Pittsburgh police officers train for ambushes during traffic stops
Two Pittsburgh police officers with their guns trained on an SUV in front of them didn't notice the danger creeping behind them.
Officers Tim Wach and Craig Huhn seemed briefly stunned as faux pink “bullets” pelted them before they spun around to return fire on Officer Mike Lewis on Wednesday during the fourth week of the bureau's first force-on-force traffic stop training.
“On an ambush, there's not a heck of a lot you can do except be aware that it could happen at any moment,” Wach said, peeling off his protective gear. “You have to constantly be scanning. There's a lot of people out there that may want to hurt us.”
The traffic-stop scenarios between instructors pretending to be bad guys and officers who volunteer for training play out on a parking lot in a vacant Veterans Affairs facility off Highland Drive.
The number of Pittsburgh officer-involved shootings increased slightly in the past few years, from eight in 2011 to 10 in 2012 and 12 in 2013, according to bureau statistics. Several of those shootings involved traffic stops or pursuits, rangemaster John Lubawski said.
An officer-involved shooting refers to an incident when an officer is fired upon or shoots at someone.
“This is meant to address the shootings we've had around the vehicle and the dangers we've had approaching vehicles,” Lubawski said.
Police union officials raised concern last year about shootings in which suspects, despite being shot, continued to fire at officers. They questioned whether their .40-caliber ammo had enough firepower to stop suspects. An FBI analysis confirmed the ammunition performed as expected, so the focus changed to firearms training.
“There is a difference between going up to a range and shooting a piece of paper that doesn't shoot back,” said Officer Josh Hartle, an adjunct firearms instructor. “That's target shooting. This is combat shooting.”
Traffic stop training scenarios vary from a compliant driver to one who springs out firing an AR-15. They're based on real incidents, Lubawski said.
Nationally, seven officers were killed responding to traffic stops or pursuits in 2013, down from 16 in 2012, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
“It's good to have live training, rather than sitting in a room,” said Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1.
Role-playing scenarios help officers learn to make decisions under pressure, said Steve Ijames, retired deputy chief of Springfield, Mo., police and a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police national policy center board.
“You train like that to cause them to have the proper level of vigilance and to have their minds wired to make decisions,” Ijames said.
Officers in training wear protective gear over the head, neck and groin. The marker cartridges can bruise or even draw blood.
“It lets you know they're putting rounds on target, which is good,” said Officer Robert Zollars, an adjunct instructor.
The training is optional this year while it's evaluated, Lubawski said. He estimated 500 officers have tried it. Training ends July 3.
“They see the mistakes they make before they get out on the street and it happens for real,” Zollars said.
Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.