Eye protection absent during police recruit training

  • Granby Police Officer Shawn Rooney, shown here being sworn into the force in 2015, lost an eye to a baton at a state-run police academy in Springfield last year.

Staff Writer
Published: 5/21/2016 12:50:17 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Despite numerous product warnings about wearing protective eye gear with a helmet used to train police recruits, Granby Officer Shawn Rooney was provided with none when he lost his left eye to a baton at a state-run police academy in Springfield last year, according to a State Police investigative report on the incident.

In addition, Joseph Witkowski, director of the Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy told investigators that while there is a lesson plan for “pretty much everything” at the state-run academies, there is none for the “Redman” defensive tactic drill during which Rooney was injured on Nov. 30, 2015, according to the report.

Instead, investigators learned from Witkowski that instructors rely on “institutional knowledge” when training recruit officers in the scenario-based drills. The word “Redman” refers to a padded suit and takes its name from a specific training gear product used at the academies. The academies also use similar padded gear from other manufacturers under other product names.

Rooney, 41, was injured during a Redman drill, during which he had to react to an unruly patron in a bar, according to a heavily redacted, 200-plus page State Police investigative report released by the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security on Thursday.

During the exercise, Rooney was injured by his own baton after training instructor Robert Wise, of the West Springfield Police Department, took possession of it while Rooney was straddled over Wise and tried to subdue him, according to the report. The report relies on written statements and interviews with more than two dozen instructors and instructors in training from various police departments who witnessed the incident.

Rooney was wearing a Redman-brand padded helmet with a face cage, but no eye protection. Wise also had protective gear on. In the wake of the injury, the Municipal Police Training Committee suspended all defense tactics training exercises involving padded suits at academies across the commonwealth. The state agency manages police academies in Springfield, Boylston, Plymouth, Randolph and Reading.

The agency issued a statement Friday in response to questions by the Gazette, stating the type of scenario-based drill that Rooney was participating in when he was injured had been used at some recruit training academies, though not all.

“The exercises were not required as a mandatory component of the recruit curriculum,” the statement read.

The MPTC said it takes recruit safety “very seriously,” including the use of safety equipment.

“The MPTC is actively reviewing recruit training drills to ensure appropriate safety equipment is being employed and best practices are followed,” the agency stated.

The state agency also suspended four police academy instructors until they have completed updated safety training, according to the agency – and revoked another’s training credentials and terminated his contract.

The State Police report states that witnesses gave “numerous statements” indicating that Rooney’s “downward movement coincided with Officer Wise bringing the baton up causing the baton to meet and enter Rooney’s cage causing the injury.” The report continues that, “… there are more statements … that coincide with Officer Wise thrusting or striking the baton at the head/cage area of Rooney causing injury.”

Wise was off duty at the West Springfield Police Department late this week and could not be reached for comment. Other instructors and police officers on hand when Rooney was injured included Sgt. Brian A. Pomeroy and Officer Joseph Reed of the West Springfield Police Department, Nicole Gaynor of the Pittsfield Police Department, and Pelham Police Chief Gary Thomann, according to injury report filed by Pomeroy.

Other witnesses said they did not see the injury occur, according to the report, which also provides an account by Rooney in which he alleges Wise “took the baton back and in a stabbing motion made one strong strike” to his face, according to the report.

The report states that all parties interviewed, including Rooney and Wise, reported no ill will between the two and that during the training excercise in which Rooney wrestled down to the floor with Wise, “it did not appear to become an angry fight between two adversaries,” according to the report filed by State Police Capt. Rober M. Irwin, who investigated.

Granby Police Chief Alan Wishart said Friday that he’s reviewed the investigative report, but its heavy redactions made it hard for him to decipher exactly what happened in the moments leading up to Rooney’s injury as well as the role protective eyewear could have played in preventing it.

“I had hoped for more as to the specifics of what happened,” Wishart said. “Not much has changed.”

Warning label

The Redman brand’s product literature states that “when wearing all Redman Head gear we strongly recommend the user wear safety goggles to protect their eyes, and a mouthpiece to protect their teeth in the in the event of injuries that may be sustained from head trauma contact.”

A warning label on the helmet cautions users that the helmet provides “only limited protection to the eyes and face” and to “wear impact resistant eye protection to reduce risks of accidental penetration.”

Under a section titled “Misuse” in the Redman product guide, the company states that “impact resistant eye protection must always be worn if there is any risk of contact to the eyes. The open construction of the Face Cage will not prevent penetration by fingers or other objects. The Face Cage is not intended to provide protection against weapons of any type,” including batons.

Rooney’s lawyer, Judd L. Peskin of Springfield, said that in his view, the head is a “red zone” that should not be touched by instructors during the kind of defensive tactics training exercise Rooney and Wise were engaged in. According to the State Police report, some witnesses interviewed stated that some instructors in the past would “tap” a recruit on the head with objects to alert them they’ve taken their gun or baton during a Redman drill.

Although recruits are wearing a padded helmet, “I don’t think a single one of them consents to being touched in the head, ever,” Peskin said. “Wouldn’t you hit them in the arm with the baton?”

According to the MPTC, the scenario-based, or Redman drill, has been used in the western Massachusetts training program for many years and was considered “an important element of defensive tactics training.”

“Physical role-playing exercises of this nature offer valuable learning and skill-building opportunities for recruits,” the agency stated. “The MPTC is currently reviewing how such exercises can be formally incorporated into the curriculum in a manner offering additional structure and appropriate safety precautions.”

Staff Writer Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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