“Have you ever had the odds stacked up so high you need a strength most don’t possess? Or, Has it ever come down to do or die and you’ve got to rise above the rest?”
“The Impression that I Get”         –The Mighty, Mighty Bosstones

The words resonate from the number one song many of us rocked to in the late 90’s. You remember, the one loaded with questions about whether you were equipped to meet potential challenges in your life. In particular, if the time came, could you put your life in jeopardy so that another may live? Those questions are tough enough to answer hypothetically, but seriously, what do you think you could or would you do in real time?

Cambridge Vermont is located northeast of Burlington and prides itself as the “Gateway to Smugglers Notch”. It is a small town with less than 4,000 residents with a minimal town government, a very limited spending budget and few crime concerns. All of their emergency service calls are channeled through and handled by the Vermont State Police. A barracks patrol is not limited to the confines of a particular town but includes a geographic area that extends far beyond any town borders. As a result, response times will vary greatly.

On a cold, peaceful Sunday afternoon in mid-December of 2023,  an urgent transmission came across the State Police cruiser radios reporting that two children had fallen through an icy pond and may be trapped in the frigid water. Fortunately, Troopers Michelle Archer and Keith Cote, patrolling in separate cruisers were in the general vicinity of the address. They radioed they were responding to the location and did so as fast as humanly possible. Trooper Archer arrived first and took immediate and necessary action. Trooper Cote arrived shortly after and ran to her to assist.

Please take a few moments to watch the attached video. Words alone couldn’t do justice to, or adequately describe the Troopers reactions and response as they maneuvered to save a young life.

Michelle Archer is a six-year veteran of the Vermont State Police and for the majority of her career has been assigned to patrol duties at the Williston barracks.

Keith Cote has been with the Vermont State Police since the Spring of 2021. Prior to that he was a patrol officer with the St. Alban’s Vermont police department. In 2014, he and two fellow officers entered an apartment building to assist an elderly, double-amputee whose room was on fire. During the rescue, the man’s oxygen tank exploded knocking them all to the floor. The officers regained their composure and footing and rushed him out of the building to a waiting ambulance. The officers were awarded the Department Medal of Valor.

In a media interview a few days after the rescue, Trooper Archer explained,

“I don’t know if it was instinct or training or a little bit of both. something kicked in where I just took action. Panic wasn’t really an option at that point.”

Every candidate seeking a position as a police officer will be asked, “Why do you want to do this type of work?” The responses may vary a bit, but they will always end with; “ because I want to help people! I want to make a difference in people’s lives!”

Precisely the response that every police chief needs to hear. After all, the  responsibility of every public safety officer is to “serve and protect”. In other words, every officer needs to begin each shift with a mindset that they will respond and react to all situations, and when those rare but real moments do arise, be willing to put their lives on the line to protect or save the life of another. Primarily, what “making a difference in people’s lives” means in police work.

The inclination to help others is commendable and a good start. It’s one thing to want to help, it is another thing to know how best to help when that time comes, particularly when responding to a critical situation where a person’s life may hang in the balance. That’s where instinct and training necessarily intersect.

The inclination to help others is commendable and a good start. It’s one thing to want to help, it is another thing to know how best to help when that time comes, particularly when responding to a critical situation where a person’s life may hang in the balance. That’s where instinct and training necessarily intersect

The purpose of every police academy is to prepare recruits to be officers. The training regimen incorporates the best practices for officers to face all situations, whether simple or complex, non-threatening or dangerous. The academy is also where determinations are made about mental and physical fitness and whether a recruit is capable of performing all of the duties expected and required of a police officer.

For recruits, there are several “moments of truth” in their training that will cause them to question and rethink whether they are cut out for this line of work. They may want to help others, but are they mentally prepared to be called on when that crucial moment arrives?

On occasion when a recruit faces the realities and responsibilities of being a police officer they recognize that while their intentions to “make a difference in people’s lives” are well placed, the training has taught them that they may not be a good fit for the profession. Frequently, these decisions come at the completion of a few “life and death” scenario based exercises where the abrupt reality of being in those type of stressful decision-making moments may be more than they believe they can handle.

These practical episodes are introduced later in the program and are usually preceded by classroom lecture(s) and a review of earlier, pertinent and applicable training along with a clarification of expectations for the exercises.

There is no simple or perfect “one size fits all” way to teach this extremely challenging training component. The scenarios are created from real-life experiences, and they require a superior level of planning and preparation to be effective and safe. Skilled role players amplify the confusion and commotion by injecting free-flowing anxiety driven dialogue, emotional outbursts, combative behavior, etc. The situations are thorough, demanding and very realistic. They are multi-faceted “think on your feet”, control and channel your sudden adrenaline rush, once-in-a-lifetime training opportunities that will never be forgotten by the participants. There are no “time-outs” or “safe spaces!” just a need to perform in the moment.

So much more than a classroom lecture followed by a short quiz!

The reactions and actions taken by the recruits, will go a long way in determining whether they have the courage, the bravery, the stamina, and the intellect to carry out what their instincts tell them they must do.

To be clear, this is not a “one and done” training module. The recruit’s performances are recorded and then analyzed and critiqued by instructors who then sit with them and point out the strengths and weaknesses of their efforts under extreme pressure. When and where necessary, corrective remediation is prescribed. It is not punishment, rather it is an extended opportunity for the recruit to both improve and gain confidence so that if and when they are faced with a critical life-saving condition, they can rely on their instincts and training and react in a manner similar to that of Troopers Archer and Cote.

So, what do you think? Was it instinct or was it training that guided Michelle Archer into that frigid water on that Sunday afternoon or for Keith Cote to gently lift the young girl in his arms and race with her to the waiting ambulance and medical care? I submit it was a solid combination of both. Their instincts drove them to respond with courage and without concern or fear for their safety, in great part because their training prepared them to react with confidence and in a timely, level-headed way.

A short while ago, an  8-year-old child bound up in her winter snowsuit was trapped below water in a semi-frozen pond, only moments from death. Today she is very much alive and joyfully spending her moments with family and friends. I’m sensing that a long-term friendship will develop between her and the troopers who came to her aid that day and gave her the opportunity to survive and thrive with a bright future ahead! She couldn’t ask for better role models or mentors than Michelle and Keith.

Troopers Archer and Cote, like all police officers who were ever in a “do or die” situation will rebuff any accolades or mention of the word heroes. That is because they simply see themselves as human beings who, when called upon to act, applied their instinct and training to react in a fearless and valiant way.

Their actions were heroic though, and when duty called, they responded. Once the girl was secure and safely on her way to the hospital, they changed into warm, dry uniforms and resumed their patrol responsibilities. And on the following day they woke and, like the day before, still pulled their uniform pants on one leg at a time!