Safety Behind the Wheel
with Travis Yates
The Oklahoma City PD: "Doing it right"
Two years ago, the Oklahoma City Police Department was like most others. The largest law enforcement agency in the state, it was dealing with the same issues most other large agencies around the country were. It was making the most of the resources it had, with budget and staff shortfalls a frequent concern. Recruits were exposed to high-quality training before graduation, with the basic emergency vehicle training composed of an impressive 88 hours with three days of high-speed training. By all accounts, the driver training was sufficient, and new officers were prepared as they entered their new profession. As with most agencies, this is where the driver training stopped.
On Oct. 20, 2005, Oklahoma City Sgt. Jonathan Dragus attempted to stop a stolen motorcycle and a pursuit began. As the pursuit traveled through northwest Oklahoma City, Dragus approached an intersection where a truck pulled in front of him causing him to swerve, lose control and hit a tree. Dragus died later that morning, leaving behind his wife, an Oklahoma City officer, as well as two small children. A popular officer and hard worker, his death rocked the core of the department.
The tragic death of Sgt. Dragus did not create change but it helped accelerate it. Despite more than two weeks of law enforcement driver training in its basic academy, the Oklahoma City Police Department continued to experience preventable collisions, especially with officers with less than five years of experience. In 2000, Oklahoma City Police Officer Jeffrey Dean Rominger and Oklahoma Highway Patrol Officer Matthew Evans were both killed in pursuit of a fleeing suspect. Change was coming, but what would it look like?
While it may have been tempted to put massive restrictions on its pursuit policy, the Oklahoma City Police Department wanted something more than a mandate. It wanted a cultural change, a change that would improve the agency while increasing morale and safety. One thing was certain: Such a change would not be accomplished by a knee-jerk reaction and more rules. Chief William Citty took the proactive approach. Not only did he want to build accountability into the policy, but he also wanted training. Training that was regular, adapted to the issues they were seeing and realistic to the men and women of the department.
The message was clear from the beginning. The department would approach this with a passion and a seriousness that would not leave anyone wondering whether this was just a temporary solution. The approach was long-term, and failure was not an option.
A full-time coordinator was needed, and Chief Citty found that in Sgt. Keith Cornman. He was motivated, passionate and ready. Cornman would be tasked with coordinating and facilitating all of the department’s driver training including rookies, remedial and the yearly training for all officers. His position was important in order to stay current on new training techniques, give timely training, conducting constant research and ensuring that the training dealt with best practices and maximized the overall safety of the officers. The full-time coordinator sent the right message. The Oklahoma City Police Department would no longer accept tragedy as a way of doing business. It was going to attack it every day, and that attack would be a full-time job.
Sgt. Cornman knew that he couldn’t build the program until he had the data telling him what to do. This is an important aspect of any driver training program. A formal database was built that tracked police-vehicle collisions and pursuits. Detailed information such as the time of day, speeds and weather conditions were entered and tracked relentlessly. Patterns would emerge and training would be adapted to meet the issues that the officers faced. A query option was built into the system to allow Cornman to quickly find out important information. Every three months, a detailed report would be sent to Chief Citty and the city manager. These reports provide city leaders a detailed analysis of the department’s pursuits as well as outline the activities of the training program.
According to Sgt. Cornman, “If you don’t track pursuits and collisions, how can you identify the cause and how do you correct it? This database is our lifeline to giving our officers the best possible training we can.”
While the pursuit policy had always been considered “restrictive” compared with those of surrounding agencies, accountability needed to be added through a stronger emphasis to terminate a pursuit if deemed necessary and a mandate to terminate when the helicopter arrived above. The policy set forth an extensive supervisors’ administrative pursuit report and instituted a pursuit matrix, designed to be a basic reference guide similar to what officers and supervisors used to with the use-of-force continuum. No longer would the risks be up to interpretation, but rather specific risks would be broken down into low, moderate and high, with additional justification needed to continue a pursuit that encountered high risks (frequent intersections, poor weather, blind curves, heavy traffic, and high speeds). Quickly identifying the risks to officers, citizens and the community versus the rewards of apprehension were clear. Sgt. Cornman explains that “part of the new pursuit policy required our officers to give out more information over the radio to the managing supervisor. Items such as road conditions, speeds, pedestrian traffic, suspect driving actions and many other factors help the managing supervisor to be more objective and manage the pursuit more thoroughly.”
In addition to the training in the basic academy, an eight-hour course on law enforcement driver training became mandatory for all sworn officers every year, and remedial training was instituted when officers had a preventable collision. That remedial training was customized to the individual officer’s deficiency following a thorough review of the collision.
Sgt. Cornman describes the two-pronged approach of a sound policy and training: “Driving is a perishable skill, and you have to have continual refresher training because of the nature of the driving we do. You must have a policy in place to ensure accountability. One or the other will not work. You have to have both, and I believe our track record early on has soundly proven that.”
A year later
In comparing the 12 months before the program change and 12 months after the implementation, the results were nothing short of incredible. Police pursuits were reduced from 215 to 182. All pursuit-related collisions were reduced 25 percent: Police collisions dropped 62 percent, while suspect collisions were reduced 13 percent and third-party collisions were down 40 percent. Before the program began, only six pursuits were terminated by the officers or supervisors. Since the implementation, 31 pursuits have been terminated.
The Oklahoma City Police Department could have listened to all of the excuses not to begin a full-time driver-training program. We have all heard it before: Cars will get damaged. There isn’t a track. It’s too expensive. Excuses can be paralyzing and part of the culture. That culture no longer exists in Oklahoma’s capital.
The department trained 974 officers over a 55-day period in 2007. Officials were able to use the local county facility for training, but it would not have stopped them if it hadn’t been available. “You can set this training up in a parking lot, and we would have done that if necessary,” says Cornman.
What does it cost an agency with almost 1,000 officers to give them training in the most high-risk behavior they will conduct each day? The officers drove their assigned vehicles, and an extensive cost analysis was conducted throughout the training. Pre- and post-tread depths, fuel tank readings and mechanical issues were evaluated.
• Total gasoline used: 1,386 gallons
• Total tires used: 27
• Mechanical failures: one 2001 Ford Taurus transmission
• Total cost of training 994 officers: $7,074.26
That's $7.26 per officer.
“When people inquire about the cost of training, it can be done with any department of any size,” says Cornman.
The Oklahoma City department is not resting on its laurels. It is pushing forward with a new and improved training course in 2008 that will add high-speed pursuit training and refresher training on tire deflation devices. It is looking at technologies that will complement its program (such as driving simulators) and it is actively engaged in research to provide officers with the safest environment they can each and every day.
Chief Citty, Sgt. Cornman and the officers of the Oklahoma City Police Department should be proud of their accomplishments. Their courageous step to train each year despite the excuses others may give has proven to be a huge success. I had unfettered access to information for this story, and I can’t thank the Oklahoma City staff enough for the assistance.
While Sgt. Cornman knows that his agency has come from humble beginnings in the field of driver training, he said something near the end of our interview that I liked: “Travis, I think we’re doing it right now.” Yes, Oklahoma City, you are. And for that you all deserve credit.