Last month, with the high-profile coverage of the fugitive ex-police officer in California, we were reminded how law enforcement officers risk their lives daily to stop dangerous criminals like the man who had gone on a killing spree.
The ongoing hunt for Christopher Dorner, the fugitive in California, was a leading national news story. After killing four people, wounding several others and evading law enforcement for days, he was ultimately located by California conservation officers. Dorner drove past two conservation officers who recognized him, prompting a pursuit by six of the conservation officers. He opened fire, shooting five times into a fish and wildlife truck. Fortunately, he missed the officers. One officer was able to fire back with his rifle and hit Dorner’s truck several times.
In the end, Dorner holed up in a mountain cabin, where local law enforcement was able to approach in an armored vehicle. He was eventually found dead, presumably at his own hands.
This tragic case offers examples of the brave decisions and, unfortunately, the sacrifices officers make. But what you may not be aware of is the role conservation officers, including those who work for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), often play in situations like this one and others.
About three years ago, FWC Officer Vann Streety was shot several times in the hand, arm and back of his bullet-resistant vest when he stopped a suspect while patrolling alone in a wooded area in Brevard County. Fortunately, Streety survived his injuries, and his experience is used as a teaching tool for new officers.
When a suspect fled a traffic stop in Polk County in 2006, he immediately took off for the woods. After he fatally shot a local K-9 officer, he was tracked down and ultimately killed by a team made up of several law enforcement agencies, including the FWC.
In 2011, yet another suspect fled to the woods, this time in Holmes County, prompting another multiagency effort in which FWC officers were involved and, tragically, a corrections officer was killed.
An event in 2010 made national news when an Arkansas conservation officer intentionally rammed his state truck into the vehicle of two suspects who had already killed two local officers and wounded two others. The ensuing gun battle between the conservation officer and the suspects claimed the suspects’ lives.
It may come as a surprise that conservation officers were involved in these dangerous situations but it isn’t rare. That’s why they receive expert training. FWC officers must attend a traditional, six-month law enforcement academy followed by a specialized academy focusing on fish, wildlife, boating and outdoors skills and knowledge. Additionally, they must meet and maintain rigorous physical fitness requirements throughout the training period.
Once on the job, they work shifts – long days and nights, weekends and holidays – mostly in the woods and on the waters of the state.
They are often put in high-risk situations. There are even high risks associated just with operating specialized equipment like off-road vehicles and boats at night and during inclement weather.
FWC officers face dangerous situations sometimes more frequently than other law enforcement officers. A recent FBI study revealed that conservation officers were nine times more likely to be assaulted with a dangerous weapon than traditional law enforcement officers.
When a police department or sheriff’s office receives a report of a suspect with a gun, multiple officers are typically dispatched, and at times even a SWAT team will respond. Every hunter that a conservation officer checks, however, has some type of weapon, and many fishermen do as well. The officers are encountering these people alone, often miles from the nearest town and hours from backup.
While most hunters are just out enjoying the outdoors, hunting legally, the potential for danger is there. Officers must assess every situation and communicate effectively in order to determine if a person they come across is intent on harming someone or something, or conducting other illegal activities.
There are other high-risk situations. As noted, suspects frequently flee to the woods to evade police in urban areas. Conservation officers are often the first to encounter these dangerous criminals, whether they are called to do so or are out on routine patrol alone when they happen upon them.
It takes effort from all of us – conservation officers, traditional law enforcement officers, hunters, fishermen and other stakeholders – to keep Florida beautiful for future generations. But as these high-profile incidents and others show, conservation officers across the country can end up on the front lines of dangerous situations while routinely protecting us and our valuable natural resources.
Editorial note:“Protecting Paradise” provides a glimpse into the world of an FWC officer. Finding lost hikers, checking boaters for safety gear and teaching children about fishing and hunting are just some of the contributions they make. This column is written by Katie Purcell, Division of Law Enforcement Community Relations Coordinator. It will feature different topics to help communicate with the public and foster the shared passion and teamwork that are vital to protecting Florida’s people and beautiful natural resources for years to come.