Police cars, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, surrounded a vehicle Thursday morning before officers, with guns drawn, demanded the driver of the target vehicle get out and surrender.
The driver put his hands out of the window, got out of the car and walked backward toward the voice of the officer shouting orders.
The guns were fake and the procedure, a “rolling roadblock,” was only a drill — one of many that area law enforcement agencies, police academy students and other public safety agencies can now practice at Madison Area Technical College’s new public safety training facility southwest of Columbus on the site of a former racetrack.
The approximately $4 million, 40-acre facility includes buildings for classroom instruction and a large paved block. It also features curved, uphill, downhill and straight roadways to mimic actual situations officers might face in the field, giving a boost to area law enforcement agencies’ training options.
It’s the culmination of years of planning by MATC and of the controversial sale of the Columbus 151 Speedway, which landed in court.
Although the facility isn’t ready to open for public safety agency use, MATC started teaching classes at the facility last week. On Thursday, about a dozen future police instructors trained on how to conduct some types of traffic stops.
“They really did things right,” said Deputy Jack Frost of the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office, an instructor at MATC’s police academy, as he demonstrated an evasive maneuver inside his vehicle at the facility. “Nowadays, you’ve got to keep ahead of the bad guys.”
Shawna Carter, dean of MATC’s School of Human and Protective Services, said local law enforcement agencies have told her one of their most pressing training needs is appropriate areas for officers to practice road skills. She said the No. 1 way police officers die on the job is in crashes.
“This is going to immediately be able to provide our law enforcement, EMS and fire agencies … a location for driver training,” Carter said. “This facility was much needed.”
Previously, agencies had to practice driving techniques at a Wisconsin State Patrol facility at Fort McCoy near Tomah, at a Fox Valley Technical College training center in Appleton, at racetracks or in large parking lots — places large enough to practice skills like pursuing a car, driving in reverse or deploying stop sticks.
Madison police Capt. Mary Schauf leads the department’s officer training and said it plans to send officers and academy students to the facility to train. She said that its design, which allows for scenario training — unlike a parking lot or racetrack — will give officers “that little extra edge” while saving the department time and money.
“What we have is a really nice facility designed for law enforcement training close to our city,” she said. “It adds those extra little pieces that enhance the training experience. And those are the things that are hard to measure but make a big difference.”
Ambulance drivers and firefighters could also benefit from training there, Carter said. Eventually, an area of the facility designed like a city block with buildings, street signs and lights will be completed to make the experience seem more realistic.
Frost said such training is mandated by the state, with re-certification needed every two years.
In MATC’s sights
The facility was first envisioned seven or eight years ago, Carter said, with planning for redesigning the former racetrack starting about two years ago.
While some in the racing community and family that owned the track — which tried to back out of a 2015 sale with the college before being forced to sell it by a Columbia County judge in February 2016 — were upset by the loss of a racetrack, it will benefit the community because it will help lead to better-trained law enforcement agencies, Carter said.
Andrew Schwartz, of Madison, a 22-year-old MATC criminal justice student and hopeful future police officer, said the experience the facility provides will help make him a better officer once he gets the chance to practice there when he’s enrolled in the police academy.
“It’s nice to see that the college cares about making sure we have top-of-the-line stuff,” he said. “It makes you feel confident that we’re not just some side program.”