By Gerry Goldshine
Petaluma Police Department, retired
Part 3 (conclusion)
While firearm training was an ongoing process, almost from day one to graduation, emergency vehicle operation training was done over a three day period. All of us were excited because we were going to be the first class to receive training through the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at what would one day become Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma (Now Sonoma Raceway) . Sadly, we were all sorely disappointed. First of all, the vehicles we were to train with were compact cars, nothing like the big high powered beasts we would be driving with our various departments. None of the vehicles had any emergency equipment installed. There were no flashing lights, no sirens wailing and no blaring radios; none of the distractions that would drive our adrenaline sky-high under actual emergency driving conditions. Then, there were the instructors; they may have been excellent race car drivers but none had any law enforcement background or experience driving emergency vehicles that they could share with us. I suppose the final frustration was that we were not permitted to drive over 35 miles per hour during any phase of this training. I got very proficient at avoiding cones that day and not much more.
The first supplemental training that I received upon graduation was eight hours of training with a Sheriff Office’s driving instructor using retired patrol cars. I’m here to tell you there is no quicker learning experience than losing control one of those high powered vehicles in turn at 65 miles an hour because you didn’t set up properly entering a corner. As a result of that, as well as refresher training, I had confidence in my driving abilities the night I pursued a suspect, who had just stabbed someone as well as trying to run me and other officers off the road, down Highway 101 at over 120 miles per hour. With one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding the microphone to communicate with dispatch, the siren, radio and scanner blared away. At the same time, I had to be aware of my location, that of other responding units, other traffic ahead and around me, changing weather and road conditions. I had to constantly evaluate whether any of those variables would make the safety of the public outweigh the need to continue the pursuit. All of that was something the Bondurant experience failed to provide in their block of training.
As the weeks passed, our sponge-like brains desperately tried to absorb still more material in other subject areas. There were more classes on how to write police reports, criminalistics (that whole CSI thing) and seemed to be everyone’s least favorite subject, traffic accident investigation. There was also training in non-lethal defense methods, which meant some form of CN or CS or what is more commonly known as tear gas. Our practical exercise involved a group of recruits going inside a closed plywood shed accompanied by an instructor where they would expose them to some form of that blessed substance. Unbeknownst to our instructor, a retired FBI Agent, was the fact that I had also been an instructor of essentially the same type of training for many years in the Army. As my group nervously entered the shed, I found a corner, leaned back, slowed and steadied my breathing, knowing what was about to happen. As the effects of the gas hit them, my fellow recruits hit the door like a stampede of water buffaloes. It wasn’t long before it was just the instructor and me staring at each other, him with a very surprised expression. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?” he asked after about five minutes had passed and I still hadn’t gone running for the exit. I nodded my head and then explained my background. He sheepishly asked if I wouldn’t mind leaving before him, as it would damage his mystique if I came out last. Still, I had quite the charisma having stayed as long as I did.
As we neared graduation, we were all looking forward towards finally getting practical training on making vehicular stops. Vehicle stops are perhaps the most common, most complex as well as most dangerous activities for a patrol officer. When an officer makes a traffic stop, they have no idea what the driver’s intentions are. Has the driver just committed a crime? Are they armed with a weapon? Are they intoxicated? Are they going to flee when you turn on your emergency lights? In addition, an officer has to exercise proper radio procedure in notifying dispatch of the stop. They have to know something as basic as their location, which can be difficult in a large city or seldom traveled country roads. An officer has to be aware of traffic around them, how they park their patrol vehicle and how they walk up to the car they’ve stopped. An officer also has to pick a strategic spot to stand when they make contact with the driver. While no means the last thing that goes into a traffic stop is how an officer talks to the driver. He can calm a tense situation or escalate a calm one. Though I had already made several hundred vehicle stops while in the Military Police, I was painfully aware that back then, circumstances were far different on a military base than in a city. Not exactly something to inspire confidence in my abilities.
As was the case with my firearms training, I’m still not sure what my expectations were as to training when it came to vehicle or traffic stops, both low risk or “routine” and high risk or “felony” stops. I know I anticipated more than twelve hours of both classroom and practical instruction. Many of us felt the scenarios devised by our instructors for the high risk stop exercises were ridiculously complex and bordered on the impossible. The geekier side of me recalls the Star Trek “Koboyasi Maru” test; for those non-Trekkies, it was a final exam scenario at the Starfleet Academy that was designed to be impossible to survive. I can still vaguely recall my own Academy “Koboyashi Maru” test; it was at night in a poorly lit area. Another recruit and I were to make a car stop on a vehicle that contained four “armed” suspects. As the car came to a stop, all four bailed out of the car and ran off into a darkened field. Our “backup” was many minutes away, leaving us to decide on a course of action. If both of us went after the suspect, the bad guys would have been lying in wait and “killed” us both. If one of us stayed and one pursued the suspect, the chase would have ended with either recruit officer being “shot” or taken hostage. If both officers stayed, then they would be ambushed because the suspects had doubled backed to launch an attack. It was a designed to be a no win scenario which does little to teach or inspire confidence outside of Star Fleet Academy.
Finally, the big day arrived; graduation. I was pleased, having finished fourth out of our graduating class of twenty-four. I walked up to the auditorium stage in my spiffy new Deputy Sheriff uniform, almost ready to bust my buttons with pride. Alongside my two fellow deputies, we received our graduation certificates from the Sheriff. Unlike Mahoney and his bunch of misfits from the Police Academy movies, we weren’t about to be turned loose upon an unsuspecting public. Ahead of us lay nearly another twelve weeks of training in the field under the watch eyes of our Field Training Officers (FTOs).
This was by no means a complete detailed accounting of the academy I attended nor should it be considered a blueprint for what’s taught today. Each recruit or cadet comes away with their own unique litany of successes, failures, achievements and disappointments. Laws change. Police tactics evolve as the threats change. Public perception of law enforcement changes as well. When I was taking Criminal Justice classes in college, the field of Police-Community Relations was new and a response to the turmoil of the Sixties and Seventies. When I had to retire in the late Nineties, Community Oriented Policing was the new buzzword after the public paroxysms that followed the Rodney King incident. While the reasons are many and varied, public perception of Law Enforcement integrity has waned again and once more administrators are looking for ways to shore up community support. Whatever the program’s name or acronym, its ultimate goals will have foundations in the next Police Academy.