Has Pa. Game Officer’s Death Reduced Job’s Risks?
GETTYSBURG, Pa. (AP) – Adams County Wildlife Conservation Officer David Grove was gunned down a year ago, after making a stop for suspected deer poaching.
The 31-year- old officer had seen spotlighting, heard gunshots in Freedom Township around 10 p.m., and then pulled two men in a pickup truck over on Schriver Road.
Within minutes the young lawman lay dead, shot multiple times during a “ferocious exchange of gunfire.” Christopher Lynn Johnson, 27, was charged with Grove's murder and could face the death penalty.
Grove has been remembered as a finely trained officer. The Pennsylvania Game Commission’s initial review did not find any major deficiencies in training, equipment, policy or actions by Grove.
Those close to the job that mixes guns, back roads, outlaws, darkness, desperation, often alcohol, and authority say it’s a miracle that for nearly 100 years, from 1915 to Nov. 11, 2010, no officer had been killed in the line of duty.
Grove’s brethren believe it will happen again.
The commission trains and employs 100 WCOs, and hundreds of others in roles charged with protecting the commonwealth's wild resources.
In the year since Grove’s death, what has the commission done to the make the job safer or more productive for its wildlife officers?
What policies have been changed? Are being implemented? Still being contemplated?
The commission’s Use of Force Incident Review Committee has put its administrative investigation on hold until the criminal work and prosecution is complete.
“No significant changes have been implemented other than focusing preplanned, in-service training on some skill areas, such as vehicle stops,” said Rich Palmer, director of the commission's Bureau of Wildlife Protection.
Since Grove's death, the commission has been training its officers in vehicle stop procedures and techniques.
“It was excellent training. I’ve got to hand it to the agency,” said WCO Frank Dooley of Wayne County, who conducted the training. “They saw the need for this in the wake of the Grove tragedy.”
For security reasons, officials are hesitant to discuss specifics of the training, other than that officers will be better at identifying higher risk suspects.
Dooley, with 34 years as a conservation officer, is also president of the Conservation Police Officers Lodge 114 of the Fraternal Order of Police. He represents fulltime officers of the state Game and Fish & Boat commissions, doing arbitrations and grievances.
In another move, since Grove’s death, officers’ vehicles are being labeled with “Law enforcement” decals to make them look more official and to change the perception that wildlife conservation officers are not law enforcement.
“ Our image needs to change and I’m not sure we’ve done enough,” Dooley said. “After the (Grove) funeral, some of the management said, ‘We’re seeing conservation officers from all over the country and their vehicles are highly marked. That’s the way it should be.’ It’s gonna take about a year to get all of them.”
There was also a need to distinguish law officers from other commission employees – all of them driving the same types of vehicles.
“The vehicle marking upgrades were not in response to the Grove incident. Rather prior planned general upgrades,” Palmer said.
Officers in the field dispute that. The union had sought the lettering for some time.
“That was a tough fight for us,” Dooley said of getting the decals. “We’re in obscurity. What we should be doing is projecting who we are and that we are the conservation police. A lot of times, people will walk up to us and say, ‘why do you guys carry a gun’?”
Dooley would like to see the job title changed to conservation police officer.
“There is an image problem there that needs to be resolved. We need to change the culture and that includes from within,” he said.
After his arrest for Grove's shooting, Johnson was asked if he knew that he'd shot a police officer. He replied, “no, I thought it was a game warden.”
“We may stop someone for hunting without fluorescent orange, which is a minor violation, most officers would give a warning for that,” Dooley explained. “But this individual is a convicted felon who cannot have guns and he still wants to go out hunting and he sees us coming and something serious may happen, like what happened in the case of Johnson. He knew that if he got caught with a gun he was probably going back to jail again. Those are the kinds of things that we run into.
“The people who are out poaching deer at night and going around shooting, are generally the same people that the state police deal with kicking doors in in hunting cabins and burglarizing places. In many cases they are under the influence of narcotics or alcohol. And we’re dealing with these people.”
The union asked for a policy change because “full-time officers are riding alone all of the time,” Dooley said. “We need more full-time conservation officers in Pennsylvania.” The well-trained Grove was alone when he stopped Johnson on that fateful night last Nov. 11.
Twenty-six districts are without officers now and more will leave due to retirement or promotion. Resupplying with one graduating class from the officers academy each year won’t keep up the with the shortage.
In early 2011, Kevin Anderson of Perry County graduated from the academy and took Grove's post in southern Adams County. Darren David patrols northern Adams.
Districts recently underwent redistricting which spread some officers out even more. Carbon County went from two full-time officers to one officer and doubled his patrol district. In Clinton County, that officer went from 400 to 800 square miles.
Communication is key in the field. Officers would like to have portable radios that allow them to maintain contact with either the commission's regional office or local county dispatch when they are out of the vehicle. Some dispatches from commission regional offices do not operate overnight.
“All depends on where you are,” Dooley said. “Upstate they still have good contact with local dispatchers.
Many parts they don't have that luxury and some counties don’t want their officers on (the radio).” Dooley said the FOP has requested the radios and they may be coming soon.
Grove was able to contact dispatch after the poaching stop. Backup arrived in two minutes. Too late.
WCOs have also found themselves outgunned. Officers have asked for tactical patrol rifles (M-16s) and were denied by regional directors.
“ Right after ( Dave Grove’s death) two of our officers were shot at by a convicted felon up in a treehouse who knew he was gonna get arrested, plus he was on medication and shooting at our officers,” Dooley said. “Two-hundred five yards. What were they going to return fire with? They were issued shotguns, virtually worthless after 50 yards. We petitioned and (the commission) said it would be too costly to do that.” The highcaliber long-range rifles can also be used to dispatch wounded animals.
Officers in Pennsylvania want to be armed similarly to their counterparts in other states.
“You are going to be hardpressed to find a conservation officer in the country who isn't issued a patrol rifle by their agency,” Dooley said.
Officers would also like secondary intermediate weapons like a baton or Taser.
The commission is said to be continuing to review the use of car cameras. Grove had a dash camera in his vehicle. Body cameras are also considered.
The commission said work on a computer aided dispatch system (enabling an officer to access vehicle information) began more than two years ago and is being implemented now.
“I’m not sure how that is going to improve officer safety,” Dooley said.
WCOs want the same “heart and lung” benefit afforded to other law enforcement. Officers shot and surviving would receive full pay while recovering, as opposed to getting workmen’s compensation. The commission is against it.
“They felt it’s an open area for abuse,” Dooley said. “But the PGC is at the top of the state in unused sick leave. It would be essential to this agency and its officers.”
The commission also opposed legislation to give its officers Vehicle Code 75 authority for summary offenses.
“ They don’t want ( a WCO) pulling a guy over and giving him a ticket. That's not what officers want to do,” Dooley said. “It would be a fantastic tool to enforce poaching in the state. If we could use that traffic violation authority as probable cause, to stop someone with a broken tail-light or burned out license, those could be our poachers. That’s a whole different story.”
The commission has some work to do on officer compensation.
“As for payscale, we are lower than most wildlife agencies in the Eastern corridor,” Dooley said, “in states like New Jersey, New York.” In Pennsylvania, cadets receive a first-year salary of $29,000 while at the academy. After graduation and during a probationary firstyear in the field, they reach $38,200.
As for retirement, Executive Director Carl Roe has submitted written support to the Senate for a package that entails 20 years' service, 50 years of age at retirement.
“As we approach the anniversary of WCO David Grove's murder, we are reminded that the wildlife protection activities of our conservation officers are not without risk and are often dangerous,” PGC boss Carl Roe said. “We continuously look for ways to reduce those risks. Some methods are to reinforce the excellent training they already receive, and others are long-term investments in systems that will enhance officer security. We will never eliminate all the risks of doing law enforcement.”
“You gotta know the feeling of stopping someone who's just committed some kind of violation at 2 a.m. in the morning and there's three guys in a pickup truck,” Dooley said. “You're alone and you know your backup is probably 30 miles away and you've got to have some tact. You've got to be able to handle these people. Not everyone can do it. Officer safety is paramount with us.”