ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - In a previous look "Inside the Academy," we discussed the dangers an officer faces every time they conduct a traffic stop. An officer never knows when a stop might turn deadly.
In a recent training exercise for the St. Louis County and Municipal Police Academy, a St. Louis County park was closed to the public and recruits were given an opportunity to practice traffic stops at night.
“We got a call for a suspicious vehicle in a park after hours so you literally know nothing,” said Recruit Mary Mills.
Recruits were each assigned a marked police vehicle. Two recruits at a time were given instructions by radio to check out a "suspicious vehicle in the park after dark."
The two police vehicles drove up to another police vehicle acting as the "rabbit" car. It had two veteran officers inside acting as "suspects."
As recruits approached the vehicle, one of the "suspects" fired a "shot" from a fake gun at the recruits. The gun made a loud noise, and a flash was seen when the "shot" was fired. The recruits did not know the "shot" was coming.
“It was really unsettling,” said Recruit Trevor Green, recognizing that if this were a real scenario, he would have been shot at. “It was a training tool, but I got 'shot,' and it was shocking. I actually looked down at myself like, ‘I think this person just shot me.’”
If an officer is able, they must make every effort to stop the threat in an effort to protect the public. If a suspect flees a scene, the officer may have to pursue the suspect at high speeds and through unknown areas.
Recruits chased the "suspect" vehicle for several miles through the park after dark. The "suspect" vehicle then came to a stop. Recruits got out of their vehicles and conducted a felony traffic stop by commanding the suspects to get out of the vehicle and drop their weapon, and then get them in a position to be taken into custody.
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reports traffic-related fatalities have been the leading cause of death for officers in 15 of the last 20 years.
It is academy instructor John Hansen's job to give recruits a crash course in driving like an officer. He called in several fellow officers to help train recruits during the day and after dark.
Before the night pursuit, recruits were given a chance to practice their driving skills in daylight hours in a closed, empty parking lot. Daytime drills consisted of five stations. Hansen said there is a lot of focus on backing up which is where many vehicle accidents, not just law enforcement's, occur. Officers also coached recruits through parallel parking, weaving around cones, speed, abrupt stops, and turning tight corners.
Hansen said there are a lot of things an officer must pay attention to while driving their police vehicle.
“We are constantly distracted by our computers, by our equipment such as radar and anything else that we have in the car," he said. "We’re watching other vehicles. We have to pay attention to that. Then also what’s going on with pedestrian traffic. Looking at buildings. Making sure there isn’t crime taking place.”
As has been a major lesson during previous academy trainings, recruits are once again reminded of the importance of communication. Officers must communicate with each other and with dispatch.
“If you’re not telling dispatch where you’re at, when you get to a stop you’re not going to have any help,” said Hansen.
While driving, sometimes at a high rate of speed, officers must relay information like their location, a description of the suspect vehicle, suspect license plate, suspect description, and the number of suspects in the vehicle.
Recruit Octavia Hearon worked as a police dispatcher in University City prior to joining the police academy. She said her past experience helped in this exercise because she was familiar with the terminology and the information dispatchers are looking for.
Hansen teaches the recruits to use their radios when they’re stopped, but in the event of a pursuit, he tells them to work through the adrenaline and make the safest decision possible.
“We really want to make sure that they’re constantly remembering ‘What’s paramount?’ And that’s our safety and the safety of the public.”
Recruits will get more experience behind the wheel when they begin field training after graduation. During field training, recruits work alongside veteran officers and they will also learn their hiring department’s pursuit policy.
There will come a time when the recruits-turned-officers may have to draw their gun. They may even have to fire it. In our next look inside the academy, we’ll see the skills recruits have developed at the range and learn about a new tool helping them to decide when to pull the trigger.
For more on Fox 2's exclusive look Inside the Academy, visit www.fox2now.com/academy.