Cutting Edge Training

America’s Combatives and Liability Trainer Training With Real-World Impact

A Police Funeral and Reflections About Training

by George on November 7, 2009 12:15


There are three rules of police work:

1.  Officers are shot at, beaten, stabbed, and sometimes murdered while doing their duty.
2.  Officers respond to a call for service when dispatched, having little idea of who or what is involved.
3.  Nobody can change Rule Number One.

Another hero was shot down on Halloween, 2009.  This time a complete ambush.  Timothy Brenton, Seattle PD Officer, husband, father of two youngsters, son, and friend.  Field Training Officer.  Great cop.  I never met him, but I’ve met thousands like him.  Honest, hard-working, courageous, concerned, and funny, of course.  Three dimensional living, breathing people who put on the uniform and walk into the unknown every shift, risking their lives to protect people they don’t know.  I was at his memorial yesterday, among several thousand cops from all over the country, including a large contingent of red-coated Mounties, and another thousand concerned citizens who wanted to share their outrage and grief with the family and to share their support of law enforcement.

This, I believe, is my 38th police funeral.  Sitting there, we all were waiting for the service to begin, waiting for the family that was in so much pain and shock, waiting for the ancient ceremonies and rituals for this last farewell to a fallen warrior, the forced stoicism, and the inevitable choking back of tears.  I reflected back to the five officers who I know attended my classes and who have been murdered in the line of duty. 

As a trainer of police for the last 28 years, I have been honored to have trained over 24,000 officers from all 50 states, several US territories, and 14 foreign countries.  Like most trainers who have done this job for any period of time, more officers than I can remember have called to thank me for the training I shared with them, saying that I “saved” their life.  These calls are always humbling, but the reality is that these officers saved their own lives by making good decisions early enough to make a difference.  The other side of that is the quality of the training each officer receives is a real factor in their survival. 

Being a police and military trainer has always been a sacred responsibility.  Even before my first police funeral, I knew that being a Trainer of warriors carried with it the weight of each student’s life.  Teaching officers defensive tactics, firearms, building entry and search, officer safety tactics and field response, any of the myriad courses I’ve taught carried with it the realization that what I taught matters to people’s lives.  I believe that, as a trainer, I am called upon to provide the best training that I can devise, find, or borrow in pursuit of keeping these men and women, heroes all, alive on the street.

Hero.  That word was used a lot yesterday.  Rightly so.  “A person who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul, in any course of action;  a person admired and venerated for his or her achievements and noble qualities.”  While uncomfortable with being described so, officers who act with integrity, with honor, and understand their role as warriors and servants are heroes.  How can I, or any of us who are the trainers of warrior-servants, give anything less than these heroes are called to do?  

The first time an officer I had taught was murdered, I almost quit the profession of training.  I foolishly believed that training could solve every problem, and if the training I presented was of high enough quality, then no one would ever be hurt.  Officer James O’Brien.  He was pursuing an active shooter (well before Sgt. Jeff Martin, San Jose, CA, PD, and I coined that phrase over a decade ago) who had just murdered several people in a government office.  Jim parked his police car a couple of blocks away from the suspect’s location, got low, and peeked between the driver’s A-post and side spotlight.  He took a .300 Winchester Magnum round in the face, having penetrated the spotlight, killing him instantly.  He did everything right:  given the suspect’s known weaponry, he maintained extreme distance, he got small, used his vehicle properly as cover, and attempted to maintain observation of the suspect while directing backup officers to a safe approach.

When I heard that he had been murdered, I remembered Jim—out of the officers in a class long before, I remembered his face,  I had had lunch with him during the week of training.  For the two years following his murder, I searched my soul for something I had missed, feeling I had somehow let him down in the training.  Even though I only trained those methods and concepts that I believed in, I scoured my training doctrines and lesson plans for any garbage that wasn’t practical or effective.  I examined everything for anything that was based on my “being special” as an instructor and didn't serve the officers I was training.  I laid awake at night, going over and over what I taught compared to Jim’s response in this call.  A close friend of mine, a retired sergeant from Los Angeles County SO, Randy Johnson, said something that should have been obvious, but evidently wasn't to me for so long.  “Sometimes we do everything right and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Sometimes it’s just up to God.”  It was then that I realized that training couldn’t solve every problem, and that if I did my job perfectly, cops are still going to die.  That’s the nature of the job.  All that I can do is provide the best training I know how to help them minimize the chance of that happening.

Let no officer's ghost ever say my training failed him or her.

So I continue to scour the classes we teach, revising every class each time we teach it as we learn more, discover different ways to problem-solve, and figure out how to better present it so that it is easier for them to learn and, most importantly, remember when our cops are hurt, tired, and scared.  We teach them to be warrior-servants:  uphold the Constitution, follow the laws and their policies, and to help those who need them.  And we teach them to be warriors within the law:  fierce, dominating, and ultimately effective.  If we teach them to do the best job possible, then it is up to that officer and his or her decisions in the field to stay safe.  And sometimes no matter what they do or don't do, it is up to God.

I have known several officers personally who have been murdered.  I've trained five.  Of the five officers I have taught who have been murdered, only one of them made a series of terrible mistakes and seemed to be unaware of the dangers he might have been able to see.  Sadly, he and his family paid a terrible price.  Another murdered officer was intentionally T-boned by a fleeing suspect, having no chance to change an unforeseeable outcome—I remember him like it was yesterday.  The two remaining officers fought like lions after being wounded, but succumbed to their wounds.  Anne Jackson was one of these two officers--she was constantly smiling and laughed a lot--a nice woman who worked hard during training.  She was the last of the officers attending my classes to be murdered…so far.

So far.  There is nothing I can do in training that will change Rule Number One.  But I will continue to provide the best training I know how, searching and revising and changing the curriculum so that it gives the officers I serve, we serve, the best information possible to do this job safely and to increase their chances of coming home.

The very first funeral I attended for a fallen warrior had the following poem read aloud in his honor.  It was written by George Hahn, a retired LAPD Officer.  It is entitled, “The Monument.”

I never dreamed it would be me,
My name for all eternity,
Recorded here at this hallowed place,
Alas, my name, no more my face.

“In the line of duty,” I hear them say;
My family now the price will pay;
My folded flag stained with their tears;
We only had those few short years. 

The badge no longer on my chest, 
I sleep now in eternal rest. 
My sword I pass to those behind, 
And pray they keep this thought in mind. 

I never dreamed it would be me,
And with heavy heart and bended knee; 
I ask for all here from the past, 
Dear God, let my name be last.

So at Officer Brenton’s memorial, the Ceremonial Commander, the honor guard, the color guard, and the flag-bearers all did their job with scrupulous dignity and attention to detail befitting the honor this hero and his family deserved.  The politicians gave their self-serving speeches.  The eulogies were given by his friends and family, their pain apparent to all.  Two buglers played "Taps," the mournful notes lingering in the echoes.  The pipers played “Amazing Grace,” forcing us all to catch our breath against the sobs, with the last piper walking off into the distance, and breaking all of our hearts all over again.  The last radio call was played, and Officer Brenton’s call sign and badge was retired, the silence between the dispatcher’s calling him over and over ripping through us all.  Tough men and women failed to hold back their tears.

Rest in peace, Officer Tim Brenton.  God bless your family.  I promise you, sir, that we will not bury a cop attending our training because the training is substandard or presented for anyone’s benefit other than our students.  We will continue to ruthlessly critique our training material to ensure that we give the best chance to every officer who honors us by permitting us to share our knowledge and skills.

And we know that you will not be the last hero we bury, because we know nobody can change Rule Number One.