BLUEFIELD — Local officers taking a class that’s showing them how to pursue fleeing vehicles had to leave class suddenly for a very good reason – police were chasing a stolen vehicle.
Police officers and deputies from West Virginia and Virginia law enforcement agencies started taking a 16-hour class Monday designed to help them navigate in tight areas and pursue fleeing vehicles. The students left the classroom Tuesday and climbed into their cruisers to hone their skills at the Mercer County Airport.
Traffic cone obstacle courses set up along the airport’s tarmac let officers use their classroom lessons. Lt. John Garten of the Charleston Police Department watched his law enforcement students and took time to offer advice as they navigated the course.
“We are doing EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operations Course) training for the local departments here in Mercer County and also a couple of the departments in Virginia,” Garten said. “Bluefield (Va.) is one and I believe the sheriff’s department for Tazewell County, Va. is another. Basically, we’re giving them some training on how to operate their vehicle in emergency situations and in pursuits in a safe and prudent manner.”
Officers drove their cruisers through the obstacle course, practicing maneuvers and parking in confined places.
“This is dynamic park and what we try to do is get the officers who are operating their vehicles to understand the corners of their car and how to maneuver in tight spots, because sometimes in police work we have to get into situations where we have very tight corners; so we have to turn around in a safe manner because if we trash our car we cannot get to the location where we need to be,” Garten said.
Six different obstacle courses were set up at the airport, and each one called for maneuvers in certain situations.
“Our top speed on the tarmac as we’ll call it is about 45 mph,” Garten said. “I know some people think that might not be fast enough or too fast, but at 45 mph you can adjust for people on the street, you can still account for the same type of movement and the same type of exercises. But basically, the car handles almost the same at 40 mph as it does at 80 mph, so it’s just the time and distance.”
The lessons started with classroom instruction.
“The first day I’ll do a Powerpoint presentation and I’ll show some video, and most of the videos that we show are from the Charleston Police Department on pursuits and emergency driving,” Garten stated.
A chance to use the lessons occurred Monday when a vehicular pursuit started in Bluefield. The chase, involving the Bluefield Police Department and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department, started in the City of Bluefield, went down Hurricane Ridge and Airport Road, and ended at Littlesburg when the suspect’s vehicle blew a tire out in a ditch. There was one arrest.
“Two guys had to jump up in the middle of class to go help with that,” Garten recalled. “It’s ironic, I guess. It wasn’t planned in any fashion. We’re doing a course and a pursuit took place in a mid-morning session.”
Police officers engaged in a pursuit are taught to focus on breathing, relaxing, “keeping their heads swiveled” and avoiding tunnel vision. Other drivers, through no fault of their own, can be unpredictable when they see a police car coming up behind them with their lights and sirens going, Garten said. The goal is to reach your destination safely.
Officer N. Jonas with the Bluefield, Va. Police Department went through the dynamic park obstacle course, carefully threading and parking his cruiser through the traffic cone maze.
“So far, I would say extremely challenging, but a good technical course” Jonas said when asked about how the course was working so far. “Good everyday driving for a police officer.”
The range helped officers learn a more about navigating narrow back roads, going between houses, and doing other tasks they could encounter in the region. Jonas said he has been in more than one vehicular pursuit.
“I have been in three myself,” he recalled. “One, I believe, was initiated by the Mercer Sheriff (department) and I assisted in it, and two I initiated. I’ve almost been in at least one accident because of drivers failing to yield or just stopping in the middle of the road. A lot of people see blue lights and they just stop.”
Cpl. Q. Harris with the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office, who said he had been in several vehicular pursuits, was learning techniques to fine tune the driving lessons he learned at the basic academy.
“They taught us the importance of maintaining a distance when in pursuit,” he said. And like the other participants, he was told how to “expect the unexpected” from other drivers on the road.
Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler said the class was offered by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office with the Charleston Police Department.
“Lt. John Garten is a certified EVOC trainer,” Sitler said. “He has made it a special mission to see that local law enforcement agencies receive adequate training in pursuit policy and emergency vehicle control. As you might guess, more officers die in fatal car crashes than in incidents with firearms, domestic violence or anything else that they deal with. It’s critical that they receive regular, stringent training, how to negotiate obstacle courses and deal with pursuits.”
“I was moved to seek this kind of training for our local officers by the tragedy that transpired with the loss of life of Lt. Aaron Crook of the Bluefield Police Department a couple of years ago,” Sitler stated. “And we’re working toward a unified, multi-agency pursuit policy. This training will bring our local officers to realize the importance of that goal.”
There were two classes with 20 officers apiece. Participating agencies included the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office, Mercer County Sheriff’s Department, Richlands Police Department, Pembroke Police Department, Concord Police Department, Princeton Police Department, Athens Police Department and Bramwell Police Department.
Sitler thanked the Bill Cole Auto Mall for allowing the class to use its training facility, and Pat McKinney of the Bluefield Area Transit Authority for providing bus service from the auto mall to the Mercer County Airport.
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