A Toddler’s Death Sparks Mourning…and Training

By Sgt. Cathy Riggs, LAPD  |   Jan 10, 2020

Recently, officers I work with responded to a call that no law enforcement professional ever wants to answer: a toddler was found floating face down in a pool. After the incident, the officers were shaken.  They told me that while they were driving to the call, they were discussing infant and child CPR and preparing themselves for the situation. They just couldn’t remember some of the more specific techniques.

Police officers are generally calmer under stress than the general population. We deal with time-sensitive crises all the time. The one thing that really gets under our skin, however, is when a child is harmed or injured.

Many years ago, I watched a toddler die.

A car carrying six people crashed into a tree at a high rate of speed. Three of them were killed instantly.  Two others died in the hospital days later. We didn’t know about the two-year-old boy until one of the firefighters on-scene shouted that there was another person in the car. I held the flashlight while my partner and the paramedics tried to pry the crumpled car metal away from the tiny head that we could barely see. I continued to watch them as the toddler’s pulse slowed…and stopped. He was still enmeshed in the car.

Later, I cried on the way back to the station for the unknown child who would never grow up. Even if he had been in a car seat instead of on someone’s lap (which, we later discovered, is where he was sitting) he would not have survived this particular crash. I still think about that little boy more than 20 years later. It still makes me want to cry.

The loss of a child is a horrible, unimaginable event. It’s something we would do everything in our power to ensure would never happen on our watch.

Let’s get back to the officers responding to the call about a toddler in the pool.

The paramedics had already arrived when the officers got to the location. They saw the paramedics running out of the house carrying the limp body of a two-year-old child. They climbed into their ambulance without even acknowledging the officers and drove as fast as they could to the nearest hospital.

The child died two days later. Circumstances surrounding the accident became clear: the toddler was left unattended because each adult assumed the other was watching the child. This, combined with an unfenced pool, lead to tragedy—a tragedy from which the family will likely never fully recover.

On one hand, the officers were relieved that they were not called on to perform CPR. On the other hand, it hammered home the importance of realistic training.

California law requires that peace officers receive updated first aid/CPR training every two years. The Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) agency offers online training which is supplemented by a hands-on course taught by a certified instructor. As an instructor, I can tell you that the practical application course can be completed in about 30 minutes and it only requires officers to perform each activity one time.

So, the officer “revives an infant” with CPR one time and then moves on.

After speaking with the officers involved in the call, I grabbed our infant CPR mannequin and headed to roll call. My idea was to reenact the baby-in-the-pool scenario and force the officers to respond as if they were the ones who arrived first. I walked into roll call with the doll, explained the previous day’s radio call, and thrust the doll into the arms of the nearest officer, yelling at him, “Help my baby!!!

Needless to say, this was a classic training mistake. One after another, the officers messed up and I had to correct them. Roll call is only 30 minutes, and although my training (with the permission of the watch commander) took up pretty much the entire roll call, officers walked away worried that they had failed in front of their peers.

The next day, I grabbed another instructor and again walked into roll call with my trusty baby doll. We began by demonstrating infant CPR and explaining what we were doing. I then placed the doll into the arms of a nearby officer and said, “Help me, officer! My baby was floating face down in the pool!” I walked him through the steps. “What do you do first?” He gave me the correct answer: go Code 6 (which means let dispatch know where you are) and request an ambulance.

“Great! Okay, what’s next?”

The officer checked for breathing and circulation.

“The infant is not breathing, and you don’t have a heartbeat.”

Although this was a training exercise and not real life, the officers reacted as if this were a real baby and they were responsible for her life.

I was extremely proud of them.

“She’s not breathing,” I said, “and there is no pulse.” The officer looked confused for a minute, then recalled his training.

“I’m going to start CPR,” he said, before looking to his partner. “Can you try to find an AED?” He then cradled the baby in his arm and started chest compressions while simulating breaths.

One by one, I thrust the doll into the arms of different officers, having them pick up where the last officer left off.

By the end of the training, the officers told me that they felt much more comfortable with the idea of infant CPR. The officers who responded to the real-life call of the infant floating in the pool were grateful and told me they felt relieved—not only for the training but also for learning that they were not alone in their panic and that their concerns had been taken seriously.

Every critical incident is an opportunity for learning. We in law enforcement will always do well to remember that the debrief should not stop at the trunk of a patrol car after an incident or in roll call the next day. Let’s continue to learn and grow as a team.