Missteps in trainee shooting ran afoul of standards, experts say
By By Justin George and The Baltimore Sun
Feb 16, 2013 | 10:10 PM
The director of Baltimore's police training academy didn't know that instructors were holding exercises at an abandoned psychiatric hospital in Owings Mills. There were no supervisors on site. A police service weapon somehow got mixed up with a practice paint-cartridge pistol. The gun was pointed at a trainee.
Many of the missteps surrounding the exercise at which a University of Maryland police recruit was critically wounded last week ran afoul of nationally recognized training safety standards, according to law enforcement experts and a review of past incidents from around the country.
The incident Tuesday has shaken the city Police Department, leading to suspensions, a criminal investigation and angry soul-searching among commanders and elected officials. If the past is any guide, it is likely to result in dramatic changes to the way city police train.
As law enforcement agencies design training exercises to prepare officers to confront such modern scourges as mass shootings and terrorism, they struggle to balance realism with safety. As the complexity of such operations grows, experts say, the margin of error narrows, increasing the need for rigid safety standards and strict oversight.
State police are still investigating the shooting on the grounds of the Rosewood Center, a former state psychiatric hospital. But Andrew J. Scott III, a national law enforcement consultant, said the details that have become public already show that reform is likely needed.
"This is a horrible tragic accident," said Scott, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Fla. "You can't have enough rigid standards of safety dealing with firearms. Case closed. It's mandatory, it saves lives and it obviously avoids tragedies the likes of what you're seeing in Baltimore."
A pair of accidental deaths in recent years provoked significant changes in the way police and firefighters in Baltimore train. A 2011 shooting of a plainclothes officer outside a nightclub led commanders to order additional preparation for crowd-control operations. The death of a fire recruit in 2007 led the city to end exercises in burning buildings.
While the number of deaths nationwide connected to police training exercises remains small, it has increased in recent years, according to the National Tactical Officers Association, from six in 2009 to 11 in 2010 to 14 in 2011.
Most were from accidental falls, health problems and other causes. The association counted only one death from a gunshot wound in 2011, and only 45 such deaths over the past century.
OpTac International, a law enforcement training firm based in Hagerstown, reviewed more than 20 of those deaths in search of common factors.
OpTac CEO Stuart Meyers found that tight budgets compromise safety by limiting the availability of equipment, supervisors, outside trainers and overtime pay to ensure that the necessary contingent of officers is on hand.
In Baltimore, spending on police education and training fell from $5.7 million in fiscal year 2008 to $3.9 million in 2012. But this year, the department requested $5.3 million.
Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi declined to comment on the training budget or its impact on training practices. He said the accidental shooting is still under investigation.
Meyers, a former SWAT officer who retired from the Montgomery County Police Department after 16 years, interviewed law enforcement officers to develop training safety standards and protocols he distributes to police departments.
The suggestions include notifying dispatch of training locations and prohibiting officers who arrive late or who leave and reappear.
Meyers and others emphasize that the use of service weapons and live bullets is essential to some training exercises.
Officers need to be comfortable training with the weapons they use on the job, they say. Accuracy differs when using real bullets compared with training ammunition. Using a loaded gun places a type of stress on officers for which they need to be prepared.
Meyers said he didn't know whether precautions could eliminate the possibility of friendly-fire accidents during training. "There's always the human element," he said. "I can't tell you with any certainty, but a great deal of them can be prevented."
Last week's shooting comes at a challenging time for new Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts.
Homicides in the city are up nearly 30 percent this year, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has voiced displeasure over the spike — notably after a teen was stabbed to death following the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl victory parade this month.
The mayor has also expressed outrage over the training shooting and has vowed that the incident will be investigated fully.
Since coming to Baltimore in September, Batts has made several leadership changes, including in training operations, as he seeks to put his stamp on the department.
Batts quickly stopped training at the city police academy after the incident, though some non-shooting exercises are expected to resume this week.
Police have not identified the injured trainee, a campus officer in his 40s who was in serious condition Saturday night. Eighteen-year veteran William Scott Kern, 46, has been named as the instructor who fired the bullet.
City police have released few other details, but sources familiar with the investigation say state police are looking into the possibility that Kern accidentally reached for his service weapon instead of a paint-cartridge pistol and pointed it playfully at recruits before the shooting.
The Baltimore department prohibits the use of service weapons and real bullets in training environments, and it remains unclear why Kern had a real gun.
State police will forward their findings to Baltimore County's state's attorney, who will determine whether to file criminal charges.
Scott, the law enforcement consultant, said the involvement of a police instructor raises more concern, because instructors are charged with ensuring safety regulations are followed.
Training experts say no gun — even a practice weapon — should be fooled with. Many departments do not allow training pistols to be pointed at trainees outside of controlled exercises.
"There can be absolutely no horseplay in a firearms-training-related site," Scott said.
Guglielmi acknowledged that many things went wrong Tuesday and said the department is "outraged at what happened."
"It shows at minimum poor leadership decision making by the instructors of this group," he said.
Departments that have experienced accidental shootings during training have focused on ways to prevent actual guns from being mixed up with practice weapons.
Such mix-ups have cost several officers their lives.
St. Joseph, Miss., police officer Dan De Kraai was killed in 2010 after he told a fellow officer that he wanted to know what it felt like to be shot with training ammunition. The other officer obliged, forgetting that he had picked up his service weapon during a break.
Georgia probation officer Tiffany Danielle Bishop, 24, was killed a year later during a prison training class when a firearms instructor pointed his gun at Bishop and pulled the trigger.
According to news reports, the instructor had returned from a lunch break without going through the proper safety checks to make sure he wasn't carrying a loaded gun. The instructor pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 10 years' probation. His law enforcement certifications were revoked.
While a friendly-fire incident can traumatize agencies, accidents can also help prevent future mistakes, as in the case of Cpl. Joseph Cushman.
Police in Arlington, Texas, were practicing school shooting scenarios at a junior high on June 7, 2001. All of the officers wore helmets and vests, and were supposed to be using training ammunition.
During a demonstration to SWAT trainees, an instructor's 9 mm Gluck discharged, firing a live round that struck Cushman in the head, killing him. An investigation showed that instructors had been allowed to bring loaded weapons to the exercise and that the instructor thought he had fired a training weapon.
"Joey had a profound impact on our department," Arlington police spokesman Sgt. Christopher Cook said, "and he had a profound impact on departments across the country. Training incidents changed because of the tragedy."
Among those changes: Only safety officers wearing fluorescent vests are allowed to carry loaded weapons during training exercises. They are barred from taking part in the exercises; their role is to protect the officers from any possible threats while they're vulnerable.
Police in Prattville, Ala., are constantly reminded to never bring a loaded gun to training activities since the death of officer Clinton Walker on Jan. 14, 2004.
In that case, a police officer retrieved his service weapon from the trunk of the car in which he had traveled to the training session. He forgot he was carrying a real gun and shot Walker in the abdomen.
Nine years later, the department still carries flowers to Walker's grave annually, Capt. Albert Wadsworth said. "You never get over it."
The small department, which typically trains with other agencies, still uses service weapons while training. But when bullets are required, multiple instructors supervise the loading and firing.
Guglielmi said Baltimore officials are committed to learning from last week's shooting and making reforms if necessary.
The department would not release its training protocols.
"We have demonstrated over the last several years, an exemplary training program," Guglielmi said.
The last police-on-police shooting in Baltimore also resulted in training changes. William H. Torbit was in plainclothes in 2011 when he responded to the Select Lounge to help disperse an unruly crowd.
When Torbit shot a patron who had engaged him, officers who were unaware that Torbit was a co worker returned fire and killed him.
The shooting resulted in a months-long internal investigation that yielded a 1,000-page report. The department enhanced instruction in night patrol, crowd control, commander incident management and firearms use
The shooting itself became a textbook case study for recruits preparing for frenzied situations of high stress and friendly fire scenarios.
Of all the tips, Scott said, one simple rule trumps the rest.
"Never point a weapon at an item or person unless you intend to shoot it."
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fen ton contributed to this article.