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National Police Week: A trainer’s perspective as the bagpipes sound

It was April and I was in Chicago attending the ILEETA conference. I’d gotten up early, worked out, eaten breakfast and was now getting ready to head downstairs to the opening ceremony. I arrived at the ballroom and spotted a couple of trainers I knew from my home state of Minnesota. Two of the three had just recently been assigned as trainers for their departments and this was their first ILEETA conference. What made it even more special is I had trained both of them in our version of the “academy.” One of my joys as an instructor is when students of mine become trainers. They had both been good students and now were experienced officers taking on the task of training their own department.

Waiting for the opening ceremonies, we talked. The color guard brought in the flag; we sang the National Anthem and then said the Pledge of Allegiance. Next, as always, we remembered the fallen officers. The pipers filled their bags with air and the sound of Amazing Grace filled the room.

We honored the memory of the officers who had lost their lives in the year since our last meeting. I have gotten so I cannot hear Amazing Grace on the bagpipes and not tear up. I also know that I am not alone.

In an average year, my college will train around 250 people to be police officers. I’ve been doing it for 16 years. That means that I have had a part of training somewhere around 4,000 people to be police officers. As a trainer, I know that at some point some of them will die before their times. When the bagpipes sound I remember those who died serving their country in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those graduates of our program who have died in the line of duty: Curt Felt, Brian Klinefelter, Tim Bowe, Ted Foss, Luther Klug, Pete Resch, and Nick Erfle.

I remember walking into work that morning at around 0600 that fall of 2007. My first firearms class would start at 0700. As usual I went through my email before going over my lesson plan for the day. I opened the email from PoliceOne and noted that a Phoenix officer had been killed in the line of duty. I didn’t have time to read the story but I would later, like I always do. I thought the face looked familiar but after so many students over the years they all start to look familiar.

I hadn’t recognized Nick Erfle’s picture because he had been eight years since his graduation. He had grown from a young man in his twenties to a married father of two in his 30’s working for Phoenix PD. I remembered Nick as a good student who listened well, tried hard and took his training seriously. Those personal traits would follow him to Phoenix.

One of his academy classmates wrote of him:

“You were a wide-eyed kid, not knowing what to expect. I thought, ‘No way will a guy this nice make a good cop.’ You proved me wrong. I sat with you during the academy and watched you turn yourself into an outstanding recruit. I watched as you became a stand out officer at Squaw Peak Precinct.”

Nick would leave the academy and continue as an exemplary officer winning a Medal of Valor for protecting several children from a gunman wielding an AK-47. He would battle cancer and return to duty, not once, but twice in his short career. Nick was a warrior.

On Sept. 18, 2007 he had one last battle. He and another officer responded to three jaywalkers. As they spoke with the suspects a struggle broke out and an ex-felon, know street gang leader, and illegal immigrant pulled out a gun and shot Nick. Nick would die an hour later in the hospital.

His wife, Julie would carry on in Nick’s honor as a supporter of Immigration Reform on the state and national level.

Nick is the only student of mine ever killed in the line of duty as a police officer, and I hope it stays that way because one is too many.

The year 2010 brought an increase in officer deaths. Along with it came an increase of incidents involving my former students. In a nine-month stretch, five former students would be engaged in four separate gunfights. The good news is they all won. Three of them were kind enough to send emails thanking my training partner Becky Swanson and myself for giving them the firearms training that helped bring them home. For a trainer it doesn’t get any better than that.

One of the officers works for Becky’s former department, as do the three trainers from Minnesota that I mentioned earlier. He came and spoke at an officer involved shooting board that we do each time we teach a firearms class. He talked about how his training saved his life, how he literally was going from drill to drill that he had learned from us as he fought his way through being ambushed, wounded twice, falling to the ground, getting up, reloading and continuing the battle until the suspect was down

Another gunfight was right here in the county where I live, and hit even closer to home. Two of the five officers on scene are former students of ours. One of the other officers on scene was Becky’s husband Todd. An armed suspect attempted to shoot the officers but was shot first.

As the pipes played I had a lot to reflect on since last year — students killed in the line of duty, friends and students alive and well because of their training, former students now becoming trainers themselves and taking on the task of keeping their officers ready for what awaits them. Last week, we graduated 100 students from our program. Next week we will start training 150 more. Each graduation I can’t help wonder if and when one of them will have their name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

So for this year’s National Police Week, I’ve got a lot more than usual to ponder the past, the present, and the future, and a lot to be thankful for as the bagpipes sound...

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