(CA) Cadets get training tested


May 19, 2003, 09:16 PM
Contra Costa Times (California)

May 18, 2003 Sunday


LENGTH: 1836 words

HEADLINE: Cadets get training tested

BYLINE: By Liz Tascio, Kristi Belcamino and Brandy Underwood; CONTRA COSTA TIMES

Getting into the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office academy is a lot like getting into college: You take a physical, you fill out forms, you answer questions about yourself and you give references.

Once the academy starts, you hear lectures in a classroom, you exercise as a group, you take tests and you write essays.

But about two months into your training, you get pepper-sprayed in the face. You are attacked and have to defend yourself, alone, for 90 seconds. You fire a gun with real ammunition.

For many of the recruits in the 150th academy, this is the real introduction to what can happen to them in police work.

The Times has been following this academy class since January. They graduate May 30. Today you will read about some of the real world lessons they learned to become police officers and sheriff's deputies in your neighborhoods.

Sometimes it was tough: Usually good-natured recruits got ticked off by the pepper spray. Some who seemed like they would never lose their cool panicked when they thought they couldn't breathe.

But that's the way they learned about how they will react -- before the situation was real. And now when you see one of these new police officers or deputies on your street, you'll know their lessons weren't only found in textbooks and classrooms.

And if you want to talk to them, you'll have an icebreaker.

Practice makes police

Just beyond the bullet-ridden cardboard targets of outlined bodies are brilliant green hills and blindingly blue skies.

About a dozen recruits wearing earmuffs and goggles stand with knees bent, shoulders hunched forward and elbows locked as they point their handguns at the targets.

Their fingers are bound in white tape after seeing other recruits come back with bloody fingers.

On this first day at the range, the guns are not loaded. The recruits practice drawing their weapons out of stiff holsters -- easier than it sounds.

They spend the day trying to master a five-count firing procedure that could mean the difference between a police officer going home alive that night or being zipped in a plastic bag, according to Lt. John Celestre, a firearms training coordinator with the Sheriff's Office.

Between 1995 and 1999, 29 peace officers in California were killed in the line of duty, all shot to death, according to the Police Officer Standards and Training organization.

Research has shown that 91 percent of peace officers miss when firing their first round at 10 feet or less -- the distance between most slain officers and their killer, Celestre said.

"The weapon you use most in your career will be your pen," Celestre says. "If you screw up on a report, you will get your (rear) chewed or a defense attorney will make you look like a fool in court, but if you screw up with a firearm, then someone gets hurt."

At a break later, Sgt. Mike Burton tells the recruits they need to be more intense.

"You could take someone's life or someone could take yours," he said. "This is the most serious event you could potentially be involved in in your life -- if you live through it."

Burton doesn't tell the recruits that he knows what he's talking about.

"I've had to come home and tell my family I've killed someone," he says later. "I've had to tell my mom in Nebraska -- she doesn't understand."

By lunch, the recruits are sore and tired.

"My arms are shaking so bad, how am I going to shoot something?" asks Eric Yunck, a recruit hired by the Antioch Police Department.

Several of the women say they have bruises on their hips from the holstered pistols slapping against them as they run.

After lunch that day, they are given live ammunition. A couple of recruits can't wipe the grins off their faces from the power of firing their first live rounds.

By the third day of firearms training, the recruits are running through an elaborate, timed firing course.

They start 40 yards back from the targets. Toward the end of the exercise they are firing from two yards away. At the end of the exercise, the recruits each collect the targets and score them. They have fired 46 rounds.

The highest score you can get is 230. The minimum acceptable score is 162, said Celestre.

Recruit Jeremy Johnson, a former pistol coach in the U.S. Marine Corps, holds up his target, all 46 bullet holes in the right places and a big "230" score written in chalk, and grins.

Despite the seriousness of the training, recruits say it is still hard to realize they may be placed in a life-or-death situation in their future careers.

"You could shoot at the range all you want but not be prepared to take a life," Yunck said.

Pepper-spray assault

It's early afternoon on a Friday: cold, clear, blue sky, moderate wind. The 40 recruits are dressed in blue shorts or sweatpants, tan T-shirts. No sweatshirts allowed -- T-shirts let the stinging smoke get on their necks and into their armpits, and that's the point.

Sgt. Mike Burton puts on a gas mask. Everyone else looks naked without one.

The recruits are here to learn how chemical weapons get into your mind: When you get pepper sprayed, you freak out, you think you can't open your eyes, can't breathe, you think you're going to die. You stop fighting.

"Because it's a tool that we use, we're probably going to get it on us," Burton says. "It renders you somewhat defenseless ... plus you can't see your attacker."

But first, they try some gentler chemicals, in grenade form.

Burton runs them in two squads into the Chemical Agent House, a white shack with a black tarp for a door. After they start coughing, he tells them to come out. They run out spitting and hacking, but they recover pretty fast. It smells bad, it gets in their clothes, but they're OK.

They run through four times, breaking for lunch in the middle. They eat in the parking lot out of the backs of their cars. They're still in a pretty good mood.

After the gas shack, the recruits line up facing each other at the shooting range. This is the hard part.

Burton tells them he is going to walk down the aisle and squirt each person on the right in the face with pepper spray. They're going to have to force their own eyes open with their fingers, count how many fingers their partner is holding up, and drop and do 10 pushups. Then they can wash their faces. It's going to take them 30 to 40 minutes to recover. If they skip anything, they'll have to go again.

"Do it right the first time, folks, trust me," Burton says. They stand silently.

Burton asks the first recruit, "Ready?" but instead he turns and sprays the man standing next to him -- Jason Kalan. Outgoing, polite and well-spoken, Kalan used to be in communications and wants to join a SWAT team. Today he is standing with his lips slightly parted, and he is not ready.

The long squirt of pepper spray gets in Kalan's throat, which starts to feel like it's swelling up.

Burton goes down the line, spraying each one in the face. They shout, turn red, swear, jump up and down, squat.

With one shaky hand they force an eye open, yell the number of fingers their partner is showing, drop and force out 10 fast pushups. Really, really fast. Then they hold their eyes open and head into the wind or toward a garden hose to wash off, which doesn't seem to help.

Recruit Kelly Martinez helps Timothy Christoff walk across the parking lot, but Christoff stops, and says he can't breathe. Martinez gets Burton.

"Just relax," Burton says, almost soothingly. Square-jawed and tough, he runs the athletic program and is in charge of today's chemical weapons training. The recruits say he enjoys torturing them. Now he's the one telling them it's going to be OK.

They walk it off for about 40 minutes and line up again for the rest of the half to get sprayed.

It's recruit Chris Spadaro's 30th birthday, and he's in the second group. It takes a while, but his sharp sense of humor finally comes back.

"Every time I open my right eye, it's like a needle going in," he says. "I only wish this on maybe a handful of people."

On the spot

The cadets arrive at the Contra Costa Fire District's training center in Concord and are told to wait in a classroom until their instructors are ready for the testing to begin. Their task is to show their instructors that they remember all of the information they've been taught during the past 19 weeks.

Today they'll be tested on their ability to handle high-risk car stops, including use of deadly force.

"Now they need to take everything we've given them and demonstrate that they can do the job," says Lt. Dan Sullivan, who calmly looks on through dark sunglasses as volunteers from law enforcement agencies set up scenario exercises.

As soon as the scenes are set, the role playing begins. The instructors radio for the first cadets to take their places. In almost a moment's flash, cadets dressed in full uniform run from the classroom at a steady pace across the training center parking lot, careful not to keep instructors waiting.

Already in a sweat, cadets seem to be turning over proper procedures in their minds. Darron Reese, one of the cadets, meets up with Lt. Nick Baker, an instructor from the Pittsburg Police Department, for a scenario testing a cadet's ability to react to an unknown-risk traffic stop.

Reese joins Baker in his patrol vehicle, takes the wheel and goes for a spin around the parking lot. Next, he pulls over a woman in another vehicle who has supposedly just run a red traffic light. Now the real drama beings.

This could be any routine traffic stop, so Reese cautiously walks toward the vehicle. Suddenly, the woman pulls out a gun and begins shooting -- but her gun is not loaded because this is a role-playing situation. Reese must choose his next steps quickly and wisely.

A surprised Reese pulls his gun and heads for cover behind his vehicle. He shoots at the woman with his unloaded gun and as her role dictates, she falls to the ground. Reese quickly shuffles backward and moves behind his car, loudly telling the woman not to move. She yells back, "Why'd you have to shoot me!"

Reese has a stern look on his face as he moves to the opposite side of the car and crouches behind the front passenger side door.

Sullivan watches the interaction from a distance and explains why Reese decided to move behind and across the vehicle, using the engine and passenger's side door for protection. In a deadly-force encounter, an officer's survival rate is tripled when he moves from left to right and this position also gives him access to his radio, Sullivan said.

Baker seems satisfied and the scenario is complete. Reese has done his best to show that he can apply what he has learned to a real life situation.

On that day, the cadets participated in various other scenarios, such as building searches and robberies in progress. These are only the beginning for these cadets. Once they become officers, they will go through additional training.

"We've given them the foundation, and they have lots more to learn," said Sgt. Mike Burton.

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May 19, 2003, 09:29 PM
Just some fun in the sun.:D

May 19, 2003, 09:44 PM
I think it was Dick Marscinko that said "the more you bleed in training, the less you bleed in the field." Or something like that.

May 19, 2003, 10:21 PM
"You could shoot at the range all you want but not be prepared to take a life," Yunck said.

Quite true.

4v50 Gary
May 19, 2003, 11:20 PM
And I thought all our academies were closed because of the budget bizness.

Thanks for sharing the article with us.

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