Law enforcement protects themselves, too

TUPELO – Whether chasing speeders or encountering violent criminals, law enforcement officers are learning to protect themselves while protecting the public.
Every year, hundreds of officers are injured or killed on duty. In 2008, 138 officers were killed on the job with 62 of those being involved in some sort of automobile accident, according to The Officer Memorial Page Inc.
This year 87 officers have died on duty, two of those in Mississippi. Master Sgt. Steve Hood died in a vehicle pursuit on May 29 and Warren County Deputy Sheriff Tom Wilson died in a car accident on May 17.
Oxford authorities were at risk last week when an armed gunman killed his brother, held his father hostage and shot at police. Even though no police officers were injured in the incident, Oxford Police Chief Mike Martin said the situation was dangerous for all involved.
Tupelo Police Training Academy Director Brian Brown said being a police officer is a dangerous job, and the first rule he teaches his cadets is to make it home no matter what – to take proper precautions so they aren’t killed.
“That’s the number one rule for a police officer,” said Brown, a 14-year veteran. “Going home and laying their head on their pillow is what’s most important. We really preach safety in every aspect of enforcement whether it’s defensive driving or how to approach a vehicle or just knowing what to look for so you don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation.”
Because so many officers are killed in car accidents, Brown said a good deal of training is spent on driving. They go through a very detailed driving course that teaches them how to deal with bad road conditions, chases and traffic stops.
Cadets have to go through a 400-hour officer training class before they graduate the academy, but Brown said the majority of basic training is geared toward officer safety.
When most people think of officers protecting themselves, many think of bulletproof vests, but even they have flaws. Made of Kevlar, vests are designed to stop blunt impacts like bullets. But Brown said that doesn’t really help against a knife attack. That’s why officers train in hand-to-hand techniques such as grappling.
Capt. Tony Carleton teaches grappling techniques to deputies at the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. Because police are involved in so many physical encounters on the job, Carleton said grappling and other hand-to-hand defense tactics are the most important tools in an officer’s arsenal to ensure safety.
“With all this mixed martial arts and special fighting on television and on the Internet, suspects are training themselves to be able to fight and police have to do the same thing to keep up with that training,” said Carleton. “Most law enforcers are going to use their hands a lot more than a Taser, a gun or OC spray. So knowing how to make sure you don’t get injured is important.”

Danger lurks
Domestic calls and traffic stops are still the most dangerous situations for officers, Brown said. He said traffic stops were once called routine, but now the academy teaches otherwise.
“Anything can happen during a traffic stop or a domestic call so we have to be ready to protect ourselves at all times,” he said. “That’s why our best weapon for protection is instinct. Instinct can be the difference between going home and not going home.”
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said domestic calls are even more dangerous for deputies because backup is usually miles away, so a lot of his department’s training deals with handling domestic calls.
Corinth Police Chief David Lancaster said properly equipping officers is the best way to make sure they have the tools to deal with every situation.
“You never know what to expect on any call, so equipment is very important,” he said. “Our officers have Tasers to help subdue a suspect if needed. We make sure body armor is up to date and functional. Even the video and audio equipment in the cars are for our safety.”
Lancaster said by having cameras on the patrol cars, they can go back and look at tape if someone claims something inappropriate happened.
“When we go in a house, we can’t videotape, but we can push a button and get audio recorded from the incident and that is a very good protective tool for law enforcement,” he said.
No matter what tools officers are given and training they go through, Brown said nothing can take the place of instinct.
“Sometimes you can feel when something isn’t right,” said Brown. “Listening to that feeling can save an officer’s life.”

Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or danza.johnson@djournal.com.

Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal