if something happens.”
There’s no way to prepare rookie cops for every situation they will face. So instructors throw all sorts of possibilities at the recruits. Some scenarios they might not confront for years, or ever. The goal is to help them think through ways to react, consider what-ifs, develop physical memories. Learn to be decisive, act quickly.
They teach them that 911 calls aren’t always what they seem. A disorderly complaint can lead to an abused child. Someone loitering can turn into a K-9 chase. Suicides become homicides.
Sometimes, it’s shoot or get shot.
“Try to disarm them,” the coach says. “But if they threaten you, shoot for center mass. We don’t train to wound.
“Keep shooting until the threat stops. That’s why you see suspects shot seven times, if they’re still coming at you.”
Metal music is throbbing inside “the apartment,” so Hannah Anhalt knocks loudly. “Police!” she says. “We want to talk to you real quickly.”
The music gets softer. From inside, someone calls, “Come on in!”
Anhalt and her partner have silver handcuffs and orange plastic weapons. They look at each other, unsure what to do. “We’d rather you come out here in the hall and talk to us,” says her partner. “Step outside, sir.”
He won’t. From across the hall, a neighbor confronts the cadets. “What’s going on?”
The door opens slightly. “I don’t really want to go outside,” the man says. He must be hiding something, Anhalt’s partner decides. So she shoulders the door open and shoves the man back.
While her partner is making “contact,” Anhalt should be “covering,” watching the hall. Instead, she follows her partner inside, leaving the door open. As her partner tries to wrestle the man into handcuffs, the neighbor strides into the room and grabs Anhalt’s gun.
He wraps his left arm around her neck, presses the barrel to her temple. Says, “You’re my hostage now.”
Anhalt’s partner freezes. “I don’t know what to do.”
“That went horribly,” Anhalt says. But she realizes her mistake. “I should’ve grabbed you and stopped you from coming into the apartment,” she tells the coach. “I got distracted and had tunnel vision.”
“One hundred percent,” says the coach, letting her go. “You should have made the suspect talk to you in his apartment, instead of in the hall, where neighbors can get involved. You should’ve warned me that if I came into that apartment, you would arrest me for obstruction. You should’ve been more assertive. Tell me, ‘Sit your ass down now!’”
Have a plan with your partner, the coach says. “If you say her first name, she’ll take a shot. She might hit you in the shoulder, but at least you’ll be alive.”
Anhalt nods. “Did you feel me pull your gun?” asks the coach.
Anhalt shakes her head. “Not at all.”
“Yeah, just like that,” the coach says. “Bang! You’re dead.”
Halfway through the academy, the recruits have learned to collect evidence, photograph injuries, check suspects’ waistbands for weapons. They figured out how to load a gun in six seconds, then do it with their eyes closed. They saw how blood pools and settles in a body.
Battery, they now know, is any form of striking. If someone loses a tooth, that’s a felony battery. If the suspect has a weapon — or the victim is pregnant — it’s an aggravated battery, which means more time in jail.
The 24 cadets have spent days at the rifle range shooting with both hands, learning how to hit a moving target and fire while they’re running. They’re judged on the speed of their reactions, how well they use cover, the accuracy of their shots. They’re not expected to become marksmen during the academy, and are encouraged to keep practicing and get more training.
They’ve been taught how to counsel someone contemplating suicide, how to subdue subjects on their stomachs. “Put your knee on their back,” a coach said. “Not on the neck. Never on the neck. With George Floyd, that was never a tactic. That guy just screwed up.”
They rehearsed knocking hard and announcing, “Police!” — so whoever is inside will know. “In the Breonna Taylor case, that was the whole problem,” a coach said. “They didn’t announce.”
After three months, they’ve learned about each other.
Anhalt is a great shot, especially at moving targets. KeVonn Mabon started calling her, “Jane Wick,” after the movie action hero. She loves that, and can’t wait to take her fiancé shooting to show off her skills.
Mabon is “the rabbit,” Anhalt said. “He keeps us all chasing him, but no one can keep up.” In drills, would-be suspects can never run fast enough to escape his tackles.
Brittany “Mama” Moody is fierce in the mat room, especially good at “gift-wrapping” — taking suspects to the floor. She’s become more suspicious of strangers.
A coach is on the couch in the next scenario, leafing through magazines on an old coffee table. He told cadets he called 911, then hung up. So they had to check on him.
When Mabon knocks loudly, the coach calls, “Come in!”
Mabon scans the room, keeping his right hand on his holster. His partner checks the hall, then follows, closing the apartment door.
Before either recruit says a word, the coach yells: “What took you so long? I lost my job. My wife left me. And now I can’t find my dog.”
“Can you stand up for me?” asks Mabon’s partner. He’s not sure why.
“No! I don’t want to do that!” screams the coach. “This is my f---ing house! And I can’t find my dog.”
“What kind of dog?” asks Mabon’s partner, watching the coach’s face. Mabon is fixed on his hands. When he sees him slowly reach for the magazines, Mabon whips out his gun, points it at the coach’s chest, and says, “Bam!”
His partner, stunned, stares. He never saw the gun beneath the Elle Decor.
“I didn’t want to tell you he had a gun, or let him know I knew,” Mabon says. “We could have a code word for that, I guess?”
“Code words are good,” says the coach. “We used red for weapons. ‘I pulled you over at the red light … ”
“You were going to shoot me, weren’t you?” Mabon asks the coach. “I broke leather as soon as I saw you move for your gun.”
“Okay, yes. Even if a gun is on the table, it’s a threat.”
State curriculum calls for 56 hours of training on interviewing and report writing, 35 hours on “fundamentals of patrol,” 80 hours of defensive tactics. Individual academies can’t deviate from those mandates, but Coach Joe Saponare added “role-based training” in every block.
After the first one, the cadets know they’ll never get enough.
Being in the room with a would-be suspect, figuring out what to do and when, trying to talk to someone who’s screaming at you, worrying that he has a gun — or might grab yours…
“It’s not like just reading it in the book,” Anhalt said.
The coaches agree. Six months isn’t nearly long enough to get someone ready to be a police officer. Becoming a lawyer takes a college degree plus three years; a doctor needs at least four more. And those jobs aren’t nearly as dangerous.
“The more you train, the better off you’ll be,” the coach tells the cadets. “You have to keep working, stay sharp.”
Don’t get lazy, the coach says. “Lazy breeds complacency. And complacency breeds death.”
Work on your communication skills, he tells them. Practice having conversations, even if it’s just talking to yourself. You’ll be surprised how much you can do with words.
Be kind but cautious, the coach says.
Hold true to your ethics. Do what you know is right, he says, no matter what others are doing around you. “Your destiny rests with you.”
At a warehouse, an alarm goes off. You get there and see the side door is open, Coach Sap explains. You have to figure out what’s happened, see if anyone’s inside, clear the building.
Form groups of three, he tells the cadets. Pick a leader. Knock and announce. When you have a suspect in custody, cuff them. Communicate with the subject and each other.
On this second day of scenarios, the recruits are carrying blue guns that shoot pink paintballs.
“Has anyone here been hit by simulated bullets?” asks a coach. “They hurt, so try not to get shot. Identify your target. Know where the threat is coming from. I’ve seen partners shoot partners.”
No matter what, he says, don’t give up. “Your scenario isn’t over just because you got shot.”
Moody leads the first group. She stops at the doorway and steps to the side, using the wall as a barrier. She doesn’t knock or announce. When she leans out to look down the hall, she points her gun to the ground.
“Never hold your gun down!” calls a coach. “Never peek out the door without pointing your gun there.”
She nods, and proceeds down the dark hall, two recruits following. “Not close enough!” calls the coach. “Butt to gut!”
With a flashlight in her left hand, the gun in her right, she searches a storeroom. “Clear!” A bathroom. “Clear!” A cluttered classroom. “Pinellas County sheriff!” she shouts. “If you’re in here, come out with your hands up!”
No one does. She shines a flashlight around the walls, then moves onto another bathroom, which one of her partners is checking. “I got your back! I got your back!” Moody calls, watching the hall.
Coach Sap had been hiding behind the door in that classroom. He jumps out and points his gun at Moody, shoots her six times.
Pink splats stain her shirt. Her partners stand beside her, mouths open.
“What are you going to do? What do you do now?” asks Coach Sap.
One of the male cadets stutters, “Uhh, mmm, maybe try to leave?”
“Okay,” says Coach Sap, smiling. “Show me how you’re going to leave.”
“We’re not going to leave,” says Moody. “We can call for back-up. But we’re not going to leave.”
“I’d watch my back and call the SWAT team,” a coach agrees.
Two of you kept your backs to the door, Coach Sap says. No one called, “Shots fired!”
“You guys have to communicate better. You can’t be afraid,” he tells them. “I was ready to light you up some more.”
In the next scenario, Coach Sap holds a gun to his head, cries that his wife is cheating on him, again.
“Sir, we can help you. Put the gun down,” Moody says calmly, shining a flashlight on Coach Sap.
“I can’t see. Take that light out of my face,” he yells, walking toward her.
“Stop walking, Sir,” says Moody. “Put the gun down.”
The other recruits stay frozen and silent. When Moody sees Coach Sap tip his gun toward her, she fires. But he keeps coming. The next time she shoots, he falls face down.
“Somebody else needs to know what to do,” Coach Sap says from the floor. “It can’t always be Moody.”
She kneels beside him and opens her handcuffs. She was better at these scenarios than she thought she would be. She gained confidence and solidified her spot as a leader. Now, all her classmates want to be on her team.
Next up though, practicing car chases on the driving range, everyone will be on their own.