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Preventing Training Tragedies: Hard Knocks

As academy and in-service defensive tactics training has become more authentic, it’s also become more dangerous.

January 01, 2003  |  by - Also by this author

Veteran police trainers talk of the limits of traditional police defensive tactics and use-of-force training with an air of contempt. "It was better than nothing, but not much better," is their consensus. Today's DT training is much more gritty, more physical, and closer to an approximation of what officers experience in a real street encounter. Unfortunately, it's also much more dangerous.

Experts say the potentially perilous nature of contemporary police DT training is why training experts are now taking safety precautions much more seriously than they have in the past. They can't afford to just take it for granted anymore and hope for the best.

Veteran police trainer and retired Milwaukee (Wisc.) Sheriff's Department Capt. Gary T. Klugiewicz marvels at the fact that more police officers weren't seriously injured in training accidents before trainers started adopting rigid and standardized precautions. "Over the years, many of us were unconscious competents," he says. "We did things right, but we didn't really know why it was right, and we couldn't explain it to others."

Now Klugiewicz knows exactly what to tell his students about safety. In his classes and in many other police training programs, the first thing students are asked to do is read the written safety rules and agree to abide by them.

Safety guidelines supplied by several DT trainers cover such concerns as weapons, jewelry, horseplay, keeping the floor clear of tripping hazards, and when to halt the exercise. The guidelines also advise participating officers not to play through pain and to immediately advise the instructors of injuries that do occur.

That last part is very revealing. DT training is obviously no game and accidents will happen. The trick is to minimize both their frequency and their magnitude.

Bob Bragg, director of instructor training at the Washington State Criminal Justice Academy in Seattle, argues the only way to have zero injuries is to have students do nothing but "sit in the classrooms." He says otherwise an acceptable injury rate is 5 percent or less with injuries defined as: "something that lasted more than a few days and had some debilitation associated with it and that may have required the officer or cadet to see a physician." And of course he is not talking about permanently disabling or fatal injuries.

DT trainers also stress that there is a big difference between preventable injuries and those that are pure accidents. For example, training consultant Ed Nowicki notes that if a student has a heretofore unknown congenital defect in his or her wrist bones and suffers an injury during a handcuffing exercise, there's nothing that could have been done to prevent it.

Learning from Mistakes

Once an accident does occur, whether preventable or not, it's the instructor's job to prevent it from happening again. Klugiewicz hammers home this point to other instructors with a riddle: "What's the difference between a tragedy and negligence?" he asks. "The answer is: repetition."

One hazard that Klugiewicz won't repeat in his classes is an incident that happened on a summer day in Iowa nearly a decade ago. Klugiewicz, who is a consultant for the makers of RedMan impact resistant suits, was working out a group of officers in the RedMan gear and the result was perspiration. "It was a very hot day," he explains. "People were out there sweating and fighting, and their sweat was running onto the floor. Someone stepped back, slipped, and twisted his leg. It was a minor injury. But we learned from that. Now we have safety officers who watch the room for safety violations and towel officers who watch the floor for wet spots."

Klugiewicz stresses to his colleagues that instructors have a moral and legal responsibility for the safety of their students. "I got into training to teach officers how to keep themselves safe, and I feel really bad when someone is injured in one of my programs." Fortunately for Klugiewicz and his students, the injuries in his programs have been limited to pulled muscles, twisted knees, and bumps and bruises.

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