Most of us have taken a drivers education course at one time or another and have had to pass driving tests, basic things like making turns, stopping at stop signs and parking. But as Houston Public Radio’s Jack Williams reports, if you want to be a Houston police officer, it will take a little more than knowing how to put your vehicle in drive.
He isn’t a Hollywood stunt driver, but he probably could be. Instead, Kenneth Smith is one of a handful of Houston Police Department Driving Instructors who put new cadets through at a grueling training academy near Bush Airport.
“Hey Chuck, the first time I’m going to go around here I’m going to do it bad guy style, over-steering, letting the tail-end hang out and stuff like that, then I’m going to come back and do it the proper way. Okay. All right, you guys buckled up? This is the bad guy version right here.”
Smith handles a standard police cruiser like a toy, talking to his passengers and on the radio while skidding around the corners of a track set-up for chase scenarios.
“This is the proper way. That was a real good over-steer, off the track.”
It’s no surprise that this is one of the most stressful parts of becoming a police officer. Cadets have to pass challenging driving tests on two tracks, including an obstacle course that forces recruits to dodge orange cones at breakneck speeds.
“A family sedan is what we’re in right now. An old family sedan at that. Nothing special about it. Want me to turn the siren on? In the event that you have to operate the vehicle in an emergency situation, there are so many variables, so many other things that you have to take into consideration. Say for example, pedestrians, traffic, traffic density, lights, there’s just a lot of variables and you have to be able to know how to drive instinctively and look out for particular obstacles and how to totally control the vehicle in the event something does arise.”
In a building not far from the test tracks, a half dozen driving simulators sit inside what looks like a high-tech video arcade. Houston Police Sgt. Dennis Garrett is in charge of HPD’s driver training unit and has himself been involved in more than 100 real chases. He says the simulators are valuable tools.
“This driving simulator equipment was $625,000. It’s an important addition to the actual in-the-car training that our police recruits get, but certainly we would never have this be the bulk of our driver training in its entirety. That’s the most important thing.”
Every police cadet goes through this program and most pass the driving courses, some after a few tries.
“We see a lot of them become emotionally devastated when they can’t pass. It’s physically and mentally taxing to do that all day long everyday for five days. The guys that work on my staff do it year round on the hottest days of summer. It’s quite grueling.”
On average, there are about 700 police chases every year in Houston.