Editor’s note: In honor of Behind the Badge OC’s one-year anniversary, we will be sharing the 30 most-read stories. This story was originally published April 25.
A lot of people have never been hit in the face.
That’s Lt. Mike Peters talking.
He’s the commander at the Orange County Sheriff’s Regional Training Academy in Tustin.
The academy entails 26 weeks of training. And this is the last day of week 18, otherwise known as “Will to Survive III.” It’s the week when recruits are tested on arrest control techniques they have learned, even as they’re being hit in the face.
“They still have to be able to think,” Peters says. “Even under attack. They can’t just go on primal instincts.”
If a suspect runs from you. Boxes you. Wrestles you. Can you keep your cool?
The “suspects” in today’s test are police officers themselves, all trained in martial arts.
“The chance of (the recruits) winning this confrontation are not good,” says retired Anaheim Police Capt. Joe Vargas, who is watching on the sidelines.
And sure enough, all but one of the 43 recruits from across Southern California has his or her gun taken away by a “suspect” before the day is over.
Recruits have no idea what’s in store for them when they show up this morning.
In teams of two, they are posted outside the academy walls to handle a “car stop” when they hear over their radios that a violent crime has occurred. A suspect is described. And pretty soon, here comes the suspect, running past.
The recruits order the man to stop. A chase ensues. But two other suspects materialize, wearing padded blue suits, and begin fighting the officers, who must use their batons to fight back.
If the suspect “takes the knee,” dropping down to submit, the recruit must show restraint.
If the suspect “takes a knee” and the recruit strikes him in the head with a baton, that’s an automatic fail.
“There is no deadly force in that situation,” Peters says. “It’s a true learning opportunity for the recruit.”
After the men in pads submit, the recruits are ordered to continue chasing the original suspect down a mock street, through a window and over two walls, one brick and one chain link.
They then encounter two more suspects that they must fight using personal body weapons, such as their knees and elbows and fists.
At the end of the chase, two martial arts experts are waiting on mats — one for each now-exhausted and panting recruit.
Within minutes, the recruits are rolling around on the ground in a wrestling match.
In all but one case the “suspect” has managed to get the recruit’s gun out of their holster and fling it across the room.
“We’re not worried about their technique as much as their will to survive,” Peters says of the recruits at this stage in the test. “Their will to separate from the fight, find their weapon and then show restraint — to, even in a tired energy-depleted state, make a conscious decision to de-escalate the situation.
“Mentally, it’s stressful and exhausting. It’s a test of their character and spirit.”
Throughout the chase, evaluators jog alongside the recruits, encouraging them with shouts of “Don’t give up!” or “Come on, get up, he’s going for your gun!”
And they remind the recruits to continue communicating with dispatch throughout the chase while at the same time issuing commands to the suspects, such as “Get on the ground!” and “Stop resisting!”
As soon as it’s over, after catching their breath, recruits must do a self-evaluation and tell their trainers what they think they did wrong.
Some realized they forgot to shout street signs into their radio during the chase, a crucial mistake since other officers can’t then come to the scene to help.
The test is pass/fail. Today, April 9, everyone passed. Later, they watch their entire chase on video.
“We want them to succeed and we want them to learn,” Peters says. “In the field they can’t make a mistake.”
Adam Gardner, a Costa Mesa Police Department recruit, summed the training up as “kind of disheartening.”
“It shows you the reality of what a foot pursuit can turn into, and the mindset it takes,” he said. “It’s definitely a reality check.”
Gardner, 24, had his gun taken away from him in the final fight.
“Knowing that at that moment your life is in danger … for me, it was a very eye-opening experience. There were a lot of things I could have done better.”
Otniel Sabo, a 26-year-old recruit from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, wasn’t satisfied with his performance either.
“I wanted to catch (the suspect) right away and as I went into a full sprint my radio flew out. I had to stop and pick that up. Now my partner had to wait for me. And trying to put out radio commands while you’re fighting…that was difficult. But the biggest thing was at the end: Not being able to retain my weapon. That means we need to train harder so that never happens again.”
Vargas says there is a public perception that unarmed people aren’t dangerous.
“Every officer brings a gun, and in a second it could be (the suspect’s) gun if you don’t handle things correctly.”
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC