Capt. Rich Wemmer
Capt. Rich Wemmer continually raises the standard for the rest of us. You might not have heard of him, but chances are... Capt. Rich Wemmer
Capt. Wemmer believes a common factor among really good cops is that they put a significant amount of time—not just during... Sandy Koufax
FEATURED IN TRAINING
Throughout my career, I’ve been blessed to meet some talented law enforcement trainers. Once in a while, I even get the chance to sit down with and directly learn from these knowledgeable folks. So I was glad when Capt. Rich Wemmer (ret.), Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), generously took time out of his schedule to discuss the important role that instructors play in law enforcement. We discussed a wide variety of topics over nearly two hours—more than I can cover in this column—but I will share the high points with you.
For the record, Capt. Wemmer continually raises standards for the rest of us. You may not recognize the name, especially if you’re outside California, but over the past three decades he’s made a tremendous difference in law enforcement training. In fact, I would bet my editor’s paycheck his message will reach you at some point.
With more than 34 years as a law enforcement instructor, Capt. Wemmer has a tremendous amount of experience, not only in his own department, but throughout the U.S. and in other countries.
Capt. Wemmer’s model for how we train our students comes from both his own experience and his exposure to other professionals over the years. He stressed that in law enforcement, the training we provide should be legal, ethical, proper (meaning, within policy ) and safe. Within this framework, Capt. Wemmer believes we should provide our people with relevant, accurate knowledge. This approach should be orchestrated so our folks can build their skills, developing correct responses to the challenges of the job.
He pointed out that in this imperfect world, the media and others expect police officers to always act in a perfect manner. Although we know this view is unreasonable—cops are human, too—we also know that as instructors, we must do our best to help our officers become as good as they can be.
Capt. Wemmer firmly believes that being a cop is the toughest job in America. Decisions made in a split second are often scrutinized by others who have the luxury of taking days, months and even years to render a final judgement. Further, Wemmer says police work is more dangerous today than when he first started training cops in the 1970s.
Scenario-based training proves a useful approach in preparing cops for this heightened danger. Wemmer says putting officers into training environments that replicate critical incidents reflects the Gordon Graham adage, “If it is predictable, it is preventable.”
Central to this type of training’s effectiveness is the element of surprise. During training, officers must be caught off guard by unanticipated events with unexpected and potentially dangerous outcomes. The scenarios should be tough—both physically and psychologically—but also winnable. Scenarios should proceed to the point at which the officers demonstrate how they would function throughout the entire incident—handcuffing procedures, dealing with the suspect’s gun, checking on partners, communicating with dispatch, etc.
When orchestrated properly, such controlled training can prepare officers for rapidly developing confrontations on the streets when their lives are in jeopardy. Instead of freezing or reacting in an inappropriate manner, they will recognize the progression of events, thanks to the prior training scenarios, and respond with appropriate courses of action, including lethal force, if reasonable. In real-life incidents, the negative impact of suspects’ unexpected actions against an officer can be greatly reduced through such instructional efforts.
I mentioned Wemmer’s extensive credentials. Two interesting events in his life also tie into his training philosophy. First, as a teenager, he had the great luck to work as a Los Angeles Dodgers’ bat boy from 1963–1966. It was a dream double play for him; during that time, the Angels also played at Dodger stadium, awaiting the completion of the team’s own ballpark. Therefore, he got to help out on both benches. Capt. Wemmer met many of his baseball heroes, including the legendary Sandy Koufax. I asked if there were any entries on his score card from this era that are relevant to law enforcement training. He immediately brought up Koufax, speaking the name with a discernable level of respect, honor and pride. After this Dodger ace finished pitching a game, Wemmer would see Koufax with his arm immersed in a bucket of ice to alleviate the pain and swelling. Wemmer shared how this baseball great’s total commitment to excellence in his chosen profession relates to police work.
First, there was Koufax’s ability to deal with the personal physical adversity induced by his pitching. At the time, he did not have the blessings of the medical advances that his modern day successors take for granted. Instead, Koufax worked through this challenge and succeeded quite famously despite the pain.
Second, Capt. Wemmer believes a common factor among really good cops is that they put a significant amount of time—not just during the academy but throughout their careers—into preparing for the demands of the job, just as Sandy Koufax did. These are the cops who always seem to succeed in their work. Capt. Wemmer believes success can, in part, be attributed to personal values, dedicating time—both on and off duty—to the physical and mental skills required of our profession. The time we spend off duty focused on preparing is incredibly important for developing the ability to function under crisis.
In sum, Capt. Wemmer recommends taking the time to develop your abilities—and those of your students—to their fullest potential. The goal is to be ready for that one moment in time when your skills may be put to the test by the presence of a human predator, parolee or hardcore gang member, who is determined to kill or seriously injure you and your fellow officers.
Capt. Wemmer then brought up another significant event in his training career. In the early 1990s, along with other instructors, he conducted revised use-of-force training for the LAPD on the heels of the Rodney King trial and subsequent catastrophic riot—a real challenge, because the mandated sessions often drew a fiery response from those in attendance. Some trainees were extremely argumentative, yelling and screaming about the King incident and its effects on the department.
Wemmer emphasizes an instructor’s responsibilities under difficult circumstances, such as the environment he faced after the Rodney King incident. Obviously, there’s a real need to allow officers to vent their frustrations. But instructors can’t turn away from the tough questions. If faced with similar reactions during training, instructors must create an atmosphere that promotes civil discussion, provides the correct answers and, more importantly, maintains their ethical standards in spite of the pressure. It might be easy for a less committed instructor to agree with the negative attitudes and avoid the controversy. Capt. Wemmer argues, convincingly, that that would be a mistake.
Capt. Wemmer is also known for his pioneering work in the field of videotaped officer-involved shooting reenactments. Early in his career, he taught officer survival, but originally it consisted primarily of theory rather than real-life incidents. He grew frustrated by officers’ deaths at both his department and other agencies. Capt. Wemmer started to investigate, asking those involved about the factors leading up to officers being injured and killed. Specifically, he focused on the suspects’ actions and what response techniques were successful or could have been improved upon.
With help from other professionals, Capt. Wemmer hit upon the idea of conducting on-camera interviews with cops who had been involved in highly charged incidents. Like many of us who have succeeded as trainers, he specifically mentioned several individuals who lent their support during this process: At the top of the list was Chief Daryl F. Gates, who approved Wemmer’s initial officer survival efforts and the subsequent video project. Then there was John Kolman, a mentor and now retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department captain well known and respected for his life’s work in law enforcement, including founding the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA). Next on the list is Michael Hillmann. A SWAT operator and leader who eventually retired as a widely respected LAPD deputy chief, Hillmann now serves as assistant sheriff with the Orange County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Department. He’s a true cop’s cop. All of these people positively influenced Wemmer’s professional development and training efforts.
The LAPD’s Officer Involved Shooting (OIS) video series started with a low-budget reenactment of the Officer Herb Cuadras incident. This took place while Cuadras was working at the Fountain Valley Police (Calif.) Department. An armed suspect attempted to kill Cuadras while trying to escape after committing a robbery at a local restaurant. Severely wounded during the firefight with the suspect, Cuadras eventually drove himself to the hospital, while other officers hunted down the criminal. Capt. Wemmer’s video interview with Cuadras is a valuable and effective learning tool for street cops. I had the honor of working with Cuadras (who is a true hero) for a number of years at Huntington Beach Police Department, and I can say that his story was an excellent start for the video series.
With the success of the Cuadras video, Capt. Wemmer became the Steven Spielberg of officer-involved shooting reenactments. By the time he retired, he had been involved in creating 25 such video programs, each one addressing survival stories of men and women who had been through a literal fight for their lives. These included not only on-duty incidents, but off-duty conflicts as well.
One was the incredible story of LAPD Officer Stacy Lim. An armed assailant confronted Lim one night after her patrol shift as she stepped out of her personal vehicle. She was shot in the chest but managed to return fire. Rushed to the hospital, this warrior nearly died on the table, but she fought back and lived. It is a great story of survival.
The cumulative effect of these videos: Officers who have seen them and then faced a similar split-second, life-endangering confrontation have reacted with such thoughts as, “I can handle this, because I’ve seen how someone else handled it.”
Through the responses to the officer survival videos as well as interviews with hundreds of cops from across the country, Capt. Wemmer identified two factors that often come into play when officers face a critical incident. One is the rage factor —rage directed at the suspect in the form of thoughts like, “How dare you do this to me!” or “I won’t allow you to take me away from my family!” Capt. Wemmer emphasized that developing and channeling the ability to focus and survive during a moment of extreme danger is a critical task for all law enforcement trainers.
In addition, he identified a second aspect of survival cited by those who’ve been there. Officers often relate how a field sergeant or a trainer provided them with knowledge and skills that kicked in as they dealt with life-threatening challenges. Again, Capt. Wemmer pointed to this as an example of officers being committed and prepared to take the necessary action at that one moment in time when they needed it most.
For a number of years, Capt. Wemmer has served on California POST’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Committee. Even in retirement, he remains involved with this important program, fully committed to its mission of reducing the felonious injury and murder of police officers.
In addition, he has redoubled his efforts through a partnership with two other professionals who share his passion for saving cops. Their joint effort is named the Peace Officers’ Safety Institute (www.leoka.org).
The first partner in this venture is Lt. Ed Deuel (ret.), Huntington Beach (Calif.) Police Department, who also recently retired after a long and successful career. Deuel was involved in a shooting incident that Capt. Wemmer also made into an OIS video. Wemmer related how an officer who had seen this video wrote to him after his own shooting. The suspect killed the officer’s partner, but the officer credited having viewed the Deuel tape with helping save his life. The officer shared how he was faced with circumstances similar to those depicted in the tape, recognized the signs and adapted his tactics. As a consequence he stopped the attacker and survived.
The other partner is Dr. Lawrence Blum, a police psychologist with tremendous credentials that include his having helped many officer-survivors successfully deal with the after-effects of critical incidents. From what I’ve seen, I firmly believe that there are numerous cops who are still on the streets today carrying on with their jobs thanks to Dr. Blum’s efforts.
Through the Peace Officers’ Safety Institute, they carry on their collective mission of providing realistic training geared toward ensuring that cops on the street deal effectively with that one moment in time when they have to defend their lives.
Capt. Wemmer’s decision to continue his dedication to our nation’s police officers and their future well-being speaks volumes. His commitment to law enforcement training is a constant. As our time together for the interview came to an end, he asked me to include his thanks to all the officers who’ve shared with him their incidents—what they did right and more importantly, what they did wrong—during their “one-moment” experience. He also generously said that anyone who wishes to talk can contact him at email@example.com.
One word sums this man up: Class.
I met Rich Wemmer about 20 years ago and was immediately impressed by his commitment to improving officer safety. He was traveling the country, interviewing officers who had been involved in critical
incidents, and then taking the lessons learned back to the field. Way before the age of the Internet and at a time when video was just being realized as a training tool, Wemmer tirelessly sought out cases that could provide lifesaving instruction. His efforts broke new ground and provided incredible insight as to what made the difference. His humble, soft-spoken approach helped officers open up. I specifically remember some of Wemmer’s presentations and the way they affected me and fellow officers. R.K. Miller gives us a little insight into Wemmer’s approach and style. I hope all of you will be challenged to look for an opportunity to do what Wemmer did: Find a need, and make a difference!
-Dale Stockton, Editor in chief