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INDEX JOURNAL - 04/19/2022

Article & photo by: KELLY DUNCAN

“I feel like I’m in Driver’s Ed again,” I said, sitting behind the wheel of a Greenwood Police Department patrol car.
I adjusted the seat so my feet could reach the pedals and raised the seat so I could see out the back window. I was preparing to run the same defensive driving course that the Greenwood Police Department and Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office were running this week — and they had to complete the course in three minutes to pass.
“Most of our training involves precision maneuvers from backing, turning, it can involve lane changes. We try to simulate everything we can encounter on a daily basis responding to calls and things like that,” Public Information Officer Jonathan Link said.
Cones were lined up accordingly and officers had to perform maneuvers that involved a serpentine cone course, braking and evading, tight rights, quick U-turns and backing into a parking space all while avoiding hitting the cones. If one cone was hit, you failed.
No pressure, right?
“Our training is more focused on the idea that when we’re driving, going into an emergency situation, we kind of step it up a little bit. Part of it is learning to analyze what other drivers are going to do because not everyone knows what to do when they see blue lights coming behind them,” Link said. “Then it’s the idea that if you cause an accident and hit something or someone en route to the call, not only do you not get there to do what you’re supposed to do as an officer, you essentially generate more work for the officers because there’s another incident. We can’t just hit a pedestrian or hit a civilian’s vehicle, just take off and go to the call. It’s more of a defensive mindset to make sure we have the skills and abilities to get ourselves quickly to calls, but also safely so that we don’t generate more problems in the process.”
The officers each ran the course three times. The first is essentially a practice run, the second incorporates lights and sirens and the third is graded on things such as speed and reaction time.
“It may seem silly to some, but we make the officer driving manipulate the sirens, lights and the radio. The reason being — you’re gonna be doing that in a real situation so it’s a matter of remembering to multitask and do those things because they’re necessary when you’re doing the real thing. So it’s even more than just physically maneuvering the vehicle. It’s about maneuvering the equipment and doing everything else required of a police officer,” Link said.
I rode in Link’s car the first two runs as he ran the course and was graded himself (he passed, by the way) before I got behind the wheel. I’m not going to lie, I was slightly dizzy afterward, but I blame it on focusing more on getting photo and video than paying attention to the road. This is coming from someone who rarely experiences car sickness.
“This is something we’re doing as a defensive, plan-ahead measure. Sometimes we get the reputation of being kind of rambunctious or horse playing. You can ask pretty much any cop here, we don’t like to drive like this,” Link said. “One of the things my dad taught me when he was teaching me to drive was you learn your limits and then a normal person should drive about 65-70 percent of their driving ability. In other words, don’t keep yourself maxed out because you make more room for mistakes. Unfortunately, there are times we have to max out our abilities. It’s about knowing them, being able to reach them and not overdrive our abilities.”
The goal, Link told me, was for officers to respond to a call without any dings, scratches, dents or blood while making sure it is done safely with a heavy emphasis on safety.
When it was finally my turn to attempt the course, I felt ready and was crossing my fingers that I didn’t hit any cones. Link encouraged me to go at my own pace and do whatever felt comfortable for me. Not many people can say they have taken a police car for a spin ... unless you stole it or something. So when I put the car in drive, I hit the gas, maybe going about 45 miles an hour and slowing down a little as I got to each obstacle. My personal favorites were the serpentine cones and the braking and evading. I was not timed, however after I cleared the serpentine cones and turned around — quickly, that is — Link estimated that my time would have been around 3:20. So if I were actually being graded, I would have failed. But on the bright side, I completed the course without hitting a single cone.
“A lot of people fail their first run. I’m pretty sure I failed my first run,” Link said.

Before the training, Link compared the experience to a rollercoaster ride and boy was it a rollercoaster ride. It was such an adrenaline rush and when I put myself in the officer’s shoes — although for a short time — I could only imagine what it would be like in a real-life situation with other cars, people and distractions in general around them.
“There’s an element of terror, too, like ‘Oh, this is crazy.’ It’s quite an experience, but it’s a lot of fun though,” Link said.
While sitting behind the wheel getting ready to go on his first run with the instructor, Officer David Waters stressed it is important for law enforcement to know their vehicles.
“When we’re responding to calls we’re going to be around the public and their safety is paramount to us of course as a police department. Knowing how to operate the vehicle safely and learning the controls, keeping your eyes on the road, hands-free operation of your emergency equipment, looking out for hazards and other stuff,” he said.
Even though I wasn’t being graded on my run, I still felt a slight amount of pressure to try to complete the run in under three minutes. Waters felt the same way, but the three runs helped him and the other officers get used to the course.
“It does add a little bit of pressure knowing you’re graded, but having the three runs — the first kind of gets the jitters out, but the more you do it, the more you get used to it,” he said. “Right now, there are cones on the road, but in the real world, there are pedestrians and other vehicles — hazards, pets, small children. It’s important to know how to drive safely around those obstacles with all the distractions law enforcement have when we’re conducting operations.”
To maintain certain certifications, Link said they do refresher training every year. And the key takeaway from my day with the officers was that training such as this is all about keeping everyone safe.
Waters said it was good to break routine to get out, do the training and get their adrenaline going.
“Doing the training is important because you don’t want the first time to experience that adrenaline dump is in a real-life situation. It’s better to come out here, practice and get a little familiarity with it before we have to actually do it in real-time.
Another thing outside of the training that I observed was the camaraderie between the officers. I listened in as they cracked jokes, shared stories of people they’ve dealt with and an officer even who hadn’t eaten breakfast broke out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while he was waiting to run the course.
“There are times when we get to let our hair down, do team building and build that rapport between the city and sheriff’s office,” Link said.
This was an experience I won’t forget. I can now add driving a police car and running the defensive driving course to my list of hands-on stories I’ve done in my six years as a journalist. And I will put it out there right now, if there is anything else I can participate in with law enforcement for a good story, please let me know. But I’m not going to be tased or shot at. I’ll do a lot for a story, but I’m not doing that.

Article can also be found here.

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