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New Suffolk police cadets learn the drill

Recruits train at the Suffolk County Police Academy

Recruits train at the Suffolk County Police Academy in Brentwood. (May 14, 2012) Credit: Ed Betz

A police officer patrolling a mall comes across a suspicious-looking man in a dark raincoat.

He's not supposed to be there, the mall is closed and it's late at night.

The officer orders the man to identify himself. But the man won't respond to the officer's commands.

Instead, he walks toward the officer with his both hands in his pockets.

What does the officer do?

Identify himself. Know where to take cover and make the man come to him. Try to talk him about not doing anything rash. Call for backup if things get dicey.

The scenario was one of several role-playing exercises held May 14 for 19 Suffolk police recruits during an Officer Survival Training session that was part of the county's 28-week program to train its cadet class of 2012.

The training at the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College is important as the number of officers killed in the line of duty increased last year. Four officers who either lived or served on Long Island were killed since January 2011.

One was struck inside his patrol car while conducting a traffic stop, two were shot by friendly fire and another was allegedly shot by a burglary suspect.

Nationwide, 72 police officers were killed by criminals in the line of duty last year, according to preliminary figures released by the FBI earlier this month. That is a 28 percent jump from 56 killed in 2010.

"I think all police officers and everyone in law enforcement is aware of those trends and as trainers we have to be on top of trends so we can identify current training needs," said Lt. Robert Sweeney, commanding officer of the academy's training section.

Cadets learn the drill

Suffolk's role-playing session, which occurred during week 21 of the program, included a cover drill, a high-risk vehicle stop drill and a session with a firearms training simulator.

To graduate, this year's 77 recruits must complete 105 hours in a basic course that covers arrest techniques, defensive tactics, using mace and hand-combat devices. Recruits are also required to complete about 59 hours combined of firearms and Taser-use training.

Role-play scenarios, such as the suspicious man in the mall, are designed to put classroom lessons into practice on firearms, Tasers and judgment about the use of force, Sweeney said.

"It gives them the opportunity to put into practice what they are taught," he said. "The projectile training gives them an opportunity to safely practice these firearms tactics against a live opponent, not a paper target."

Last year, Suffolk responded to 821 calls involving firearms. Of those, one resulted in the death of a Selden man in his home.

Despite the danger police officers face, Michael Vience, 28, of Massapequa, still wants to be a Suffolk County Police officer. Vience was a state parks police officer for four years at Jones Beach and he has a younger brother who is an NYPD officer.

Vience wants to become a Community Oriented Police Enforcement, or C.O.P.E., officer.

"No academy is easy," said Vience, who admitted that the toughest part of going through the academy is morning formation. That's when the recruits are critiqued, inspected and told what's in store for the day.

His marksmanship is probably his strength, he said. "But I hope not to use it."

Sweeney briefs the cadets daily before each training session.

For last week's exercise, recruits used a gun that shoots plastic-coated bullets filled with a pink or blue waxy substance.

The recruits go through the cover drill individually. One's gun malfunctions as he's being fired at by the suspicious man from the mall.

He ducks for cover behind a large orange construction barrel -- one of about four -- and struggles to un-jam his weapon until he finally gets a shot out, striking the enactor. "It happens occasionally and that's OK," Sweeney said of the gun jamming. "It makes it more realistic."

The procedure is repeated two to three times until the recruit gets it right.

"We want new officers to go out in the field confident in their abilities," Sweeney said. "We put much more of an emphasis on that for the past 15 years. I can't have them doubting their ability. They have so many things to think of when they go out there."

Preparing for unexpected

The unpredictability of an encounter is at the forefront of officers' minds when they conduct routine traffic stops and respond to calls. Car stops are challenging because an officer has no idea what's in the car or who they are stopping and there is physically no cover. It is also problematic because there is limited space to avoid an attack.

Outside, two recruits re-enact a traffic stop. In some cases, the occupants of the vehicle start shooting at the recruits without warning, forcing them to take cover behind their patrol car. In other cases, the recruits are able to convince the occupants to comply with their orders, though real life scenarios aren't as sketched out as the training.

Sweeney said recruits need to consider predisposing factors such as drug use, mental state of the individual and health issues in their efforts to control a subject.

"We don't have to be right," said Sweeney. "But we have to be reasonable."

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