By Brian Roesti
State Park Officer
Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Division of Parks and Recreation
Perhaps it was an old wives tale or rural folklore. The hunter was moderately intoxicated and somewhat perplexed at the size of the deer roaming the hills of southwest Ohio. The deer he had just tagged had rabbit-like quickness, was extremely small, and the white tail had fallen off leaving only a stump. Confused, the hunter dutifully took his catch to the nearest deer-check station. Upon examining this hunter’s conquest, the deer tag was found affixed to the ear of a Doberman Pincher. There was no word on whether the hunter had the Doberman turned into jerky or sausage...but you can bet it tasted like chicken.
Opening day can be a harrowing experience. Several hundred hunters had packed themselves onto a 400 hundred acre patch of public hunting habitat. The sound of gunfire echoed throughout the overgrown fields and buckshot fell like hail as the hunters fired aimlessly at the barely airborne, pen raised pheasants that had been released the prior evening. More than one hunter was shot...not the Dick Cheney, in-your-face blast that requires hospitalization and criminal investigation...but they were “peppered” nonetheless.
Hunting season brings about some unique law enforcement situations. Many of these are conservation/wildlife officer specific, but many of these issues affect all officers. After all, hunters live in cities and suburbs too, and they have to drive with their long guns from home to the hunting grounds.
As any conservation officer can attest, walking the fields on opening day can be dangerous. It is not that hunters intentionally target other hunters (or officers) but the buckshot that goes up must come down somewhere. Not unlike the dangers associated with traffic stops, the conservation officer must be cognizant of accidental assaults when performing their most basic enforcement functions while simultaneously preparing themselves for the potential of a felonious assault.
The dangers posed to conservation officers should not be taken lightly. A study of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, reported in Police Quarterly (2004), revealed that game wardens were up to seven times more likely to be assaulted (per citation) with a cutting instrument or firearm than Virginia’s State Police. There are numerous reasons behind the aggression against conservation officers (time of day, one officer encounters, and the relative nature of the enforcement situation to name a few). Traditional police agencies should be aware of those dangers.
There are many enforcement situations involving wildlife issues that are universal to the conservation officer and the traditional law enforcement community. Likely, the most common thread binding these officers are the hazards encountered when conducting traffic stops. While the reason a conservation officer may conduct a stop often differs from those of a traffic cop, the dangers remain the same; accidental and felonious assault.
Speaking in generalities, the conservation officer does not perform traffic stops. They are more likely to perform an investigative stop where the offender is known to be a hunter and is pursuant to an observed wildlife related violation. This may put the conservation officer at an advantage (compared to the traffic enforcement officer) when it comes to traffic stop situations as it provides the time and opportunity to properly prepare for a stop in a circumstance where the offender is likely armed with a firearm, a knife, or other sharp, pointy objects. Even with this prior knowledge, the conservation officer remains up to seven times more likely than other police officers to be assaulted with firearms and cutting instruments.
The more traditional police officer may stop the same wildlife violator on a traffic related offense. The reason for the traffic stop is completely different, but the same dangers are still present: firearm (and probably also a knife), and a willingness to use same. While the conservation officer had time to prepare for these hazards, the traffic enforcement officer may be unaware of the potential lethal consequences of the situation. The offender, knowing evidence of a criminal wildlife violation is present within the vehicle, may do whatever it takes to keep that evidence from being uncovered.
Likewise, the opposite is true. The county sheriff’s office or local police department may have information regarding a local subject who is known as a fighter, is often resistant, or is simply a bad person. When a local officer calls in the traffic stop, they have time to physically and mentally prepare to deal with such a subject. The conservation officer may be reliant upon a communication system that is not local and therefore is unaware of the dangers this subject may pose.
For these reasons, it is imperative for all officers to remain vigilant in the tactics of patrol stops. Traffic stops tend to follow two schools of thought. The first defines all traffics stops as either unknown risk (the risk of felonious assault is unknown) or high risk (the risk of felonious assault is high). The second breaks traffic stops into three categories…low risk (in which there is an unlikely risk of felonious assault), unknown risk, and high risk. Regardless of the traffic stop tactics in which one has been trained, most hunter related traffic stops should be treated with the respect of an “unknown risk.”
The foundation of the unknown risk traffic stop is built upon officer safety and supported by Pennsylvania v. Mimms (434 U.S. 106, 1977) and Maryland v. Wilson (519 U.S. 408, 1997). The former grants an officer the authority to call a driver out of a vehicle. The latter permits the officer to call out passengers. Both take the violator out of their comfort zone and away from potential dangers while providing the officer some measure of reactionary distance and the cover of a patrol vehicle.
The problem with the unknown risk traffic stop remains that by definition the risk is unknown. This means an officer must rely upon information gathered at the scene in order to determine the risk factor. Obviously, a Shetland Pony (or a Doberman Pincher) strapped to the hood of a four-wheel drive truck during deer season would alert the ‘Spiderman senses’ of even the most rookie officer.
Unfortunately most clues are much more subtle.
For those who find an initial “low risk” assessment to be invalid, trust your senses. Should things go bad, standing next to a vehicle loaded with shotguns and hunting knives is a predicament at best. There are very few instances in law enforcement where one gets a second chance; this is one. Take a “mulligan” and return to the patrol vehicle. Then, call the occupants out and conduct business on your terms.
The vast majority of hunters are law abiding sportsmen and sportswomen. However, there are those who have no regard for wildlife laws (or any other laws) and will do whatever it takes to protect their best interest. A drunken hunter transporting a dead Doberman Pincher is a danger on the road. A drunken hunter with a loaded shotgun is a danger in the field. A drunken hunter with a loaded shotgun and an ax to grind is a danger to any officer who happens to get in his way.
With hunting season right around the corner in some places (and already well underway in the West) it is important to recognize the potential dangers associated with investigative stops and traffic stops.
Stick to sound tactics, trust your senses, and stay safe.