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Recruits learn survival skills

June 09, 2002|by JULIE E. GREENE

Editor's note: This is the seventh in a series of occasional Sunday stories about local recruits in the Western Maryland Police Training Academy. Leading up to graduation this month, The Herald-Mail will introduce readers to the eight recruits and the tasks they face on the road to earning badges.

julieg@herald-mail.com

The "bad guy" got out of the car and slowly turned around, holding his shirt up with one hand so the "police officers" could tell if there was a gun in his waistband.

When they spotted the red handle of the rubber handgun sticking out of his waistband, police recruit Ricky Whittington ordered the suspect to slowly pull the gun out with his weak hand's thumb and index finger and toss it aside.

Then Whittington ordered the armed robbery suspect to walk backwards toward the two police cruisers he and fellow Washington County Sheriff's Department recruit Jason Crawford were using for cover during the training exercise.

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After the suspect knelt with his ankles crossed, Crawford held the suspect's hands on his head, holstered his pistol and handcuffed him. Then he patted him down for any other weapons.

"It's different when you know somebody's got a gun," said Crawford, one of 17 recruits with the Western Maryland Police Training Academy. "It definitely has your heart beating. That's for sure. Especially when you see that gun."

As a former correctional officer and Washington County Hospital security guard, Crawford has been charged by psychiatric patients and broken up fights between inmates.

"Every fight that you're in, you don't know if that inmate has a weapon," said Crawford, who was a correctional officer at the Washington County Detention Center for two years before starting the police academy in January.

"You have to treat it like everybody could have a weapon," Crawford said.

Or weapons.

That's one of the messages instructors tried to get across to the 17 recruits last week as they worked on officer survival skills. The recruits practiced making high-risk traffic stops, such as pulling over a car fitting the description of an armed robbery getaway vehicle and ordering the suspects outside.

They also practiced clearing a building, in this case a boarded-up farmhouse north of Hagers-town with suspects inside.

As the recruits went through these "simunitions," they were sometimes fired upon and occasionally fired back. Capsules of red or blue detergent were used to simulate bullets and let the recruits know when and where they had been hit. They wore protective head and neck gear during those exercises.

Things went smoothly for Crawford and Whittington the first time they practiced pulling over a suspect who turned out to be armed.

Some of their colleagues weren't as lucky.

The instructors had some recruits intentionally act belligerent, disobeying the officer's orders and sometimes fleeing. They even had a suspect pretend he was going to commit suicide.

In one instance, two of the recruits were shot in the back and head as a suspect who ran away circled back and crawled up behind them as the recruits were preoccupied with the second bad guy.

"I'm not trying to make you guys look bad. I just want you to know what can happen," Hagerstown Police Department Sgt. Dave Long told the recruits.

Earlier Wednesday, the instructors showed the recruits a video of wounds caused by edged weapons such as knives. Officers who had been wounded or had partners wounded by such weapons talked on the video about how unexpected the attacks were and what little reaction time they had.

People often wonder why police officers end up shooting a suspect with a knife instead of disarming him, Hagerstown Police Officer Casey Yonkers said.

But, instructors said, a suspect can close in fast. A distance of at least 21 feet is usually necessary for a police officer to be able to unholster his pistol and fire two shots to stop the threat. Less distance than that could require hand-to-hand combat.

Suspects, and sometimes people police don't realize are dangerous, can attack quickly. Even suspects who have pistols trained on them won't always cooperate, instructors told the recruits. They could walk right up to the officers or run away.

During the "simunitions." the recruits were reminded a few times that one of the responding officers needs to keep an eye and pistol aimed at the vehicle, whether or not they know there is someone inside.

Crawford showed them why when he played "bad guy," sneaking into the back seat of the getaway car with a gun. After two recruits got two suspects out of the car, they approached the car to "clear it" and one was shot by Crawford after opening the back door.

"When I get out there I want to do everything right," said Crawford, 25, of the Clear Spring area. "I think of the highest risk possible. I want to make sure my partner is safe. We want to go home that night," he said.

Crawford and Whittington often partnered up, knowing that soon they could be backing each other up for real out in the county where an experienced officer often rides alone and must call for backup when needed.

After graduation on June 24, many of the recruits will go through field training in which they are partnered with an experienced officer.

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