News Headlines Highlight Need for Vigilance in Officer Safety During Training

Although rare, there are—tragically—altogether too many instances in which officers are badly hurt or killed in training. Here are some considerations for increasing safety and decreasing the potential for harm.

Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot

Earlier this week, a trainee with the Massachusetts State Police sustained a non-life-threatening injury when he accidentally discharged a service weapon into his leg.

According to NBC News, the incident reportedly occurred at the Massachusetts State Police Academy on West Brookfield Road in New Braintree. The officer was said to be conscious and alert was treated at the scene before being transported to an area hospital.

The trainee—whose name has not been released—is expected to fully recover.

Some others who have been hurt during law enforcement training over the years have not been so lucky. Some have been severely wounded—some even killed.

According to ABC News, Officer Houston Tipping of the Los Angeles Police Department suffered several serious wounds—including head injuries, spinal fractures, liver damage, and a broken rib—during a simulated crowd control scenario training exercise in late May. He was transported to—and treated at—an area hospital, where he died three days later.

Tipping's family has filed a notice of claim against the city, which could potentially be a precursor to a wrongful death lawsuit.

Although rare, there are—tragically—altogether too many instances in which officers are badly hurt or killed in training.

Here are some considerations for increasing safety and decreasing the potential for harm.

1. Environmental Factors

A study published by PMC Public Health—an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health—indicated that slips, trips, and falls account for a significant number of injuries sustained by emergency personnel in training.

That study said drier conditions "have been shown to have reduced injuries on grass surfaces when compared to wet or slippery conditions…" and there is a potential link between the shoe, surface, and shoe–surface interface contributing to knee and ankle ligament injury."

Weather is also a contributing factor, and the obvious seasonal risk (heat stroke/sickness in summer, frostbite and exposure in winter, for example) must be taken into account when designing and conducting training.

2. Individuals' Fitness

It is so plainly obvious that it should go without saying, but the overall physical fitness and wellness of the individual trainee has some bearing on their risk of injury—and the severity of an injury should one occur.

Another study published by PMC Public Health said research has shown that "fitter trainees are less prone to injury, whereby trainees who have higher physical fitness are more likely to withstand the physical demands imposed by commencing training and the physical stress associated with it."

Examples abound of overweight officers suffering heart attacks in training—some of them fatal.

Consideration for each trainee's capabilities—based on pre-event assessments, medical history, and the like—can help mitigate the potential for injury.

Trainers can make appropriate changes to intensity, frequency, and duration of some training activities and still achieve the desired training result without creating undue risk.

3. Gender and Age Considerations

It's rather taboo (in certain circles, at least) these days to point out the differences between biological males and biological females, but a 2011 study (also published by PMC Public Health) found that in a one-year prospective examination of injury rates among Federal Bureau of Investigation trainees, the injury incidence for females was 42%, as opposed to 35% for males.

"The activities most commonly associated with injuries were defensive tactics training (58%), physical fitness training (20%), physical fitness testing (5%), and firearms training," the study said.

Among both men and women in the study of FBI recruits, older trainees were at significantly higher injury risk. Among older trainees, both genders were more susceptible to "overuse injuries" due to (or related to) long-term repetitive energy exchanges, resulting in "cumulative microtrauma," including tendonitis, bursitis, fasciitis, as well as "traumatic injury" such as fracture, abrasion, laceration, contusions, and closed head injury/concussion than their younger counterparts.

It merits mention, however, that younger trainees also risk injury due to relative inexperience with the training being conducted, as well as an overconfidence in their strengths and/or abilities. In fact, in many scenarios where the introduction of new skill is involved, younger trainees are at higher risk of injury when compared to their more seasoned counterparts.

Injuries—and death—can occur in new recruits during the academy and seasoned officers participating in regular in-service training.

Trainers seeks to push trainees as hard as possible to simulate the myriad physical and psychological challenges they will face on the street, with many adhering to the age-old credo, "Sweat more in training—bleed less in battle."

Achieving the balance between closely simulating the stresses of the job and ensuring that a trainee leaves the training unharmed and ready—physically, mentally, and emotionally—to report for duty is a constant conundrum. There are no simple or universal answers.

Officers must be honest with themselves and their instructors about their personal limitations, and trainers must be cognizant of the inflection point between building someone up and breaking someone down.

Obvious precautions must also be taken. Double- (and triple-) checking areas for live ammunition and/or edged weapons where force-on-force scenario-based training is taking place can be tedious and laborious but it's imminently vital.

Proper stretching and pre-activity warm-ups are boring and time-consuming, but can be the best way to prevent pulled muscles, torn ligaments / tendons, and broken bones.

Training should result in safer, stronger trainees—not visits to a hospital or mourners at a funeral.

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Doug Wyllie Crop Headshot
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