Minnesota police departments seek to learn from tragedy

  • Article by: JAMES WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2014 - 10:21 PM

The most recent death — Mendota Heights officer Scott Patrick — is another sobering reminder that law enforcement is dangerous work. Yet those incidents can also serve as lessons for officers in how to perform their jobs more safely.

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to serve and protect: Over the past few years, Minnesota police departments have lost several of their officers in the line of duty. In order to improve safety, agencies have ramped up training to include new shooting and defense techniques.

Photo: David Joles • david.joles@startribune.com,

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He was what police call a “slumper,” someone sleeping or passed out in a car. A low-risk call.

But when officer Ron Ryan Jr. knocked on his window 20 years ago this Tuesday, it set in motion a day of tragedy ending with the death of Ryan and another St. Paul police officer, Tim Jones, that still echoes through the city today.

There also was a lesson learned: Whenever possible, police now respond to slumper calls with two squads — not one.

From St. Paul to St. Joseph, from Maplewood to Minneapolis, Minnesota police departments have lost officers in the line of duty. The most recent death — Mendota Heights officer Scott Patrick — is another sobering reminder that law enforcement is dangerous work.

Yet those incidents also serve as lessons for officers in how to perform their jobs more safely. They have become case studies used to hone techniques, alter strategies, improve training and even shape standard procedure for the next generation of officers.

Or at least they should, local and national experts say.

“No law enforcement agency ever wants to criticize publicly or even privately a fellow officer killed in the line of duty, period,” said Andrew Scott, a national expert on police training. “But each realizes that in the deaths of officers or armed encounters, lessons can be learned for the benefit of others.”

Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell and others caution that police cannot see everyone as a threat, as some believe is happening in the protests following the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Mo. Police are there, after all, to serve and protect the community.

But, Schnell said, “There are things we can do to be more ready, to improve our advantage.”

Such as calling two squads for a slumper. Or discouraging officers from using a squad car to fill out paperwork.

“The proverbial question is: Where do you strike that balance? It is looking at the subtleties and the ways we make sure people aren’t getting complacent,” Schnell said.

“Can we improve our safety? I believe yes. Can we guarantee our safety? There is no guarantee in police work.”

Scott, a former police chief and president of AJS Consulting in Boca Raton, Fla., recalled a fellow officer who was shot and killed by a suspect who had been driving a stolen vehicle. The officer ran into a wooded area after the suspect, who had heard a dispatcher say over the officer’s radio that the vehicle was stolen. After a struggle, the suspect shot and killed the officer.

Two things were done wrong, Scott said. First, the dispatcher should have said the vehicle was stolen in code, not plain English. Confirming the vehicle was stolen gave the suspect more incentive to resist.

Second, the officer shouldn’t have pursued the suspect into a wooded area on foot. Instead, he should have set up a perimeter around the area with other officers.

“Each scenario has its own set of ‘aha’ moments that law enforcement should analyze and use to train,” he said. “Do they become institutionalized within the agency? Probably. But, nationally, it takes time.”

Brian Klinefelter

Converting tragedy into a training opportunity without pointing fingers can be dicey, experts say.

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