Friday, May 30, 1997
Collins tragedy haunts
police trainer

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Every official investigation, every news report about the Lorenzo Collins case mentions the role of police training.

One side says the cops are trained to perform under pressure. In a crisis, they go by the book. And in this case, they did.

The other side says cops need more training. They should not shoot a guy armed only with a brick, even if he's acting crazy.

Sgt. Mike Gardner, senior training coordinator at the Cincinnati Police Academy, has replayed the Feb. 23 incident over and over in his mind. Professionally and personally, it haunts him. He hasn't had a good night's sleep since Lorenzo Collins died.

Sgt. Gardner doesn't know all the facts. He wasn't there. But cops he trained were.

Questions are being asked about police training. Sgt. Gardner welcomes them. He's probably asked them all of himself late at night these past three months.

"This is no time," he says, "to circle

Gardner our wagons and defend our training."

The basic question, he says, is whether police could have handled things differently to avoid a death. Sgt. Gardner has been on the force since 1976 and has taught at the academy for nine years. When he's running a class of recruits through a simulated crime scene, he drives home the same point year after year: Everybody loses if somebody dies.

Thus, the Lorenzo Collins case, in which a man died, qualifies in Sgt. Gardner's mind as a failure of training and execution. Again, he's not criticizing anyone involved. He's not investigating the case. But he can't accept a death.

"In my gut, I know there's a better way. I don't know exactly what that is. But we can do better. We must. Someone died. People are suffering. It's not supposed to end that way."

Threatening situations

Sgt. Gardner's job is to prepare cops for the moment when things fall apart and they must hold them together.

Out of 840 hours of instruction - nearly twice what the state requires - Cincinnati's police recruits receive 169 hours of crisis training. Graduates take 40 hours of refresher courses every year. In training, Sgt. Gardner brings cops face to face with gut-level fear. He wants them to recognize it and control it so they can act in a professional manner even in the most threatening situations. Experience may be the best teacher. But young cops have only their training.

Experience sometimes leaves scars with its lessons. The Collins case reopened two old wounds for Sgt. Gardner.

In 1987, Officer Clifford George was responding to a domestic disturbance call when the man grabbed the officer's gun and shot and killed him. Sgt. Gardner was one of the first cops on the scene. That same year, he kept a woman from rushing into a burning house to save her 10-month-old son. It was too late for the child. The mother was hysterical. It took four grown men to hold her back, all four crying along with her.

Which is to say Sgt. Gardner knows firsthand about sudden violence, how hard it is to restrain someone who is out of control, how quickly things can fall apart and people can get hurt or die.

It's why, as he weaves these stories into his views on the Collins case, his voice quavers and tears come to his eyes.

He gives no excuses. Just some of the facts of being a cop.

Underlying question

Sgt. Gardner's job, coordinating Cincinnati's police training, is framed in these things: a belief that everyone - citizens and cops - should go home alive at the end of the day; and firsthand knowledge of the potential danger in any police call.

At 1 p.m. this afternoon, the Cincinnati Police Academy graduates its latest class of recruits at the convention center.

Thirty-six new cops will be sworn in after receiving some of the most advanced police instruction available.

Has it been good enough? No one knows. Should it be better? Maybe. The question is how.

Sgt. Gardner says the Collins case will be added to the training scenarios, one more situation to test the recruits.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo Collins' family still grieves. Investigations continue. Cops take to the streets each day.

And Mike Gardner still can't sleep.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax 768-8340.