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Though snow covered the grass and the high barely rose above 20 degrees, a group of Hardin County Detention Center deputies stood at the bottom of a slope for a pepper spray training exercise.
Two of the jail’s new hires, Rhonda Rentas and Charles Templeman, were prepared to be contaminated with oleoresin capsicum, also known as pepper spray.
Deputy Jeff Grigsby, training director at the detention center, said law enforcement officers are required to be contaminated with OC to obtain certification to carry pepper spray.
After dipping a brush into a clear jar containing a muddy red liquid, Grigsby brushed Rentas’ left eye with the fluid.
“How many fingers?” Grigsby asked before sending Rentas through a short obstacle course, a confidence-building exercise to show officers they still can function if they catch an eyeful of pepper spray.
With pepper spray in her eye, Rentas threw knee and elbow strikes at two deputies carrying blue pads before she detained a sergeant pretending to be an armed inmate.
“Weapon!” she shouted, tossing the object aside and trotting to a nearby truck to clean her eye.
“It’s like you have your face laying in a bed of hot coals,” Rentas said, dabbing her eye with a handful of snow.
The Feb. 1 pepper spray exercise is an example of “fight as you train; train as you fight,” said Grigsby, who has 26 years of experience at the Department of Corrections.
“It’s better for a law enforcement officer to make a mistake in training than it is to make a mistake in the field,” he said. “Mistakes in the field can cost lives. A mistake in training, we laugh at you.”
It’s a philosophy also brought up by Elizabethtown Police Detective Sgt. Brian Graham.
“When the encounter occurs, you’re not going to be able to think about it,” Graham said. “It’s kind of how the Army puts it: You train as you fight.”
State law lays out numerous hoops for those becoming law enforcement officers in Kentucky.
Applicants to law enforcement agencies must meet 16 pre-employment standards, known as Peace Officer Professional Standards, which include physical fitness and written suitability tests.
Once hired, recruits must complete 640 hours of basic training through the Department of Criminal Justice Training in Richmond to reach certification. It’s not until after he or she has spent several weeks with an assigned field training officer that a new officer can patrol roadways alone.
Kentucky State Police holds its own 23-week academy for its cadets. Post 4 spokesman Norman Chaffins described it as “paramilitary.”
In January, the Hardin County Sheriff’s Office received about 65 applications for potential patrol and court security officers, said Greg Lowe, former spokesman who since has retired. No positions were guaranteed.
About 60 of those applicants attended a physical fitness test Jan. 19 at Central Hardin High School. The POPS fitness test includes five events — bench press, sit-ups, push-ups, 300-meter run and 1.5-mile run. Failing one event means failing the test.
When Sheriff Charlie Williams started his career at the sheriff’s office 28 years ago, he recalled there were no professional standards for sheriff’s deputies in Kentucky.
“One day you were John Q. Citizen,” Williams said. “The next day, they handed you a gun and you were a deputy.”
According to Williams, that changed in the late 1980s after several Kentucky sheriff’s deputies were killed doing police work.
“Now, to be a full-time law enforcement officer in the state of Kentucky, you have to meet a set of standards from the hiring process onto the training process, which means everybody is on an even playing field,” he said. “There’s not any looking at the sheriff’s deputy and saying, ‘We’re better trained than they are.’ The training is the same.”
To maintain certification, officers must complete 40 hours of in-service training per year through the Department of Criminal Justice Training.
Though KSP requires troopers to complete a fitness test each year, state law does not stipulate city or county agencies do so.
Chaffins said additional training is done to maintain weapon qualification or certification as a reconstructionist or special response team member.
Elizabethtown Police Department requires officers to train with their weapons a minimum of three times a year, said Graham, a 21-year veteran of the department. Many officers do more than what’s required, he said.
Officers not only are encouraged to practice shooting, he said, but to recreate scenarios they may encounter in the field, such as low-lighting or running into a residence.
Anything can happen, Graham said, and police-involved shootings unfold within seconds and leave the officer 1.5 to 2 seconds behind the assailant.
Referring to a Jan. 30 stand-off between a burglary suspect and three Radcliff police officers, he said, “(The suspect) knew what he was going to do and the officers were already behind the curve. They were trying to play catch up and move themselves from harm’s way.”
Days before EPD sent three new recruits in January to the academy, they met with officers at the gun range near Pearl Hollow Landfill to practice with their patrol weapons.
Officer Terry Cox led the recruits through several shooting and drawing/holstering exercises to familiarize the new officers with their handguns.
Watching as the recruits repeatedly drew and holstered their weapons, Cox explained the exercises are an effort to trigger muscle memory.
“There are three things police survive on — shooting, driving and fighting,” Cox said. “If you want to drive home, you need to be proficient in those three things.”
Chaffins said training not only is about what officers are physically able to do. He recalled an incident in 1999 when he was stationed in Grayson County.
Two men called 911 to report a shooting at the end of a roadway and requested Chaffins respond, he said. Chaffins said he and the dispatcher found the call unusual.
The men requested a specific trooper and did not request an ambulance, Chaffins said. When several minutes passed and Chaffins had not responded, the men called 911 again, he recalled.
“Based on training, we had a sense something was wrong,” Chaffins said.
He responded with back up and stopped midway down the road, he said. The men were found at the end of the street with a loaded shotgun.
Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or firstname.lastname@example.org.