The Tragedy of Training Accidents

Safety must be improved in law enforcement training programs.

Tiffany Danielle Bishop, Kelley Chase, Dan De Kraai, and John Kohn. All four of these officers or law enforcement recruits were killed in training accidents since 2010. Two were shot accidentally by fellow officers. Two others died as a result of head injuries reportedly sustained during subject control or defensive tactics training programs.

When an officer is shot and killed in a training session, odds are some other officer pulled the trigger. The result is devastating for the officers of the agency involved and for the friends and families of both officers. And it doesn’t require any extraordinary empathy on our parts to realize that such an event must be shattering for the officer who fired the shot.

A little more than three years ago, De Kraai was participating in a force-on-force training exercise using guns outfitted to fire Simunition marking rounds. He was curious about what it felt like to be hit with a Sim round, so he persuaded his friend to shoot him in the back. Unfortunately, the shooter didn’t realize that he still had a lethal duty weapon in his holster.

You can imagine the shock the shooter felt when he heard the discharge of a live round from his pistol and saw a gunshot wound in his friend’s back. You can also imagine that he suffered terribly over this tragic accident.

One officer dead. And one officer psychologically scarred. Such is the terrible toll of training accidents.

I can’t think of a worse experience for a law enforcement officer than having to live with the fact that he or she accidentally killed a fellow officer. That’s a hell that most of us can’t even comprehend. Almost as difficult to comprehend is the extreme kindness that De Kraai’s widow reportedly showed the man who fired the shot that killed her husband. Published accounts say she asked that officer to walk down the aisle with her at her husband’s funeral. That’s an act of great humanity and compassion that few of us could summon in such a time of mourning.

Law enforcement trainers and their agencies nationwide are working to improve the safety of both their force-on-force and subject control programs. Some agencies have even gone so far as to ban certain types of training. A better solution is to be more vigilant in inspecting students before they enter the training area, planning the training session down to the last detail, having a zero tolerance policy for off-script activities, and finding ways to creatively replicate dangerous conditions without imperiling students.

Unfortunately, this change in mindset comes too late for Norfolk (Va.) Police Department recruit John Kohn whose death may have been caused by head strikes he received during a ground fighting exercise.

Like the De Kraai tragedy, the saddest part of the Kohn incident is that the recruit’s death—if it was the result of head strikes in training—could have been easily prevented. Some training accidents are unpreventable. There is, after all, a human element to even the most disciplined and well-planned law enforcement training. And in order to provide actual value to the trainees, instructors must strive for realism, which means some degree of hazard.

Thankfully, smart and experienced instructors know how to expose their students to stress without crossing the line into real danger. More importantly, they know where the danger lies in their programs, and they seek every means possible to prevent it. That’s why well-run force-on-force training programs emphasize multiple inspections of the students before class begins and after any break.

Unfortunately, more and more law enforcement agencies now view training as a luxury, not a necessity. That means that city and county administrators are constantly looking for an excuse to cut back on training. Training accidents—even when they aren’t fatal—result in agency liability and lost work hours, and they give bean counters the ammunition they need to kill the programs.

Proper training is essential to your safety on the street. Proper precautions are essential to staying safe in training.

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