Training keeps cops in the hunt
The nose of the Rock County squad plowed into three traffic cones.
I tried not to think of the cones as a group of nuns, which they resembled and might have been had the brown, aging Ford Crown Victoria squad car been on a city street instead of Blackhawk Farms Raceway outside South Beloit.
But then, a real Rock County sheriff’s deputy would have been driving. And he or she would have had a lot more training and experience in emergency vehicle operation than I did.
I took a daylong course—driving, a class session and practice in stopping a car-full of armed and dangerous bad guys—to get hands-on background for what is the most dangerous part of an officer’s job: driving, not handling firearms.
“Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death and injuries for law enforcement officers nationwide,” Rock County Sheriff Bob Spoden said. “The risk of an officer being involved in a traffic accident is far greater than that of being in a shooting.”
Cops on patrol are behind the wheel for most of their shifts, and they must respond to emergencies quickly and safely at any time in all types of weather and traffic conditions, the sheriff noted.
By state mandate, cops take the course every two years. Nineteen officers from five departments took the course the day I did. Six officers from area departments were the instructors, working through Blackhawk Technical College.
Although vehicle pursuits are not now as numerous as in years part, they were a major part of the training.
At the heart of every chase is the reason that people become cops: To catch bad guys.
But as the class instructor, Capt. Bill Tyler of the Beloit Police Department, reminded the officers in training: “Not everyone’s perspective is law enforcement’s.”
And not every perspective in a vehicle pursuit is that of the cop chasing the crook. Tyler repeated the facts several times to reinforce the concept that officers involved in a chase have a narrow focus—catch their prey—honed by their training and hyped by adrenalin.
“Sometimes during crisis situations, we tend to block out everything else,” he said.
The fugitive is thinking only of escaping, not of the injuries or damage that could result, so the responsibility falls to police to mitigate and manage pursuits, Tyler said.
And because the cop or cops on the street are intent on pursuit, their supervisors must take responsibility to manage and mitigate the chase, Tyler added.
A supervisor must make sure he or she is detached from the emotion of the event and be sure that communication with officers in the field is quick, clear and calm.
I talked to Deputy Chief David Moore of the Janesville Police Department after I took the course, and he explained that officers in the field and their supervisors are constantly assessing the value of continuing pursuit in light of the inherent danger created by a chase.
Both Rock County deputies and Janesville officers have pages-long general orders that spell out policy, procedures and factors to be considered in pursuits.
A chase that ends badly usually results in the fugitive’s crashing into someone or something.
“We used to chase a lot of people for a lot of different reasons,” Tyler said. “Since the law changed in the late ’90s, we’ve had to make a lot of changes.”
Gone are the days when cops will chase someone for simple traffic violations. Now they will get a vehicle description and license number and track down the owner.
Even if the owner wasn’t driving, he or she is responsible for what was done with the vehicle and so can be ticketed if he or she doesn’t provide the driver’s identity.
Chief among the changes to which Tyler referred are the criteria for vehicle pursuit. In general, police will pursue people if violence occurred or is suspected; if they suspect a felony was committed; if they perceive imminent danger to the public, such as reckless driving, and/or they think the suspects have weapons.
While police decide whether to continue a chase, the other driver’s actions trigger one regardless of speed, Tyler explained.
If the other driver speeds up, changes directions quickly, extinguishes his or her headlights or otherwise tries to evade an officer trying to make a lawful stop, the driver starts the pursuit, Tyler said.
“It doesn’t make any difference if it’s 10 seconds, 15 seconds or 20 seconds,” he said.
Another change since the late ’90s is that more documentation of pursuits is required now.
And so effective, fast communication is just as important in a chase as driving fast and safely.
In the final session of the day, officers practiced being the lead and secondary drivers in a pursuit.
Because the first officer is responsible for keeping up with the fugitive, the second officer is responsible for continual radio updates on location, direction, speed and conditions of the fugitives, their vehicle and traffic.
That means the second officer typically is driving with one hand while handling the radio microphone with his or her other hand.
In the mock pursuit, officers tested their procedures, such as the continual communication, not their driving skills.
The separate driving-skills training was not at excessively high speeds. Many tight curves and a speed limit in one big curve on the Blackhawk Raceways course kept speeds relatively low.
And the driving was fairly simple, though not, as my experience with the cones showed, always easy.
Officers must back and pull into parking spots, avoid obstructions in the road and take a wide curve in a single lane at a constant speed.
They also brake before a curve and accelerate out of it, avoid a series of cones in tight backward and forward slaloms, brake from highway speed to a stop and avoid the nuns, er, cones, when told “right” or “left” at the last second while driving about 35 mph.
My second time through, the nuns survived, and the kid, make that cone, I clipped the first time through the slalom course, now made it safely across the street.
Staying calm and within your limits as a driver were the keys to driving the course without error.
That’s easier to write than to do when driving on a closed course, let alone on a public street in a chase spiked with adrenalin and anxiety.
Back-up crucial in risky stops
“DRIVER! This is the Beloit police. You are a suspect in an armed robbery. You are considered armed and dangerous. If you make any sudden movements, YOU MAY BE SHOT!”
The cop blared the information and the warning over his squad car’s PA system as though the training scenario at Blackhawk Farms Raceway was a real, high-risk stop on a residential city street.
The warnings are not just for the suspects in the stopped vehicle.
Officers often must contend with curious bystanders who put themselves in danger by walking or talking their way into a risky situation, explained Jason Kelley, a Beloit police officer and instructor in Blackhawk Technical College’s police academy.
Getting out a loud, clear and specific warning not only can keep the suspects but also bystanders from doing something foolish and risking their and the officers’ lives, Kelley said.
If the officer spots a suspect carrying a gun, the warning becomes: “If you make any sudden movements, YOU WILL BE SHOT!”
Crucial to high-risk stops are adequate reinforcements.
Cops are taught through the statewide police academy—Blackhawk Tech is its local venue—that at least three officers are required for a high-risk stop, Kelley said.
But if more are available, they are welcome because they can make the event safer for everyone involved: suspects, officers and bystanders.
“You have to trust your people,” Kelley said.
The training was specific nuts-and-bolts police procedure:
-- Where and how to position police vehicles.
-- How to establish cover for officers.
-- How to establish good visibility of the suspects.
-- How to make sure they can’t reach any weapons or contraband.
-- Where and how to hold weapons to establish potential fields of covering fire.
-- How to order suspects into custody.
-- How to search them.
“Flood that vehicle with light—even in the day time,” Kelley told the officers. “At night it gives us that wall of light to operate behind.”
Police used rubber guns to simulate their weapons. The dummy guns allowed Kelley to show officers, not just tell them, how to use their weapons in a high-risk stop.
For instance, an officer should not use a vehicle’s doorframe to brace a semi-automatic pistol because the frame could block the gun’s slide mechanism and cause a jam that would be difficult to clear quickly.
But the focus of the exercise was not shooting. It was controlling events to minimize risk and safely get the suspects into custody—without harm to them, officers or the public.