On Sept. 15, 2010, around 2 p.m., the St. Joseph's (Mo.) Police Department experienced what is perhaps the most terrible tragedy in law enforcement when an officer was shot and killed in a training accident.
Published reports say that Officer Dan De Kraai and a group of St. Joseph's officers were participating in a force-on-force exercise using Simunition marking rounds. After returning from a break, De Kraai convinced a fellow officer to shoot him in the back because he wanted to know what it felt like to get hit with a Sim round. The officers had left the training area during the break, and they had switched their Sim guns with their live duty weapons. Somehow after returning to the training area at least one officer had forgotten to switch back. So thinking he had a harmless Sim gun in his holster, De Kraai's friend drew a loaded duty pistol and fired one live round into De Kraai's back.
No one keeps complete nationwide statistics on law enforcement training accidents, but they are a significant cause of death and serious injury in the line of duty. Sometimes the accidents are the result of inattentive or even negligent instructors, sometimes they are caused by "off-script behavior" and horseplay by spirited young officers, and sometimes they are the result of a series of events so unexplainable that one instructor likened them to a "voodoo curse." But most training accidents—except the voodoo curse variety—share one common trait: They could have been prevented.
Force on Force
For decades now law enforcement officers have participated in simulated combat exercises known as force-on-force training. Derived from the ancient practice of military war games, force-on-force training involves officers using simulated firearms or unloaded firearms to engage in combat. The training can be invaluable in preparing officers for real gunbattles or it can be a very dangerous game of paintball, depending on the quality of the instructors supervising the activity.
There are four basic ways to simulate real firearms in force-on-force training: non-firing replicas such as Blue Guns, empty firearms set up for dry fire, marking rounds such as Simunition, and Airsoft (ultra-realistic plastic BB guns). Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, but safety during such exercises is a matter of maintaining vigilance in the training area, making sure that no live weapons are introduced into the scenario, and maintaining discipline among the trainees.
Some trainers use a variety of checkpoints where students are searched for live weapons before they enter the training area. A process that Harvey Hedden, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), compares to the TSA procedure at airports. In addition, some instructors have adopted a system where each officer is checked by two other officers before the training begins.
Bert DuVernay is the former head of the Smith & Wesson Training Academy and the current chief of police for the town of New Braintree, Mass., and he has been conducting force-on-force training since the era when a marking round was a ball of cotton shot out of a specially modified .38 revolver. He says safety in a force-on-force training exercise is all about "controlling the training scene" and not letting the trainees stray from the lesson plan.
Controlling the scene is not just about preventing the introduction of live weapons; it's about the total student experience and making the trainees understand the goals of the training, DuVernay explains. "You have to script out force-on-force training. You have to have goals for the students, objectives that have to be accomplished, and criteria for evaluation. It can't be just about who wins," he says.
A number of law enforcement training organizations have developed safety guidelines for the use of simulated weapons in training. And they all amount to multiple layers of searches and checks to prevent introduction of live weapons into the training area.
Unfortunately, what often happens is that the safety protocols get more relaxed as the day goes on. As evidenced by the St. Joseph incident, simulated weapons training is particularly dangerous after breaks when officers leave the training area and transition from the simulated weapons to their real duty weapons. Trainers have to be especially vigilant when the students return to the training area.
Trainers also have to be aware of visitors and observers entering the training area with live weapons. Dep. Zane Nickell of the Butler County (Ohio) Sheriff's Department says everyone gets searched for live weapons when they enter his training area. Nickell, who serves as lead instructor for the department, was once even put in the uncomfortable position of having to search the sheriff when he visited training.
Although the incident led to some very nervous moments for Nickell, he says he would do it again because he lives by a graphic and simple mantra that he learned in his martial arts training: "The length of your mistakes will match the depth of your wounds." In other words, "Little mistakes, little wounds. Big mistakes, big wounds."
Shooting the Screen
Live weapons in training are not just a concern for force-on-force exercises. Instructors also have to make sure that students are unarmed before participating in subject control, defensive tactics, and even simulator training.
Nickell says the strangest things can happen in training because someone brought the wrong thing to a subject control class. He knows of one incident long ago in which a student cleared his revolver and put the cartridges in his pocket. Later that same day the student was kicked and one of the rounds in his pocket discharged from the impact. "It was an accidental discharge without a gun," Nickell says.
Most ADs in training tend to be of a much more common sort. Simulator instructors, for example, say that accidental discharges have happened during training sessions where officers thought they were reaching for the simulator guns and instead drew their service pistols and pumped .40 caliber rounds through the screen. Simulator instructor and retired officer Mark Filburn says that earlier this year one of his students fired a live TASER cartridge into the sim screen.
Filburn and his counterpart Alex Payne travel the state of Kentucky, providing simulator training for officers on behalf of the Kentucky League of Cities, which insures numerous municipalities and is seeking to reduce law enforcement liability claims. In recent years, the two instructors have started to travel not just with the simulators and simulated weapons but also with a lock box for the officers' live weapons.
"In our minds the lock box is the safest way of handling the problem," Filburn says. "We used to have the students lock their weapons in their cars. But then it was pointed out to us that if an active shooter were to enter the training area, the officers would be defenseless."
Nickell says he also uses a variation of the lock box concept. During training sessions, his students' live weapons are kept inside .50 caliber ammo boxes that are zip tied secure. Since Nickell does not allow any real knives in class, the zip ties have to be opened with a restraint cutter, which cannot be used as a weapon.
Blowing the Whistle
Law enforcement trainer and risk management specialist Steve Ashley says that when you look at law enforcement training from a risk management perspective you have to weigh severity vs. frequency. "You can't manage all risks because stuff is still going to happen," he explains. "But you have to do everything you can to prevent the really bad stuff from happening. Every trainer needs to be a risk manager. If they start thinking like a risk manager, then they can reduce the potential for problems."
Faced with an increase in training accidents, the League of Minnesota Cities chose to manage its risk by asking its member agencies to institute a safety officer program during training. Rob Boe, the non-profit insurance company's public safety project coordinator, says the concept has been a great success.
In the Minnesota program the safety officer and the instructor work hand in hand to develop the training program and make each other aware of any possible problems and how they will be handled. The safety officer and the instructor even inspect the training facility before the training session.
Boe says a lot of agencies had been using safety officers in name only before the new program was instituted a few years ago. "In the past, at least at times, the safety officer was somebody filling a spot on the schedule who really didn't understand the lesson, who had no idea of the risks involved, and who felt uncomfortable in the role. In some programs, the safety officer was the last guy in the room. It was the punishment for being late."
Boe decided that the solution was to integrate the safety officer into the planning and give him or her much more power. The safety officers are now much more than just referees or even lifeguards with whistles; they serve as partners in the training program with the lead instructors and they can stop the training at any time. They can also suggest changes to the lesson plan. "We knew the safety officer concept would work," Boe says. "But if the safety officer had to wait until something bad was happening before blowing the whistle, then that might be too late."
When the safety officer concept was first rolled out to the League of Minnesota Cities' insured agencies, some instructors were concerned that the organization was attempting to weaken the intensity of training. Such fears proved to be unfounded. "We've never told anybody to water their training program down," Boe says. "Our concern is how to deliver it in a safer manner. Maybe that means only one set of officers does the exercise at a time, instead of eight sets of officers."
No training accident other than a firearms discharge is more likely to cause an officer fatality than a blow to the head in a defensive tactics class.
Yet for decades law enforcement trainers lived by the belief that it was critical that they ring their students' bells in training before they hit the street.
Today such thinking is seen as outdated and dangerous by many defensive tactics instructors who are seeking more and more creative ways to simulate the effects of a concussion without injuring their students.
"It's true that the only way to experience getting hit in the head is to get hit in the head. But you can't put your students at risk by doing such a thing," says Bob Bragg, program manager of fitness and force training for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Bragg says he can do the next best thing. He can make his students dizzy by having them spin around in a circle and then attack them and force them to defend themselves. "It's critical that an officer have some level of understanding of how to deal with that," he says.
Other instructors agree and have been just as creative in simulating the effects of blows to the head without the danger. "You don't have to smack an officer in the face to teach him how to cope with head strikes," says Dep. Zane Nickell, lead instructor for the Butler County (Ohio) Sheriff's Department. "You can spin him around until he's dizzy, put a hood over his head and make him cope with sudden bright light, or put goggles on him and smear them with salve. Smacking them in the face is just a hazing ritual."
Training accidents involving firearms are much more likely to lead to fatalities and headlines, but the vast majority of serious police training accidents occur in defensive tactics and subject control classes.
Nickell says it's often true that training accidents in subject control programs are the result of unclear objectives, poor safety protocols, and improper safety equipment. "It's often the smallest things that cause injury," he says. "Some departments don't even have mats. But they say, 'You know what, we're tough. We're going to train anyway. We're going to do takedowns on carpet.'"
According to Nickell the ignorance that convinces officers they can safely practice takedowns on carpet is derived from the pervasive attitude throughout law enforcement that training should "toughen up" officers. "We have to have a clear understanding that what we're doing is mission oriented and not a hazing ritual. Some training is just shy of waterboarding, and it has no value," he says. "You have to ask yourself, 'Why are we actually there for training? What is the learning objective?' and 'How does the student demonstrate competence?'"
Despite all the care in the world, police training is a human activity and it is prone to error and injury. In other words, stuff happens.
Give them a few minutes of your time and instructors will tell you about students who tripped over the edge of mats, tore Achilles tendons doing warm-up stretches, failed to report existing injuries, came to the training morbidly obese, and tales of accidents waiting to happen. "I had one student tell me she was 'slightly pregnant,'" says Nickell. He sent that student back to her supervisor.
Law enforcement trainers often debate if there is an acceptable percentage of injury because of the human element. "Risk managers and the chief and the sheriff have to agree on what level of risk they are willing to accept," says Bob Bragg, program manager of fitness and force training for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Bragg is quick to add that agencies must have a zero tolerance policy for fatalities. But he doesn't believe they can have a zero tolerance policy for injuries and still properly prepare their officers for the street or the jail. "The closer that training approaches reality, the more danger," Bragg says. "And that will always be a problem. But if the student knows there is no danger, then there is no stress."
The fact of the matter is that police training is inherently dangerous so accidents will and do happen. But at a time when agencies are short of officers and training dollars, ILEETA's Hedden worries that training injuries may spur city and county bean counters to cut the training budget. "Injuries in training give agencies a reason to reduce their training," he says.
Trainers contacted for this article say they have already seen programs shut down or radically altered because of accidents. Sometimes the alterations are well considered and enhance both safety and training value. Sometimes changes in the program merely sap them of realism.
That realism is what gives law enforcement training its value. But the question every trainer has to answer is, how do you teach officers how to fight for their lives in the field without injuring or even killing them in training? The answer is discipline and control on the part of both the students and the instructors.