Academy aims to help officers decipher hunting accidents
CHARLESTON -- As late as a few years ago, a cynical standing joke among West Virginia hunters went something like this: "If you want to kill someone, take them hunting."
Several unspoken messages lay behind that expression - that hunting provides a ready-made excuse to carry a weapon; that it's relatively easy to shoot someone and call it a hunting accident; that hunting-accident investigations aren't as thorough as murder investigations; and that the legal system takes it much easier on people involved in supposedly accidental shootings.
All that might have been true in the past, but it isn't true now.
A few days ago I took a little road trip down Corridor G to the Chief Logan Conference Center, where Division of Natural Resources officials were hosting a weeklong nationwide Hunting Incident Academy.
Law enforcement officers from 16 states came there to learn techniques the head instructor called "CSI in the woods." Six of the 40 trainees were members of the West Virginia Natural Resources Police.
The investigative techniques they learned were very much like the techniques you see played out on the CSI-themed television shows that run almost every day on broadcast and cable networks.
For example, the trainees learned to interpret blood-spatter patterns. They learned to trace the origin of the shot from the angle at which the bullet or arrow entered the victim's body. They learned how to use a special "measurement of visibility device" that shows what shooters see when they fire their weapons.
Mike Van Durme, a retired New York environmental conservation officer, was the academy's lead trainer. He said it's critical that officers learn to collect and interpret physical evidence, because eyewitness testimony is seldom reliable.
"In three-fourths of all incidents, the initial report of what happened is wrong," he said. "About one-fourth of the time, it's because people have lied about the shooting to protect friends or family members from getting into trouble.
"About one-fourth of the time, people lie because they weren't where they were supposed to be or were doing something they weren't supposed to do - for instance, playing hooky from work, or maybe carrying a firearm when they're a convicted felon.
"The other fourth of the time, people simply give wrong information because they were in a stressful situation and their memory isn't clear about what happened."
Gathering and properly interpreting evidence allows officers to cut through the BS and reconstruct shooting incidents without relying too heavily on what they've been told.
The academy has been training law enforcement personnel since 1993. Lt. Tim Coleman, West Virginia's training coordinator, said Natural Resources Police officers have been involved in all of them - some as students and some as trainers.
"We're trying to get as many of our officers trained on these techniques as possible," Coleman said. "This year we had one officer from each of our six districts receiving the training. They'll take the knowledge back to their districts and share it with their fellow officers."
Coleman said the day is long past when hunters might expect to get off scot-free or receive a legal slap on the wrist for shooting another hunter.
"People who try stuff like that now can expect to get caught," he said. "Our officers are trained to reconstruct these incidents and to determine the truth about what happened. We're miles ahead of where we used to be. If someone shoots someone else, deliberately or negligently, we're going to catch them."