By Gerry Goldshine
Of the many experiences I had as a police officer, training other officers as an FTO – Field Training Officer – gave me one of the greater senses of accomplishment that few other aspects of police work provided. Oh, I have my share of trainee horror stories, as most training officers usually do, but I was lucky. Most of what I taught involved the specialty at which I was very adept and enjoyed immensely—Traffic. Now, Traffic, be it accident investigation or enforcement, is an anathema to most cops for many reasons. But, that’s a discussion for another time. For now, just trust me. With the exception of us perverse few who enjoy the intricacies of the vehicle code or snagging a DWI just as were going to go off-duty or working through the physics of a major collision, the average beat cop abhors anything remotely related to Traffic.
At the time I worked there, Petaluma Police Department (PPD) was a small agency that could not support a completely staffed and full time traffic bureau. (Now it has one complete with motorcycles.) That meant there were many occasions necessitating beat officers to investigate traffic accidents and process their own DWI’s. As the requirements for more detailed investigations grew, many officers began complaining that the training they had received at the academy was inadequate. The department asked me to put together some training to complement the FTO program; it evolved from a single shift into a one-week block of instruction. Teaching other officer the skills I had developed was a source of pride and a whole lot of fun.
One of the hardest things for a FTO to do is letting their trainee take control. If a trainee is having difficulties, the urge to jump in and do it your way can be almost overwhelming. Letting that trainee work it through is the best way for them to learn, provided of course, it’s not an officer safety issue.
Mike Dettling started at PPD as a reserve officer when he was 19 years old. Frequently, new officers have problems handling the radio for a variety of reasons. Mike was having trouble managing his vocal inflections when making traffic stops. Back then, Mike was a bundle of raw energy, often walking down the hallway singing Sting’s Roxanne at the top of his voice. He would also get so excited making traffic stops that it would come across on the radio that other officers occasionally thought something serious was happening. Since a good part of my job entailed making lots of traffic stops, one Friday night my Sergeant asked me to work with Mike on his radio procedure.
I came up with a simple training plan. Anytime we got behind a car or truck, I would have Mike pretend we were making a traffic stop on it and I would act as dispatch. After about two hours of doing this, controlling his vocal inflection was becoming almost second nature to him. So, when we started making actual stops, Mike handled them like a seasoned veteran.
Since he was doing so well, I decided to advance his training to handling the radio during a pursuit. I would start following random vehicle and have Mike act as if he was calling out a pursuit on the radio. I’m sure that during the course of these exercises, we probably made more than one driver paranoid as we followed them around. For the next couple of hours, between making actual traffic stops and working through several imaginary pursuits, Mike became steadier on the radio, doing a good job at keeping his emotions in check and his voice steady.
Around 10:30 or 11:00 that night, we were heading north on Petaluma Boulevard South, when we noticed a motorcycle ahead of us that appeared to be speeding. Just before I started a pace to determine the motorcycle’s speed, the driver abruptly turned right, onto “D” Street and blew right through a red light. As I turned right to follow, the driver finally noticed we were behind him. He turned, looked at us and then hunkered-down on his bike. I knew right then what was going to happen next.
I told Mike that we were going in pursuit, though I had yet to turn on any of the emergency lights. Mike looked at me as if I had just sprouted a third eye or something, unsure if I were serious or if we were still training. I handed him the microphone and told him to do it just as we practiced and then flipped on the emergency lights.
As soon as they went on, the motorcycle took off like an F/A-18 hitting the afterburners. Mike just gaped, reminding me of Wiley Coyote’s expression when the Roadrunner vanishes in a cloud of dust. He quickly recovered his composure and began calling out the chase to dispatch. He gave them the motorcycle’s description, the street we were on, our direction of travel, the approaching cross street, traffic conditions and finally our speed just as we had practiced; as he did so, his voice began to rise a few octaves. This was pretty exciting stuff and his first chase. I told him to take a few deep breaths and just do as we had trained. From there on, Mike had it down.
This turned out to be one wild pursuit. After buzzing up and down a few residential side streets, the chase continued onto Highway 101. When we started to hit speeds over 100 MPH and fell further behind the motorcycle, I decided it was time to shut it down; jeopardizing everyone’s safety for a couple of traffic infractions wasn’t worth it. Then our sergeant came on the radio and told us if the traffic remained very light, we could continue the pursuit.
I sped up just as our errant motorcyclist exited the highway about a mile ahead of us. It was a “Tee” intersection and he was going so fast that he couldn’t make a turn. Fortunately for him, he was able drive straight across into a parking lot of a business directly opposite the off-ramp. By the time he circled around through the lot and back out onto the street, another officer who had been shadowing the pursuit came up behind him. At about the same time, we were coming down the off-ramp and the chase was back on, but now with two police units involved.
The street we were now on was a two lane state highway – Hwy 116 – and in no time, the motorcyclist was going more than 90 miles per hour and pulling away from us. When a third police unit joined us, our sergeant decided it was becoming a case of diminishing returns and terminated the chase.
On our way back to the station, Mike was almost goggled-eyed and full of post-pursuit adrenaline. He kept asking how I knew the motorcycle was going to run from us. He also seemed incredulous over how perfectly the chase dovetailed into that evening’s training. I swear he thought I had planned it.
To the best of my recollection, from that point on, Mike never again had problems with his radio usage. However, this was not the end of our training adventures together.
To be continued in Part Two of Field Training Tails.