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.
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.
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.”
Converting tragedy into a training opportunity without pointing fingers can be dicey, experts say.
Brad Lindgren recently retired as chief deputy of the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office. In January 1996, he was the St. Joseph police chief when one of his officers stopped three robbery suspects in a stolen pickup truck.
Officer Brian Klinefelter, 24, was near the end of his shift in the still-dark morning when news of the robbery in a nearby town came over the radio. Minutes after stopping the pickup, Klinefelter lay dying on the highway after being shot five times.
Lindgren went to the site where Klinefelter was shot. Other agencies also asked to look at it. Researchers, he remembers, wanted to dissect the stop and what happened.
“It was a tough pill to swallow because, if they found something [Klinefelter did wrong], it would be hurtful,” Lindgren said. “But it was good for everybody.”
At the time, questions centered on whether Klinefelter should have waited for backup before stopping the suspects. Lindgren said the biggest lesson he gained was improving firearms training.
“You’ve got to pick the best guy for the job,” he said of training, which now includes more than just shooting at a paper target. Officers are trained to shoot on the move, load and reload with either hand, shoot in the cold and shoot while dragging away another officer.
“That is the best thing that came out of it, learning how to do it in real-life situations,” Lindgren said.
Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said officers always pay more attention to detail and become more vigilant after one of their own is killed. But he said police would get worn out if they were on edge all the time.
“If you are so concerned about getting injured every day you go to work, you probably are in the wrong line of work,” he said.
Still, Sanner said, police training is always evolving. Academies train new recruits, but officers each year undergo continuing instruction. More and more, police use real-life footage from squad car dash cams to learn from officers’ past encounters. All of it, he said, is meant to make responses to threats as automatic as possible.
“Shame on us if we don’t try to learn, try to be better — try to be safe,” he said.
Still, there are situations that training may not always prevent.
On an early morning in May 2010, Sgt. Joe Bergeron of the Maplewood Police Department was driving his squad car near the Bruce Ventro bicycle trail in St. Paul, responding to a report of a carjacking. He came upon two men coming off the trail.
As Bergeron, 49, sat in his car, one man distracted him while the other reached his arm into the door and shot and killed the veteran officer. One of the suspects was later killed after he attacked a St. Paul police officer.
Force Science Executive Director Bill Lewinski, who for years led the law enforcement program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, conducts worldwide training and research regarding police safety and use of force. He has extensively researched traffic stops that turned fatal for police. One area that needs greater emphasis, he said, is teaching officers how to more quickly recognize possible danger.
That, and do a better job of knowing what a suspect is doing with their hands.
“In [FBI] interviews with people who tried to kill or killed a police officer, they found the earlier an officer gained control and the more professional he acted, the less they were able to attack the officer,” Lewinski said.
The keys, he said, are paying attention to body language and positioning oneself for tactical advantage. For example, an officer during a traffic stop can respectfully but firmly tell people in the car to place their hands where he can see them.
“ ‘Please place your hands on the steering wheel,’ rather than saying, ‘Show me your hands! Do it now!’ ” Lewinski said. “One is a request, the other a demeaning order … If the officer does the best they can, you better believe you can influence a situation.”
Schnell, who was with the St. Paul police when Bergeron was killed, said the main thing that police must battle — especially with usually mundane traffic stops — is complacency.
“The majority of people we deal with are not a threat to us. Yet, at the same time, we have to be aware enough to realize we don’t know who the threat is and who isn’t,” he said, nodding to the shooting death during a traffic stop last month of Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick.
The man accused of killing Patrick was a felon with warrants for his arrest, but he was driving someone else’s car. Patrick was killed as he approached the vehicle.
“This is the big challenge for us,” Schnell said. “I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but there is no tactic to overcome street evil.”
James Walsh • 651-925-504