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Hot pursuit

After chasing a suspect blasting through residential Manchester at speeds of more than 100 mph for 10 miles recently, Kitsap County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Rice not only got his man, he got a compliment.

According to Rice, when he cornered John C. Ridgeway at a dead-end street and arrested him for allegedly driving a stolen car and trying to elude police, the suspect said he was impressed with the deputy’s driving.

As odd that exchange seems now, it was probably even less likely a few years ago, according to some at the Sheriff’s Department.

“When it came to training our officers at driving, we realized, ‘We’re doing it all wrong,’ ” said Russ Clithero, one of the department’s Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) instructors.

At that time, Clithero said, county officers tested and updated their driving skills, at the most, for an hour once a year, often only once every two years. And it showed, he said.

“Our performance was way down,” he said.

So about five years ago, the agency beefed up its training requirements. In addition to EVOC training — skid avoidance, high-speed turns, quick stops and other basic skills — at the academy, each officer was now required to undergo refresher courses twice a year, for three hours at a time.

To hold the training, the Sheriff’s Department rents out the Bremerton Raceway and sets up an obstacle course that tests each officer’s ability to maneuver at high and low speeds, stop on a dime and pursue another car, all while still paying attention to things that pop up in real pursuits like stop signs, pedestrians and other cars.

To get the most out of the training, officers run through the course in their own patrol cars, during the hours they usually work. If an officer usually works the night shift, he drives the course at night, Clithero said.

And though it may look like every teenage boy’s dream as officers scream around corners and bump into each other’s vehicles, the instructors said what they are doing could not only catch a criminal, but save the officers’ lives.

“Everything we’re doing out here are skills they need in everyday driving,” Clithero said. “They are motor skills, and they need to be practiced, like every other motor skill.”

Those skills are crucial for law enforcement officers in general, but especially local sheriff’s deputies, Clithero said, because driving is their job.

“It’s all part of our continuous driving safety emphasis because we spend so much time on the road,” said Deputy Scott Wilson. “EVOC instruction has kept me out of trouble on numerous occasions, where I’ve been able to maneuver my patrol car to avoid hitting someone or being hit.”

As important as learning and practicing the skills, however, is learning your limitations, the instructors said. Every officer needs to know what his or her ability is before they get into a chase — not during.

“This is the place to test it,” Instructor Dave Green said. “You don’t want to learn you couldn’t make that turn at that speed while you’re hitting the telephone pole.”

Officers also need to learn when to hold chase — and when to hold back.

“Pursuits are volatile, dangerous beasts,” Green said. “We want officers to make good, sound decisions while on the road.”

Luckily, the odds are on their side, the instructors said.

“Most pursuits end in a crash — of the guy being chased,” Clithero said.

Last week, Clithero and Green joined 18 other instructors to train more than 300 other officers across the region in a joint effort called West Sound Regional EVOC, including nine other agencies such the Bremerton, Bainbridge Island, Port Townsend and Port Angeles police departments.

While testing their own skills, the instructors said officers learn each other’s skills and how they can work together to more effectively begin and end pursuits.

“One of the main reasons to combine training is to get on the same page,” Clithero said. “From as basic as who’s going to communicate on the radio, to how to handle cross-jurisdiction pursuits. Just about everything that starts in the smaller agencies like Port Orchard or Bainbridge, ends up going into county (jurisdiction).”

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