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Training evolves to help cops cope
Rising violence spurs changes to keep officers safe

When Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron D. Kennard began his career as a street officer in the 1970s, the worst he was likely to encounter on a domestic violence call was a knife or a baseball bat.

"Now, deputies have to be prepared to look at the wrong end of a gun -- from a family fight to a bank robbery to a simple traffic stop," he said.As the threats facing Utah's law enforcement officers have evolved and intensified in recent decades, so has police training.

High-tech simulators that shoot back, firearms with greater firepower and revamped rules of engagement are aimed at helping recruits and veterans alike cope with the sheer unpredictability of modern-day street crime. The officers themselves see the terrain as a volatile mix of violent gangs, drugs that feed aggression and guns and more guns in the wrong hands.

While acknowledging the overall crime rate is falling, law enforcement officers say the level of violence is not. Suspects, many of them juveniles, are more willing than ever to place others in harm's way.

"In the '70s, if a young man was speeding on State Street, we'd stop him, not thinking -- rightly or wrongly -- that he'd have a gun on him," Kennard said.

Now, children as young as 12 are packing weapons and not thinking twice about using them, he said.

Sgt. Jim Keith, in-service training coordinator for state Peace Officer Standards and Training, said officer safety is of more critical concern now because people generally are more inclined to confront law enforcement.

To meet that challenge, POST, which provides basic and ongoing training to law enforcement agencies statewide, has adopted a hands-on, reality-based training quite different from the mere target-shooting of the past.

In August, POST will get two electronic Firearms Training Simulator systems with 12-by-12-foot screens at a cost of $150,000 each. The simulators will allow officers to encounter a variety of threats while moving from room to room in a building, making split-second decisions and, sometimes, responding with simulated firepower of their own.

Unlike POST's current simulator, the new system will accommodate multiple officers and scenarios and respond to voice commands, pepper spray and batons. It can even return fire with rubber bullets.

Firearms instruction with sidearms that fire four times faster than the six-shooters, is aimed at meeting the sophisticated weaponry readily available on the street.

POST's primary firearms instructor, Robert D. Robertson, estimates that one in five officers today can expect to fire a weapon in his or her career -- up from one in 25 in 1973.

Yet, while most trainees in the 1970s came to class with prior experience in handling firearms, around half of Robertson's students today have never fired a gun.

"I have students who are afraid of the gun," he said.

But it is the unpredictable lawbreaker behind the gun -- and the pervasive abuse of cocaine and methamphetamine -- that most concerns police.

"Meth has taken such a stranglehold on this state that you see real irrational acts of violence that you would never see before. We've had homicides over unpaid $20 drug debts," said West Valley Police Lt. Charles Illsley.

The hyper-violence associated with today's drug scene is light years from the relatively passive, marijuana-and-LSD hijinks of the 1960s. The three- to four-day high common with meth users gives them more of what Illsley calls "prime-crime time" because they are awake and wired around the clock.

To address the burgeoning problem, POST has joined with Colorado and Wyoming in a program called High Intensity Drug Traffic Area Training which trains SWAT teams how to recognize and take down meth labs.

Perhaps nowhere has modern police training changed more than in the area of gangs. Gang training in the early 1980s -- at least in Utah -- centered on motorcycle gangs, and it wasn't until 1984 that POST held its first urban gang class.

Today, an estimated 200 to 300 different gangs have 4,000 to 5,000 members statewide. Officers learn to recognize unique gang clothing and communications seen in graffiti, tattoos and sign language, said Illsley.

Spurred by several incidents this year in which people have been fatally shot or wounded by Utah police, victims' relatives are pushing for changes in law enforcement's use-of-force continuum. That graduated scale details what steps officers may take in responding to various threats.

On an ascending scale of deadliness, the levels begin with the mere presence of an officer, progressing to verbal commands, aerosol defensive tools, hands-on force and -- finally -- deadly force.

Essentially, said POST Deputy Director Steve DeMille, the force used to combat a threatening suspect should not exceed the threat by more than one step up the scale.

"Say the guy pulls out a big knife. Unlike on TV, we don't make officers fight some guy with a knife. The officer can pull his gun," said DeMille.

Likewise, if a suspect attacks with fists, an officer may pull his baton.

Lt. Zane Smith, program director for the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, said his department is training officers to consider more non-lethal options, such as a pepper-like spray and bean bag rounds fired from a 12-gauge shotgun.

But police say the bottom line is this: If an officer believes a person is pulling a weapon that could endanger someone's life, he may use deadly force.

As the risk to officers appears to be rising -- demonstrated most recently by the June 3 wounding of Murray officer Ross Huff -- they must be ready to make split-second, life-or-death decisions.

On March 18, for example, two Salt Lake officers wounded Christopher J. Winderlin after he reached for what turned out to be an empty holster.

Said DeMille, "In a perfect world, you'd see it's not a gun and not pull a trigger. It's always easy for people who weren't there to say what should or shouldn't have happened."

But prosecutors contend Weber County sheriff's deputy Michael Howard used unjustified deadly force in February when he shot fleeing prisoner David Michael Younger in the abdomen.

And Kennard recounted a situation where a deputy making a drug arrest tried to elicit information from the suspect by pulling him from his car and threatening him with a gun. The officer has since been fired and charges filed.

Keith stresses the importance of continuing training to keep police current in all areas, but says local departments have not always risen to the challenge.

"When I came out of the academy in 1985 and went to work in Layton, it was basically, 'Here's your equipment, go to work,' " said Keith, who added most departments operated that way then.

Now most agencies combine POST's in-service training with their own to satisfy the 40 hours per year mandated for maintaining an officer's certification.

The quality of agency-based training ranges from one extreme to the other, said Robertson, who cites West Jordan and Murray among those departments achieving high marks. He declined to say which get low marks.