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Nerf gun citations dropped, Police explain response


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) -- A group of students given disorderly conduct citations last week over a game of Nerf Wars will be getting community service instead of $240.00 citations.

Police chief Jeff Hardel says the decision to drop the citations in the case was contingent on the students taking part in a educational video about the consequences possible by taking part in the “Senior Shootout” game.

Hardel says they’ve received some criticism of how they handled the initial call, but he says that is the proper procedure because officers don’t know what they’re getting into until they arrive and speak to the subjects. Hardel says he stands behind the judgement of the officers at the scene, He says people need to understand Wausau does have real gun incidents that are dangerous.  “This scenario that played out, even though it was Nerf guns and it was a game and was not real, we ultimately found out, that scenario has been played out numerous other times in our communities with drug rip-offs, and I can tell you that we’ve had home invasions similar to this where people are breaking into houses with guns drawn.”

Hardel says there are people that don’t understand that police regularly see real and dangerous gun activity in Wausau. On the night of the Nerf incident, Some of these same Wausau officers dealt with two separate firearm suicide cases.

The 911 audio from the incident was played back during the Tuesday press conference. In the clip, the caller can be heard reporting several teenagers getting out of cars with weapons after blocking another car in. He told police the situation was dangerous and can be heard telling his wife not to be seen. The incident happened at 9:39 p.m., so the degree of darkness made it difficult to see the bright colors on the nerf guns.

Hardel says they made a full response to the scene based on that information, and performed a high-risk stop and search of all of the people involved.

Hardel believes the Nerf gun game has reached an unhealthy level, and is concerned that it could lead to serious injury or death, especially for players trying to hide on private property.  “I’m afraid one of the kids is going to get hurt. You know, we have people that carry CCW’s, carrying a concealed weapon. We have individuals that have guns in their houses, and I’m afraid that if one of these kids is hiding in a garage and somebody, a homeowner, comes home, you know they could take deadly force action, and we want to prevent that.” There have been past incidents involving traffic crashes with students playing the game, but none of the vehicles were moving in this incident.

Hardel says all of the six students involved were very cooperative when approached by officers.  “We received feedback from Lieutenant (Todd) Baeten and the officers that all of the kids were very respectful and very cooperative, understood why the officers responded in that fashion.”

The community service will likely involve safety training and probably a video to educate other students about what they’re doing, and how others in the community might not realize it’s just a game.

When asked about why it took a week to come to this conclusion, Hardel says he wasn’t going to make a hasty decision based on part of the information. The officers on duty last Tuesday night were off Wednesday and Thursday. With a busy Tuesday night, many of the officer’s incident reports were not written until they were back on duty between Friday and Sunday. Hardel says he met with the two students seated inside the vehicle, and their citations were voided Friday night. He says he met with the reporting party, the students, and the parents, before deciding to void the other four disorderly conduct tickets. Hardel says he would expect any similar situation to be handled exactly the same way. The main reason he supported this resolution is the students have been very cooperative, and they have no previous legal problems.

Two of the students involved are John Mills and Sam Ably.  Ably says his Senior Shootout team stopped participating after their experience with the law.  “Our team withdrew the day after from the competition. I know a few other teams withdrew after that just because, you know, it’s a frightening subject and they didn’t want to see it happen to them, and I think, you know, with the educational video that we’re probably going to do, it might affect some people (saying) I don’t want this to happen to me, and I understand this kind of stuff has consequences, and it could have been a lot worse for these guys, and I don’t want something bad like that to happen to me.”

John Mills says the Senior Shootout has some rules, including a few unusual ones, like you can’t be shot if you’re at work, sitting in a car, or if your clothes are off. The so-called “naked rule” means if someone strips to their underwear, they cannot be shot. Mills is hopeful that the rules get changed if the game continues.  “I hope they change the rules so it’s a little more controlled, so to speak, so it can’t get out of control and be more of a fun thing that the seniors can do. Nothing that gets way too serious, and gets out of hand.” He also supports not playing the game after dark, since that’s when it is easy for others to misinterpret what they see.

Hardel says the Police Liaison Officer has heard concerns about the game from the Wausau School District for some time, but says the school district did not attempt to influence his decision in any way. The school did remove the athletic and activity suspensions when the citations were dismissed.

A time frame for the student’s community service educational effort has not been determined.

Variations of the Nerf gun game are causing similar concerns across the country. Hardel says they’ve received calls from other police departments, including Cincinatti, Ohio area departments.

(Listen to our interview with students John Mills and Sam Ably on our website, here.)