Rise and Fall of a Deputy Sheriff Part II
It was not quite 0500 hours (5 AM to the layman) and after one last spin around town looking for bad guys, my Third Phase FTO and I were heading back to the station to finish up paperwork for the last hour of our shift. It was my first night behind the wheel (and second overall) with this new FTO and it had been a pretty uneventful night. As I steered our patrol car toward the station, a beat up looking late 70’s model sedan approached us from the opposite direction with only one operating headlight. It was worth a stop and who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and it’ll turn into something. After it passed us, I flipped a u-turn to get behind the cycloptic jalopy preparing to make a traffic enforcement stop for the inoperable headlight. As I completed my u-turn, I was surprised to see the sedan far ahead of where I expected it to be…and seemingly suddenly turning down a side street.
Things had been progressing fairly well on FTO. However, my First Phase (after Orientation Phase) had been pretty rough for three reasons:
- I was working a 1600 – 0200 swing shift which meant my family and I were ships literally passing in the night. Everyone would be fast asleep by the time I got home and would be out of the house by the time I work up. Then I’d be gone at work by the time they returned in the afternoon. FTO is stressful enough, but when you don’t get a chance to see your family for over half the week, it’s much worse. I felt very alone that phase.
- I was now being evaluated. Every action I took or didn’t take was now fully documented and scored. Like I said in the last post, they tell you not to get too hung up on the scores, especially early on. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes and it’s expected. But that’s easier said than done.
- My FTO for that phase was tough. He was more intense–by a large margin–than any of my other FTO’s. He wasn’t a yeller, but when I messed up I could feel him fuming. He was a former violent crime detective and super sharp, and could be quite amiable when he wanted to be. In fact, if he was behind the wheel we’d have some very pleasant conversations about all kinds of stuff. But when I was driving it was all business. Oh, and he hated my driving. You hit one curb! It’s not exactly that he was trying to be kind of a jerk…ok, maybe a little, but that’s his training style. He would add that extra layer of stress to see how you’d handle it. I understand his method, but being on the receiving end I certainly didn’t enjoy it. Also, I don’t think I learn as well under that style of training. It seemed like we hardly ever really de-briefed our calls like I did with my other trainers. With all the other ones right after every call, when able, we would talk about it. What went right, what went wrong, how could we have done it different, etc. That was very helpful. With this trainer, we hardly ever did that, at least not to the same level of detail. He might throw out a quick sentence about how I should have done it this way or that, than that was it. If I had a question I could ask, of course, but it seemed like he wasn’t too ready to volunteer anything. I don’t know, maybe that’s part of his style too. At any rate, it made for a tough and draining five weeks and by the end of it I felt like I’d regressed rather than progressed.
Phase Two was better. My trainer was another laid back sort. A member of the SWAT team and a range master, he had a lot of good insight on the tactical approach to things and seemed to take a genuine interest in my training. Our beat was actually a small town our department contracted with for police services and it would take us about 20 minutes to drive out there. On the way he would always quiz me on criminal law, policy, and procedure. That might sound like a drag, but you really need to be confident in that stuff so you have a clear understanding of what you can and cannot do in a given situation. You only have split seconds before you have to decide whether or not it is legal for you to put your hands on somebody or go through their stuff or force your way into their home. So, I appreciated his focus on that.
The town we were assigned to was definitely not a hot bed of criminal activity, and in hindsight it would’ve done me good to be in an area that was a little more active. Part of that is me wishing I’d been a little more proactive also. However, I did make progress in how I was handling various confrontations and it was the one and only time I got to remove my shotgun from the between the seats and rack a round into the chamber. That was pretty cool. By the end of Phase Two I felt I was turning a corner.
The first day of the first four phases is a free day–no evaluation. It gives you a little breathing room as you get to know a new trainer and a new area. I usually let my trainer do the driving that day so I could see the areas they like to check out and the way they do the everyday stuff–traffic stops, suspicious vehicles, consensual contacts, that kind of thing. That first day of Phase Three was no different. I was in another town my department contracts with for police service for this phase, though it was about four times larger and had a history of being a little more active, though less so in recent years. My new trainer was a super energetic guy who couldn’t sit still for more than a couple minutes. He warned me right away that sometimes he would just have to drive. Not because I was doing anything wrong, but because he couldn’t stand sitting in the passenger seat not doing anything. I wouldn’t describe him as laid back really, but very personable. When there was something to critique he did it quick and to the point, not sugarcoating it, but then it was over with and we’d be discussing the Giants the next minute.
That first day when I was driving had been pretty uneventful. The only thing I remember up to the point we saw that one-eyed Ford was a suspicious person call that I didn’t handle all that well. Not a huge deal, but not the kind of first impression I was hoping to make. I made up for it.
I accelerated to catch up with the sedan as it made its right turn down the side street. It was probably a couple hundred yards ahead of me. It was sort of a surreal moment. I was pretty sure this guy was trying to avoid me, but this being my first experience of this kind, I was also thinking “Is this really happening?” My trainer was telling me something to the effect of “Go go go!” As I made my turn onto the street the sedan had ducked down, I could see he was already at the other end making the next turn while running a stop sign. Now it was clear this guy was making a break for it. At this point I threw on my overhead lights and my trainer grabbed the radio and put out that we had a vehicle that was attempting to elude us.
There’s a phenomenon that occurs in high stress situations called tunnel vision. When faced with something that causes a sudden rush of adrenaline you vision narrows and you lose your peripheral vision. Everything looks like its being viewed through–obviously–a tunnel. It’s something that occurs regularly in law enforcement as you can go from boring to terrifying in exactly zero seconds on a fairly regular basis. Obviously this can be dangerous, especially driving a large patrol car at high speeds.
Fortunately, I didn’t experience this. But I did experience a similar phenomenon called tunnel hearing. Even right after the event was over, I remembered almost none of the radio traffic. I remember things my trainer said to me, but it was like I could only hear his voice. I only remember hearing maybe one or two things that actually came over the radio. It was kind of bizzare.
I chased the sedan through the narrow but empty streets of a fairly upscale neighborhood. The streets were all pretty short so our speeds never got that high, but he was definitely moving way to fast for the conditions and ran about three stop signs and mis-navigated a traffic circle. As he emerged out of the neighborhood onto a main street, two pedestrians were on the corner and jumped back as he made a sharp turn just in front of them. We were now on a straightaway and the sedan began to pick up speed. The signs said 35 mph, but I was doing just over double that and not yet gaining on our suspect. The road was straight but not exactly flat, with a few small rises and plenty of potholes. The patrol car rattled and bumped as I accelerated. It must be terrifying for a trainer to be in the passenger seat for these things. Mine was alternately telling me to speed up and be careful.
As I got within a hundred yards or so of the suspect he disappeared over a slight rise in the road. It was still dark out and my trainer warned me to slow down as there was a 90 degree turn just ahead. As we came over the rise I saw the turn and right at the angle there was a large oak tree. Hit that corner with too much speed and you’d fail to navigate the turn and run smack dab into that tree. And that’s exactly what happened…to our suspect. He didn’t hit it straight on, just clipped the right side of the tree with the drivers side of the car. He then plowed through a barbed wire fence and into a field.
We didn’t see the impact. When we got to the corner, the sedan was already resting in the field, about 20 yards off the road. There was no sign of the driver. We jumped out of our car, guns drawn and approached the sedan. The field was full of tall weeds about waist high and beyond the car about 50 yards there was a line of trees at the edge of the field. I didn’t think he would’ve been able to make the trees if he had foot bailed but I scanned the area around the car as we waded through the sea of tall grass, looking for any movement. As we reached the car I could see the suspect lying down across the front seat, his hands not visible. I yelled at him to show me his hands. He didn’t respond at first, playing a little bit of possum. I ordered him again to show me his hands and my trainer echoed my demands. The suspect finally sat up and raised his hands sheepishly. My trainer said, “Grab him and get him out of there. I’ll pop him if he tries anything.”
I opened up the mangled door, grabbed the suspect by the arm (who had the couresty to unbuckle himself), and yanked him out of the car and onto the ground face down. I dropped a knee in his back to keep him pinned down and my trainer came around to help me get him handcuffed. And then it was over. The whole thing had lasted barely two minutes and covered exactly one mile.
Other units arrived, along with medics. The suspect was lucky and didn’t have a scratch on him. Another foot to the left and that oak tree and he would’ve become one. He wasn’t drunk, not on drugs, and had been on his way to work. After he was advised of his Miranda rights, I asked him why he ran. He said he didn’t know and that it was stupid. He said he was just glad nobody got hurt. He was on felony probation, but there was nothing he would’ve been violated on, unless he tossed something sometime during the pursuit, which is entirely possible. But this night he was going to jail.
Once everything was over, my trainer gave me a high five and told me I did an awesome job. He told me he kept glancing over at me during the pursuit and he said I looked like I was on a Sunday drive. I’m not so sure about that, but I did feel strangely calm during the whole ordeal. And yet, I am a deputy no longer.