Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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PA: After officer’s killing, WCOs want more help

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 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 wildlife conservation
officers, 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 or are 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
pre-planned, 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 officer 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 full-time 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 done.”

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.”

Grove was alone when he stopped Johnson on that fateful night Nov.
11, 2010.

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 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 out some
officers 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 covering 400 square miles to 800.

Communication is key in the field, Dooley noted. 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.”

He pointed out that the Fraternal Order of Police 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. But it was too late.

Conservation officers have also found themselves outgunned, Dooley
contended. 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.

“More than 200 yards – what were they going to return fire with?”
Dooley asked. “They were issued shotguns, virtually worthless after
50 yards.

“We petitioned and the commission said it would be too costly to do
that.”

The high-caliber 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 hard-pressed 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.

Conservation officers 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. Dooley said the commission is against
it.

“They felt it’s an open area for abuse,” Dooley said. “But the
commission 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 conservation officer 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 light,
those could be our poachers. That’s a whole different story.”

The commission has some work to do on officer compensation, Dooley
contended.

“As for pay scale, we are lower than most wildlife agencies in the
Eastern corridor,” he said,

In Pennsylvania, cadets receive a first-year salary of $29,000
while at the academy. After graduation and during a probationary
first-year 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,” 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.”

Dooley put the danger into context. “You gotta know the feeling of
stopping someone who’s just committed some kind of violation at 2
in the morning and there’s three guys in a pickup truck,” he
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.'”

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