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- Colorado Springs Police Academy recruits must navigate hundreds of cones without error to pass the test.
In mid-February, eight recruits in the Colorado Springs Police Department's 24-week training academy — nearly one in five — were canned six weeks before graduation due to failing the academy's driving course test.
Seven of the eight knocked over just one cone during the test, which involves navigating hundreds of the orange obstacles. One got his pink slip after merely nudging one. The CSPD standards are higher than in other police departments, as is its failure rate. Notably, a neighboring police department reports it's dismissed about a half-dozen recruits for failing the driving test over a 21-year period.
CSPD's high failure rate costs taxpayers. For salaries alone, the city paid the eight recruits $150,000 for 18 weeks ($4,166 a month each). If equipment (uniforms, guns, tasers and body armor) is factored in, one recruit guessed the bill at about $200,000.
Bailey Carpenter, one of the eight dismissed recruits, says, "If they expect to lose 20 percent, they need to do the driving the first week, so they don't waste taxpayer money."
The loss of the recruits comes as the CSPD is in dire need of more officers to combat rising crime rates and improve the department's slow response times to top priority calls, which are averaging up to 13 minutes.
The CSPD didn't respond to questions submitted by the Independent on March 1 and 2. Rather, on March 3, the department sent an email, saying, "Please place your last three requests as a formal CCJRA [Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act]" request."
The Independent did so but had not received responses as of press time.
Although the CSPD wouldn't disclose its number of vacancies, Mayor John Suthers told the Indy in a Feb.23 interview that adding officers is a top priority.
Last year, the CSPD reported 41 fewer officers than its authorized strength of 683. Since then, it's added 43 from an academy last summer and started another class in October, which the former recruits say had 44 officer candidates. But Lt. Howard Black said in mid-2016 the department was "still trying to get back to strength from the recession years" and that a steady stream of retirements and resignations made it difficult to make headway. Meantime, the department has filled shifts using overtime, paying $4.1 million in 2015 and $2.55 million in the first half of last year, or about $6,200 to $8,000 per officer, even as response times for top priority calls were getting longer ("Time is money," News, Aug. 10, 2016).
To fill the ranks, CSPD holds academies at a facility at 725 N. Murray Blvd.; the driving portion is held at the Pikes Peak International Raceway. The current class graduates in early April. Another academy is planned to start in March 2018, according to the CSPD website.
The academy teaches arrest control, firearms, tactical driving and other skills, and must meet Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) requirements. POST requires 14 weeks of training, which includes 44 hours of drive training. The requirement doesn't say how many cones can be tipped over, but says a score of 70 percent must be achieved. It also allows departments to "apply a higher standard" for any of the skills required. But if an academy does so, POST says, "the higher standard must be described in the respective skills lesson plan and in the Trainee Manual."
The training manual supplied by a recruit states students must score 85 percent on a written driving exam, but the practical driving test is scored on a pass/fail basis. The manual doesn't mention cones.
Five of the eight who were dismissed after the driving test agreed to be interviewed for this article. They say the CSPD drive training fails to adequately prepare candidates for the test. They also say firing a recruit for striking one cone during an elaborate course is too strict, especially on a track never before used by the academy. In the past, they say, training and testing took place on the PPIR parking lot. This year, it was staged on the PPIR track itself.
The course includes serpentine segments going forward and backward, 90-degree turns and a series of lane changes at 40 mph. To pass, recruits must complete the course two out of three times without striking a cone, while also speaking on the radio.
"You're supposed to get remedial [training] in between," reports one recruit, who declined to be named because he's applied for other city jobs. "I can't say it's fantastic remedial. Having the instructor just sit next to you in the car isn't enough."
His failure was especially hard to take after he scored in the top 10 percent of the class in academics, he says. In one case, he reports, a fellow recruit made 10 perfect runs, but when the instructor got into the vehicle for the test, the recruit hit a cone and failed.
The high failure rate, he and others say, should serve as a red flag.
"If 20 percent of the whole class fails," he says, "it should be an eye-opener. It was the course, or the instruction. It's an anomaly."
Another recruit, Sadatur Khan, agrees. After serving nearly six years in the Army, including two tours in Afghanistan, Khan was medically discharged last year. Kahn, 27, applied to the CSPD and, like other applicants, was chosen after passing a written test, a background check, a lie detector test and the Physical Abilities Test, as well as an interview.
Khan reports his scores on all other facets of the training ranged from 85 percent to 90 percent. But the driving test did him in. "I was hitting the same cone over and over and over [during practice]," he says.
When he asked instructors for help, he says, "All they would say is, 'It can be done. You have to figure it out yourself.'" During the test, Khan hit the same cone again. But the second time, he thought he made it through OK, only to be told he wobbled a cone, so he was fired. Meantime, he notes, "The instructor was busy flying a drone around."
Another recruit, who spoke to the Indy and didn't want to be named because he still wants to pursue a police career, was admitted following 11 years as a military police officer with the Army, including two tours in Iraq and one in Guantanamo Bay, and 10 years with the National Guard.
He says he thought he drove the course perfectly. "They said I passed," he says of the Feb. 17 driving test. "That was Friday. Then the following week on Tuesday, they pulled me out of class and said an instructor saw me touch a cone. I was absolutely shocked."
For some recruits, becoming a police officer was a life-long ambition.
"My dad was a cop," says Tyler Kelley. "Every male in my family was a cop. I just grew up seeing them come home and tell their stories, and that's what I wanted to do."
After four years as an Army medic, with one tour in Afghanistan, Kelley was discharged in September 2016 and applied for the academy. Scoring high in academic training, Kelley enjoyed success in the driving portion, too — at first.
"One of the instructors told me, 'You're one of the best drivers out here. We're not worried about you at all,'" he says. "I did three practice runs with the head instructor in my car. They were all perfect. When it came time for the test, you hit one cone and that's it." He hit two cones on his first pass and one cone on the next pass.
"Eight people who are doing great in the academy get fired for hitting one cone," he says. "I don't think it's fair to ask anybody for perfection."
Kelley's father, W.P. Kelley, a deputy police chief in Summit, New Jersey, for 28 years, tells the Indy via email, "I know what the POST standards are, and what happened to these young people is unconscionable. To be failed for hitting one cone in pursuit driving is just over the top."
Carpenter, 26, says she wanted to be like many in her family who work in law enforcement. "I wanted to find a way to serve the community without being behind a desk," says the former El Paso County sheriff's dispatcher.
Until she failed the driving course by striking one cone, she stood at the top of her class academically, she says. "If you talk to any other police person, driving is supposed to be no big deal," she says. "For the actual driving portion, I feel we didn't get enough individual instruction, especially when we came forward and said we were having problems in certain areas."
The instructors, she says, "seemed more interested in flying their drone around" during class.
"I really don't feel they give us enough time to be prepared for the test," she says. "They would say, 'Just keep doing what you're doing.' If you asked for any specific feedback, they would say, 'Keep trying.'"
Carpenter says she thinks losing 20 percent of a class due to flunking the driving test is unheard of.
Pueblo Police Capt. Joe Garcia has overseen Pueblo's police academy driving test for more than 20 years. "Probably in the past 20 years, six or seven recruits altogether" have flunked, he says.
But Pueblo uses a different approach, which also is accredited by POST. The night driving test, he says, requires three passes through the course — using headlights, parking lights and emergency lights. Those tests allow recruits to pass if they hit two cones in each of the first two tests and one in the last test, he says. (CSPD recruits say they were trained but not tested on night driving.)
In the daytime test, Pueblo recruits must make two out of three runs without hitting a cone, the same as the CSPD. But Garcia notes each recruit gets three chances at the three runs, for a total of nine — while the CSPD gives recruits a single shot at the three runs. He also notes recruits do nothing but drive for five days before the test, adding, "They get plenty of practice on the course."
Recruits are given remedial training between each set of three passes, Garcia says. "We'll have an entire class pass on their first run," he says. "We've never had eight [fail] in an academy. Usually, it's one."
While the El Paso County Sheriff's Office also follows POST guidelines, spokeswoman Natalie Sosa says recruits are allowed to hit three cones and pass. None flunked the last academy, she says.
The Denver Police Department academy, also accredited by POST, allows recruits to hit up to five cones in each phase of driving training, with time penalties assessed for each cone hit, department spokesman Doug Schepman says via email. "There is a different course and different time standards for each phase of driving," he says. "No recruits were dismissed from our most recent recruit class for failing driving tests."
After being cut from the CSPD academy, two recruits have applied for other jobs. Another will apply to another academy in Colorado. Carpenter says she'll apply at the Sheriff's Office, and Kelley says he'll either try for another department or seek a job overseas as a military contractor. Several have applied for unemployment.
"I had offers from other departments before I chose the CSPD," Kelley says. "So now I have to start the whole process over again.
"I think it's crazy how the city talks about how bad they need cops, and they fire eight people for hitting one cone."