St. Louis Police Officers Train at Raceway in Effort to Curb Crashes

June 6, 2024
As St. Louis police officers have been crashing vehicles at an alarming rate, department officials freed up some Chevrolet Tahoes to allow recruits and officers needing a refresher to train on the SUVs.

MADISON, Ill. — On a recent morning at World Wide Technology Raceway, St. Louis police recruits were gathering for a day of driving training.

Then the tires started squealing.

A police-issue Chevrolet Tahoe was swerving, drifting, spinning across asphalt already covered with skid marks. The body of the vehicle jerked left, right, up and down like a bull in a ring.

Police Officer Kenneth Allen looked across the lot at the Tahoe, and smiled. "He's warming his wheels up," he said.

St. Louis police officers have been crashing their vehicles on city streets at alarming rates over the past four years, notching 151 collisions in 2023, the highest total in at least eight years.

At least one of the collisions became a bonafide scandal when officers followed a run-in with the window at a Carondelet gay bar by arresting one of the bar's owners, sparking outrage in the LGBTQ community and, eventually, an apology from Police Chief Robert Tracy.

Another police-Tahoe crash destroyed the historic welcome sign outside a DeBaliviere Place church and prompted allegations of a cover-up, which Tracy denied.

City and police officials attributed the problem to the loss of experience on a changing force, general mayhem on the streets, and to the Tahoes themselves, bigger vehicles than the sedans of times past.

But, officials say, they're also working to fix the problem: They're training.

Tracy told aldermen at a recent hearing that he's been reviewing training courses to ensure they're up to snuff. The department freed up some Chevrolet Tahoes from patrol, so trainees could practice on the SUVs they drive on duty rather than the old sedans. And officers who make mistakes are required to take refresher courses.

To prove the point, they invited the Post-Dispatch to World Wide Technology Raceway one day this spring to see the work firsthand.

Officer Kenneth Allen, a 20-year department veteran who's been teaching at the city's police academy for 10 years, arrived on a sunny day in late April as others were setting up cones for a driving course on the vast stretch of asphalt south of the racing oval. He wasn't sure why crashes have been rising. He said it might have to do with the general rise in unsafe driving in recent years.

Most collisions happen in non-emergency situations, Allen said: A distracted driver will, for instance, forget to check their mirrors and back into a telephone pole. Young officers who rely too much on rear-view cameras are especially susceptible to obstacles in blind spots. "We turn that off," he said.

But the stakes rise at higher speeds.

"It's rare to get something high-speed," Allen said, "but when they do happen, they tend to get a lot of attention."

As he drove through the obstacle course outside the racetrack, he said he teaches officers to avoid those wrecks with fundamentals — focus, eyes on the road, two hands on the wheel — and the concept of "driving your 80%," or never letting your nerves max out.

There's a lot going on during patrol shifts, he said: The radio is chattering. The passenger seat computer might be receiving information. Other drivers are speeding up, slowing down, turning, stopping.

Officers need to remember to breathe, Allen said, as he demonstrated a 90-degree turn. They have to have faith in the vehicle and themselves and not lock up in stressful situations.

They also have to remember to stop at intersections, he said, "because we know people in St. Louis don't stop at red lights."

It takes time for the trainees to get it. After Allen's demonstration, they begin navigating through the driving course: They take a 90-degree left turn, then a 90-degree right turn, then an emergency U-turn. They simulate dodging an obstacle without stopping. They zig-zag through a line of cones. They shoot through one of three "lanes" an instructor chooses on the spot, and then come to a sudden stop like they would at an intersection.

Many of them knock over the cones and have to get out and pick them up. They also go slow when they're supposed to go fast, and tap the brakes when they need to maintain speed. But over time, Allen said, they break down the bad habits and pass the exit exam.

Three freshly minted graduates of the program said recently that they were confident they'd be able to handle St. Louis streets.

No, they said, they're not nervous.

"I've always been cautious," said Joseph Pliler, of Montana. "I grew up driving on ice and snow."

"I've always been pretty observant," said Jimmy Bucio.

And Conner Popham said Allen's 80% philosophy really does help.

"It allows us to not be as stressed," he said.


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