PACIFIC COUNTY - Layered from head to toe with various camouflage-printed clothing, snugly cinched muddy boots, and their faces disguised with smudges of green, brown and black face paint, a few local law enforcement officers were nearly unrecognizable two weeks ago as they participated in "man tracker" training to expand their skill set.
The six officers - Long Beach Police Sgt. Kevin Martin, Raymond Police Officer Arlie Boggs, Mike Ray of PACNET, and Pacific County deputy sheriffs Scott Ferguson, Robin Souvenir and Rick Goodwin - would normally have to travel out of county for this type of training. But instead, the instructor was brought to them, giving them the advantage of studying and practicing on their own turf.
A 40-hour class spread over five days at the county building, the course was taught by Grant Lightfoot, a Clallam County Sheriff's Office staff sergeant contracted by Tactical Tracking Operations School, which provides training for the military and law enforcement. Part in-class lecture and part hands-on demonstration, the training opportunity was made possible through the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.
Throughout the week, the men learned the dynamics of a footprint and tire print, whether found in mud, sand, grass or a puddle. By taking the footprint's angle and depth, trackers can determine how many people were involved in the crime, the direction a suspect fled, how fast the person was traveling, and even if they were carrying something with them as they fled. They also learned how to photograph and document the tracks, the rules of tracking and officer safety, how a tracking team functions and the proper formation to use, because as Lightfoot says, "a police officer is only as effective as the information they can use."
According to the instructor, the training will provide the officers with tracking expertise in the event of a burglary or homicide, where they would need to be able to sort out any signs left behind from witnesses or Medix crews, and be able to hone in on the evidence left behind from the suspect.
Lightfoot says a typical class scenario consists of a homicide suspect who has stolen a car and is on the run when the vehicle runs out of gas on a gravel road. The suspect flees, but in which direction?
Then Lightfoot takes the team of six out into the woods and plays the role of the suspect, hiding far - really, really far - off the beaten path.
In that situation, and many others like it, Lightfoot says the officers use the skills they've learned to document the signs the suspect unknowingly left behind. Scanning along the edges of the road, they look for changes in how the grass lays and if the suspect tried to hide in the ditch. On an incline or decline, they look for a skid in the soil. Moving slowly, they closely observe the condition of surrounding vegetation, looking for broken limbs or anything else out of place.
Sometimes the search is so vast that Lightfoot's on his own - aside from the mosquitoes - for a couple hours. But he says there's never been an instance where he hasn't been found. The group tracked Lightfoot for about three or four hours - but as anticipated, they caught him.
Founded in 1994, the Tactical Tracking Operations School holds daylight and nighttime visual tracking classes for law enforcement and military personnel around the globe in all types of terrain. According to the company's website (www.ttos.us), trackers trained by TTOS have pursued and captured "dangerous criminals, smugglers, narcotics traffickers, fugitives and illegal border crossers in addition to collecting evidence crucial to the prosecution of numerous dangerous felons - including cop-killers. Soldiers taught by this cadre have hunted down and destroyed insurgents, located IED-making materials, successfully countered ambushes, located arms caches, closed down routes of infiltration and gathered timely, tactical intelligence vital to the local ground situation in several operational areas. Law enforcement and military trackers have also been instrumental in the recovery of a growing number of lost children, tourists and hikers."
Pacific County Sheriff's Office Lieutenant Rich Byrd, who is in charge of the department's training, says the course is a great opportunity because it allowed officers to keep up on their training without having to leave the area, which makes the whole experience more affordable. And with the class being composed of officers from a couple different agencies, local law enforcement will have the same education and be on the same page when they work together on a search and rescue case, burglary, homicide or officer-related shooting. The education will also be useful for PACNET and the formation of a major crimes team.
"It's a resource we've never had available to us," Byrd explains. "We now have a multi-agency team that can be deployed to determine where a suspect went, what their actions were, and, the ultimate goal, apprehension. Our goal is to continue this education as much as we can locally. The guys are enjoying it - they're definitely drawing in the information ... It's necessary to keep their training up - to keep them trained, to be the most proficient at their job."
"It's the best class I've ever taken - and I've been doing this 15 years," Martin said last week.
Firearm, taser, emergency vehicle and BAC classes are just some of the training that law enforcement is required to complete on a regular basis.
"We try to get the most appropriate training in-county to not only save money, but to make it available to surrounding communities," says Sheriff John Didion. "And this training will give them an advantage because they've already worked together ... Our goal is to create a self-sufficient unit for responding to bank robberies and homicides. Then PACNET can send trained officers to secure and process the scene. ... Rich has done an outstanding job in coordinating this. We're pleased with what he's done, and the result."