Staring down danger

MARSHALL – In 2012, 120 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Fifty of them were in vehicle crashes, some of which were vehicle assaults, and nine were killed by gunfire during a traffic stop or vehicle pursuit.

Traffic stops are recognized as one of the more dangerous situations for officers precisely because the vast majority of them are routine, except for the one that isn’t.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota West Community and Technical College Law Enforcement Training Department had an all-day seminar on handling the high-risk traffic stop for law enforcement officers representing Lyon County, Swift County and the cities of Canby and Willmar.

“It’s basically about how to as safely as we can conduct standard traffic stops and also high-risk traffic stops,” said Sgt. Matt Beckman, a veteran Minnesota peace officer who works for A&S Training. “It’s simple stuff but I’m a great believer in KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).”

Well simple might be a relative term. It turns out there’s a lot of details that have to be just right to optimize officer safety: how to give verbal directions that are clearly understood, how to assume a position to maximize the cover offered by the police car, how to park police cars to insure adequate cover and communication with enough space in between to walk between two open doors.

“Is your window down, can you hear him?” Beckman asks one officer parked next to another. “I don’t care if it’s 40 below, roll down your windows.”

The first part of the day’s training was about common traffic stops. Police trainers don’t like to call these “routine” anymore. Nowadays, they are called “unknown risk” traffic stops. Officers need to be alert for anything out of the ordinary, such as suspicious movements by drivers or passengers.

“It not common, but every stop’s different,” said Kyle Mooney, Lyon County deputy sheriff. “It’s just the one that could go wrong. You’ve got to have a heightened sense of awareness.”

Afterward, officers moved to vehicle assault scenarios triggered by a check revealing an outstanding warrant for a violent felony, failure to stop or a hostage situation. Teams practiced approaching the vehicle from the front, rear and side, keeping all occupants covered without getting into each other’s line of fire.

“This is the worst case scenario, a hostage situation,” Beckman said. “Very quickly we can put four cops on a car with no crossfire and protect the hostage.”

At the end of the seminar, participants divided up into teams of good guys and bad guys and moved outside for live fire exercises with simunition guns that fire plastic pellets with paint capsules. Officers practiced ordering suspects out of vehicles and securing them, then were attacked by a passenger jumping out with a gun.

“You wanted to kick that gun away,” Beckman said after a team approached a downed suspect. “What are you now, what is that gun now? You are now a homicide suspect, and that gun is evidence.”

Police fatalities in 2012 were 23 percent lower than the previous year, in part because of these kinds of training programs. However Matthew Loeslie, law enforcement training director at MinnWest thinks there’s a place for training in driver’s education courses as well.

“Most people don’t have a lot of encounters with the police, so they may be nervous whether they’ve done something or not,” Loeslie said. “I’m a police officer, and I get stopped from time to time.”

Loeslie said he thinks drivers education should include how to behave during a traffic stop: 1. Pull over soon when you see the lights but find a safe spot to park. 2. Cooperate with the officer’s instructions. 3. Stay in the car, some people want to get out but don’t. 4. Keep your hands on the dashboard or steering wheel; officers look at what your hands are doing. Don’t dig out your wallet and proof of insurance until you’re asked for it. 5. If you don’t know what you’ve been stopped for, you can ask but don’t argue if you don’t think you should have been cited. It’s your right to contest it in court. 6. If it’s night, turn on your dome light and illuminate the interior of your car.