Hidden Maryland: Howard County police training center

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The latest installment of Hidden Maryland goes to the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center, which offers an extensive array of suburban mockups in one cinder-block building.

Hidden Maryland

Realistic settings for tactical training

By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Near the cornfields on Old Frederick and Sand Hill roads in Marriottsville stands a slice of suburbia, and there’s often trouble brewing.

Some drunk might be getting out of hand at The Greene Turtle. An armed robber could be holding up the Columbia Bank, or a couple’s argument boiling over in a townhouse.

Always plenty of police around to handle it, though, even if some of them still have on their training wheels. They’re learning or refreshing their skills, and doing it in settings dressed up to simulate the world outside the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center in Howard County.

“The more realistic you can make training, the better officer you’re going to have,” said Lt. Robert Wagner, who is in charge of training for the Howard County Police Department. He presides at the 46-acre training center, the only one in the state offering such an extensive array of suburban mockups in one building, each room monitored by cameras to allow instructors to watch the exercises unfold on flat-screen monitor in a separate room.

For that reason the place is often in demand.

The Maryland State Police have been there for training. Also the FBI, Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, Westminster Police and SWAT teams from the Prince George’s County and Baltimore County police.

Later this month and in early October, SWAT team members from across the state will converge for three weeks on a row of five “townhouses,” practicing the moves necessary to get into a house and in seconds “clear” the space, Wagner said. That’s police talk for checking to see if there’s anyone inside, making sure suspects are not armed or, if they are, seeing that they can’t shoot.

The danger of this work was illustrated recently when Baltimore County Police Officer Jason Schneider was fatally shot as he and other members of a tactical unit entered a Catonsville house to serve a search and arrest warrant.

This townhouse setting is stripped to the essentials. Just a cinder-block shell with plywood walls inside, providing a basic sense of space if not the look and feel of a house.

The eight settings in the building across the street, though, are much more elaborate, all meant to leave as little as possible to the imagination. The bank, convenience store, two-level townhouse, hotel room, hotel lobby, warehouse, real estate office and bar/restaurant are designed to stand as a little sample of Howard County.

One key difference is that all officers are either unarmed, or equipped with dummy weapons that at most fire paint pellets.

The Columbia Bank has the green-lettered sign above the door outside and is dressed up pretty much like the real thing inside, down to the little brass-colored FDIC sign on the teller counter and the potted plants. All of it donated by a Columbia Bank office in Prince George’s County that was doing renovations.

The Greene Turtle setup is equipped with a bar and an assortment of beer, wine and hard liquor bottles, tables, chairs, dart board and an array of displays: baseball trophies, Amstel Light mirror and lighted Heineken Premium Light sign. There’s a mechanical head of a horned buck on one wall that moves its head and sings country tunes.

“I had that in my house. It was a gift,” said Wagner, who donated many of the furnishings in the settings.

The 7-Eleven, also with a sign outside, is dressed up with a magazine rack, shelves of merchandise — Fudge Rounds cookies, motor oil, breakfast cereal — a display case for donuts and other baked goods and a real refrigerator case door framing a life-size photograph of racks of soft drinks and milk.

During a training session, they’re likely to have the coffee maker and the hot-dog grill going.

“It just gives a feeling that you’re actually there,” beyond what you could do in a classroom, said Sgt. Kevin Costello, a training and firearms specialist for Howard County Police. “Psychologically, you know you’re in a classroom,” said Costello.

“If you imagine a bank and I imagine a bank, we could be thinking of two different things,” said Wagner. With these settings, he said, instructors can see clearly what the officer is responding to in the scene, which can sometimes require a large cast of characters.

For the Greene Turtle scenario, there might be officers portraying patrons at the bar, at the tables, playing darts. Someone behind the bar. Music playing, the deer head singing.

The other players don’t have a line-by-line script, and neither does the officer, who walks into the room with knowledge of the law, procedure and tactics and a general idea of the call to the bar. A report of a fight, perhaps, or a rowdy drunk, a customer getting aggressive in challenging a bill.

The 23-member class that just started the eight-month police academy course won’t be using the settings until late fall, but regular Howard County officers have been running exercises outside the Columbia Bank. For the next three months, each of the department’s officers, about 460, will take turns responding to a simulated call for a suspicious person hanging around on the street.

It’s a relatively simple situation that has raised many complaints in New York City, where the police “stop and frisk” practice has stirred concern about privacy, illegal searches and racial profiling. It’s called a “Terry stop,” for the 1968 Supreme Court decision in an Ohio case in which the court decided it was legal for police, on reasonable suspicion of some criminal activity, to detain, or search someone.

But how should the officer approach? How far can he or she go? What should he say to keep the situation calm? How to react to a surly subject who won’t give his or her name, won’t present identification?

On a recent day, Pfc. Mike Knight, a firearms instructor playing the man outside the bank, put his fellow officers to the test. He’d allow that he was waiting for someone, but refused to give his name or offer identification, showed disdain for the officer, walked away, but did nothing illegal.

“You’re not seeing an ID,” said Knight in one of the scenarios. “What does it take to get away from you? You don’t have anything better to do than to harass people?”

Some of the 14 officers who went through the two- or three-minute exercise followed a bit and kept talking as Knight walked away. Some put their hands on him. One put him in handcuffs to detain him without putting him under arrest.

Costello and other officers were watching and taking notes. Months from now, Costello said, they’ll look at how it went and decide if they need to conduct more training in this one small example of how police manage the balance between law enforcement and citizens’ legal rights.

He can’t say for publication exactly what they’re looking for, as that would ruin the experiment. That part, for the time being, has to remain hidden.


James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center

Where: 2200 Scott Wheeler Drive, Marriottsville

You never would guess that: In the 7-Eleven setup, the coffee machine and hot dog griller work, but the Slurpee machine does not.


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