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Why cops can't drive, Part 2

How 2 departments fixed the problem

By Craig Peterson

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"It costs too much."
That's the usual answer to the seldom-asked question: Why don't we spend more on training to mold our officers into superior drivers? At first glance the objection to this cost appears valid. Departments don't have a spare $10 million to construct a driver-training facility, and many commanders blanch at the thought of taking an experienced officer out of service for a week and laying out big bucks for advanced driver training. The idea of similarly training every officer in the department seems so fantastic to most senior brass they hardly give it any serious consideration. And to many, the very act of implementing advanced driver training somehow suggests a failure to train officers properly in the first place.

But while most departments ignore the toll in mangled police vehicles and officers injured or killed — not to mention the collateral damage inflicted on the public — simply accepting it as the unavoidable byproduct of police work, some departments have acted to change the status quo and fix the problem.

PHOTO COURTESY FCPD The FCPD eventually built its own EVOC.

Fairfax County's Solution
The Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department (FCPD) is one such department. Until 1985, the FCPD had relied on a regional academy's facility for its driver-training needs. Nobody liked it much. Located at a former drag strip, the site afforded little more than basic, slow-speed exercises, typical parking-lot stuff. Not only did the students hate it, so did the instructors, many of whom privately doubted the adequacy of their own training. And judging from the accident statistics, Fairfax brass were inclined to agree.

Looking for a solution, the captain in charge of the training division undertook the task of developing a top-flight driving program, complete with a purpose-built EVOC (emergency vehicle operations center). He delegated the program development to his two senior instructors, Joe McDowell and Master Officer Terry Pearson. Note whom the duo did not consult for advice: other police driving instructors.

"The last person to ask about how to drive is a police officer," Pearson says. "I can call almost any department in the country and ask for the driver training expert, and I guarantee you, he'll know less about driving than my son."

An experienced racecar driver, Pearson's credentials back up his observation. So, exactly whose opinions did he solicit when he went shopping for input? A private pilot, Pearson already had some ideas, derived from long hours spent engaging in the loose banter known to pilots as "hangar talk."

"I'd noticed how much more I learned about flying from hangar talk than from theory," he says. "It's the same with driving." So, Pearson drew upon the experience of those who engage in the automotive equivalent of hangar talk: racers, designers, testers and engineers.

Next, he and McDowell conducted a task analysis. "We asked, ‘What is it we do as police officers [when driving]?' Even our routine driving is different. Aside from handling the car, we have to communicate on the radio and anticipate driving conditions, all while constantly observing what is happening around us."

Then they studied departmental accident statistics and identified the frequent types. Backing into fixed objects, other cars and, on occasion, into other officers or pedestrians topped the list, despite an existing emphasis on proper backing procedure. This told them conventional instruction methods weren't working. An analysis revealed the curricula adequately covered the essentials; something else was wrong.

"When we analyzed backing collisions, we found that the officers involved were usually 3–10 years out of the academy," Pearson says. They'd all received the mandated training in proper backing. The conclusion: Sloppy driving habits were to blame.

After changing the backing procedure and method of instruction, and training officers via in-service courses, McDowell and Pearson encouraged compliance by adding accountability. Once trained, officers were informed that every backing accident would automatically send them back to the academy for a refresher course. Chagrined at the thought of doing penance, sitting in a classroom full of fuzzy-cheeked recruits, they got the message. The frequency of backing accidents dropped overnight from first place to a distant third.

Pulling out of the regional academy, the department began its own training program by renting track time at Summit Point Raceway some 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. The facility is owned by BSR, a shadowy outfit with a deserved reputation as one of the best at training in highly specialized driving — escape-and-evasion, dignitary protection and deadly-force counter-terrorism in particular — as well as advanced firearms instruction. BSR had developed the Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT), the art of tapping the quarter panel of a fleeing vehicle, sending it into a snap-spin and halting a pursuit, and had trained the FBI and Secret Service in PIT, as well as dignitary protection and counter-terrorism units from countries around the world. A decade later the "Cops" television series would introduce PIT to the viewing public, criminals included.

In 1985, after fine-tuning PIT, modifying it for police use and incorporating it into the force continuum, along with developing a training course plus a comprehensive list of restrictions and guidelines, the FCPD was the first in the country to add PIT to its newly revised curriculum — but not without controversy. Predicting unfortunate consequences, some of the brass and plenty of officers scoffed at the notion of trying to bunt a fleeing car into the weeds.

A patrol car negotiates the water trap at SBCSD’s EVOC.

Never happened. In fact, metal-to-metal contact between FCPD units and fleeing suspects' cars dropped to an all-time low. So did the number of officers and civilians injured during pursuits, mainly because pursuits now were likely to be short-lived, ending in slow-speed interventions marked only by paint transfer, rather than by an hours-long, high-speed media event routinely experienced by some West Coast departments. Adopt PIT, and get only paint transfer and fewer accidents in the bargain? Sounds like an unlikely combination, right? And with conventional driver training it would have been. But the FCPD defied convention by scrutinizing its training just as an outside consultant analyzes a client's operation. Then it ignored the time-honored, conventional instruction techniques of yesteryear and developed a program that works.

The result: fewer lawsuits and settlement payments, a sharp reduction in accidents, reduced vehicle repair costs and, most important, fewer officers — and civilians — injured and killed in accidents.

The FCPD also built its own EVOC. The land alone cost $14 million in 1992. "Forget it," most departments would say. "We can't afford it." But not necessarily.

San Bernardino County's Success Formula
On the opposite side of the country, some 50 miles east of Los Angeles, sits the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's (SBCSD) showcase EVOC. A three-story administration building overlooks a parking lot packed with dozens of shiny new cars and trucks, some of them sporting SBCSD graphics, light bars and radar units. With a street value of perhaps a half million dollars, they cost the school nothing. More on that later.

The EVOC sports a motorcycle training pad, a skid pad large enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler and an intricate main driving track with a banked outer ring and an elaborate inner course, complete with railroad crossing, sharp elevation changes and hidden water trap. To the south, there's a city street grid, complete with stop signs, crosswalks and even manikins posing as pedestrians. Another large tract of land adjoins it, ready to accommodate future expansion. The main building features rooms packed with megabuck driving simulators and large classrooms equipped with interactive
electronics for real-time student feedback.

SBCSD’s showcase EVOC’s main driving track includes a banked outer ring, railroad crossing, sharp elevation changes and hidden water trap.
The replacement cost: probably on the high side of $15 million for the facility alone, never mind the huge staff. Total cost to the county for construction and operation: zip. How could this happen? Out-of-the-box thinking and ingenuity, that's how.

Captain Jim Ferronato, then commander of the training division, got the sheriff to okay the EVOC's construction — provided it was done without borrowing money and strictly on a pay-as-you-go basis. The department met that formidable challenge by forming an affiliation with the San Bernardino Valley Junior College. The EVOC became a satellite training center, offering a full range of classes from beginner driver education through advanced instructor courses. As such, the college — and the EVOC — could receive average daily attendance (ADA) funds from the state, a set amount per student per class. A trust fund was created to hold the ADA revenue, along with an agreement to permit the training center to retain all the revenue it generated, applying it to operations, construction of an EVOC and future expansion.

Next, the SBCSD developed a POST-compliant driver-training program, attractively pricing the classes to lure students from other departments. After devising a marketing plan, the department leased a temporary facility, an abandoned 20-acre parking lot at nearby Ontario International Airport. With all the pieces in place, operations began.

From the beginning, Forest Billington, the lieutenant in charge, ran EVOC as a business, religiously adhering to zero-based budgeting. A new course didn't begin until a full complement of students signed up. The curriculum was fine-tuned with lightly attended courses culled from the roster. Billington worked tirelessly to promote the facility, and within a few years, the trust fund was fat enough to permit construction of the permanent facility, using county-owned land adjacent to the jail and a police firing range just north of the city of San Bernardino. Completed in 1991, it was an instant success.

Remember my earlier mention of the fleet of new cars and trucks? It arrived after Billington approached Nissan and asked the company to donate its West Coast engineering vehicles to the EVOC. Although not licensed for road use, many were in pristine, almost-new condition. Arriving by the truckload, they became instructor cars and utility vehicles. An army of jail trustees keeps them clean.

Billington put the word out that the facility was for rent in the off-hours and on weekends. Car magazines and ad agencies rented the track and skid pad to photograph and film vehicles. Car clubs held races. Trucking companies used the skid pad for safety classes. A police motorcycle training program was established, and a stunt-driving school took up residence. Within a few years, the non-profit facility was making an embarrassing amount of money. So, Billington expanded the facility, installed floodlights and extended operations into the night. Auto manufacturers contracted with the EVOC to test vehicles. And so on. As the only purpose-built EVOC in Southern California at the time, it attracted a flood of students. Today it's the McDonald's of police driving schools, churning out graduates by the thousands. And it's never cost the taxpayers a dime.

A motorcycle officer trains at SBCSD’s EVOC.
Fairfax and San Bernardino, determined to get a handle on the driver-training issue, tackled the problem head-on. It took foresight, ingenuity and hard work. But the formula for success isn't proprietary. Your department can do it, too.

Craig Peterson has been road-testing and reviewing police vehicles — cars, SUVs, undercover units and others — since 1990 and has constructed a number of widely publicized police concept vehicles seen at IACP and similar venues. He's an IPTM-certified police radar instructor, an ex-race car driver and has authored hundreds of stories on vehicles, driver training, mobile electronics and speed-measuring technology for U.S. and foreign law enforcement magazines.

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