Eradicating ignorance

We take vaccines for granted. We get our shots as kids and forget about the process until we have children of our own. In the Western Hemisphere, we generally don’t see the diseases that plague the Third World. We call them preventable.

A hundred years ago, the science of immunology was struggling, and so were its advocates. Just before Dr. Richard Slee was born in 1867, the French biologist Louis Pasteur had proven the germ theory of disease. It wasn’t until 1885 that Pasteur field tested his vaccine for rabies.

Twelve years later, when Slee built his laboratory to manufacture smallpox vaccine in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, the disease was still considered a major threat to public health. It would not be eradicated worldwide until 1980. To complicate the issue, the technology of the time caused some of those patients to become ill. Because of those adverse reactions, vaccines of the time stimulated fear as well as immunity.

Some things haven’t change.

In Minnesota, 73 cases of measles have been confirmed this year, three more than the Spirit of Swiftwatertotal for the entire country last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health.

The CDC and the World Health Organization also are concerned with the rise in the number of cases of mumps, polio, rubella, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

How did Dr. Slee manage to eradicate smallpox in America? And how has the science of infectious-disease prevention progressed over the last century?

You can follow the struggles and triumphs of the people who shaped modern medicine in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of vaccine development in the twentieth century. The book chronicles the pioneers of immunization who fought against the odds to establish this form of health care as standard public policy in America, with a focus on the U.S. operations of sanofi pasteur, the vaccines business of sanofi-aventis Group. Reviewers describe the work as “a thoroughly documented historical perspective of the vaccine industry in the US as seen through the history of one of its leading contributors that is also entertaining reading.”

Now, if you’re really ready for a Horatio Alger story with a medical spin, take a look at One in a Million by Mary G. Clark. In this ghosted memoir, Mary tells the story of how she took her wound-care company from the coal fields of Scranton, Pa. to the NASDAQ. The book starts with a touch of mysticism and ends with science, a fitting story for our times.

Brave new (digital) world

Everything old is new again . . . thanks to a little help from my friends.

My new website launched today. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was a long time coming.

Checking the Internet Archive, affectionately known as the Wayback Machine, my first website went live in 2002, back in the day of dialup service. It was designed by Tom Thornton, a true artist and a gentleman if ever there was one.

The next iteration, the version we just replaced, went online in 2009 with an update a few years ago by a blessing of a designer, Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads in Sarasota, Florida. For her fortitude, she gets the patience-in-the-face-of-ignorance award.

After six years, we discovered the custom features of the site didn’t play well with WordPress anymore. The site didn’t look like the home of an author, either, since we’d designed it to sell marketing communications services to corporate clients.

The new site emphasizes my shift in focus from nonfiction to fiction, specifically to a series of crime novels I’m developing around two characters, former detective CW McCoy and a defrocked journalist known as Brinker. The website incorporates new ways to share stories about them and the publishing industry through social media links and an e-newsletter called Behind the Book. And wonder of wonders, the new contraption is responsive, which means the site should adapt to any browser or device that taps into it.

It was a long time coming but we’ve finally caught up with the digital age. Here’s to good friends and guidance . . . and another decade on the Web.

Jeff Widmer

‘Not just a gun and a badge’

“Police officers are human,” Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn tells members of the Sarasota Police Department’s Citizens Academy. “Some of them do stupid things sometimes.”

And some of them do good and brave things. Genevieve Judge, the department’s public information officer, wants to get both of those messages to the media and the public. She knows that a fast, honest response to a negative situation can build trust. And that publicizing the positive things officers do can help build understanding and goodwill.

“There are good police officers and there are bad police officers,” Judge says. “It’s how you handle the situation that people will remember. We can ignore it or we can stay in front of it. Even if we’re not proud of it, I’d rather people hear about it from us so they get the whole story.”

Media savvy
To that end, Judge, a veteran television reporter and videographer, launched the department into the world of social sharing when she came on board in 2013, creating a dialog with residents on the major networks. With the backing of Chief Bernadette DiPino, she routinely posts on Facebook, Twitter (@SarasotaPD), YouTube,  and Instagram.

Judge covers all major public events, does ride-alongs with officers called Tweet from the Beat and shoots video for initiatives like Click It or Ticket and Shop with a Cop, a program for children that runs around the holidays. She also fields questions and requests for arrest reports from journalists who also try to balance coverage, often pitting citizens against the police and putting the department on the defense.

Like the academy itself, the social media feed gives residents a behind-the-scenes look at the department and its personnel. It helps them balance the news they see and hear from other sources. “I want people to see it on our social networks before they see it anywhere else,” Judge says. “That way we own it and it comes from a trusted source.”

The publicity serves another purpose. “It shows our officers are not just a gun and a badge. They are human.”

Street smart
No one know that better than Jeff Dunn, who started with the Bradenton Police Department in 1992 and has worked on the K-9, SWAT and field training teams. In addition to organizing the citizen’s academy, he trains recruits and experienced officers in diversity, firearms, non-lethal weapons and law-enforcement policies and procedures.

“It’s not the most dangerous job but it’s the most rewarding. In police work, anything that goes wrong comes back to training. We make sure everything is correct and accurate and up to date.”

Firing-range practice is essential but training must encompass real-world situations. That’s why Dunn uses scenario-based training, creating events that are realistic, such as putting officers in situations that require them to use defensive tactics. “Not many police officers are attacked by paper targets.”

I’m sure there are days when Genevieve Judge feels the same way.

Next: defensive tactics.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Jeff Dunn tours the SWAT ready room with members of the SPD Citizens Academy

Jeff Dunn tours the SWAT ready room with members of the SPD Citizens Academy

Damned if you do, dead if you don’t

Tonight’s the night we’re either going to shoot someone or die. And that makes some of us nervous.

The subject in the Sarasota Police Department’s Citizen Academy is one of the most timely and controversial in all of law enforcement—the use of force by officers. To give us an idea of the challenges they face, SPD will run us through the Use of Force Simulator, the same one used by rookie officers to test their decision-making under fire.

The simulator will show whether we can make sound, split-second decisions without violating the law or allowing a suspect to escape. Or getting killed.

Before we start, Officer Jeff Dunn, who organizes the class, reviews law and policy regarding the use of force and ends with a caution: “When you feel adrenal stress, you don’t make the same decisions you would make in a calm, safe setting. It’s like everything closes around you.”

Dunn should know. He’s a member of the SWAT team and a former K-9 unit officer who has faced these situations in the field. If an experienced officer reacts that way, how will that stress affect us?

We find out quickly. The class enters the simulator four at a time. My group consists of Barna, Tracy, Bill and me. Barna worked security in Europe so he’s used to some of this. The rest of us look like the civilians we are.

Officer Kim Stroud operates the Use of Force Simulator

Officer Kim Stroud operates the Use of Force Simulator

The theater-like simulator consists of a computer, projector and life-size screen that plays an interactive video. Officer Kim Stroud conducts the drill, showing us how to hold our weapons, enter a building and communicate with our partner. The Glock and the TASER™ are real, the bullets and prongs replaced with lasers that not only target suspects but display the accuracy of our fire.

In the first scenario, Bill and I respond to an active-shooter situation in an office building. Dispatch has no other information. Armed with guns, Bill and I simulate walking down hallways past bodies of workers and officers. We turn a corner and hear shots and a man in a white shirt walks into a room and starts firing.

Bill yells “Sarasota Police!” and as the suspect backs out of the office we fire. Just as the man goes down, another pops up from behind a desk and, before we can get off a round, shoots at us. We fire back and, as he clears the desk, finally bring him down. Stroud replays parts of the exchange. The computer shows crosshatch marks where our bullets hit. The desk is a goner but we didn’t hit the shooter until he’d squeezed off several rounds. I don’t know how many, it happens so fast.

In the second scenario, Bill holds the Glock and I hold a TASER. We’re called to a disturbance and find a woman fighting with an officer on the street. As she grows more violent, the officer moves off and the suspect screams and waves something in her right hand. The use of potentially lethal force is not needed so I yell “TASER! TASER! TASER!” and pull the trigger. The devices crackles and the woman hits the concrete.

Stroud looks as if I’ve waited too long. She’s probably right.

In their first scenario, Tracy and Barna respond to a reported break-in at an office building after hours. No other information is available, so they go in blind.

Tracy holds the TASER, Barna the Glock. As they move through the building, they see a man sitting at a desk. He looks calm and talks to them. Suddenly he stands and raises what looks like a weapon. The pair fire, Barna hitting the suspect in the foot and knee. Tracy brings him down, landing the TASER prongs over the guy’s heart. The assailant’s weapon turns out to be a stapler.

In the second scenario, Tracy and Barna respond to a domestic dispute. They wend their way through a warren of halls to confront a person yelling at a man who’s seated in front of a fireplace. He’s holding a shotgun between his legs. Before either officer can react, the assailant raises the gun and fires. As the screen goes blank, Barna fires his weapon.

Stroud pushes back from the computer and says what officers must hope they’ll never hear. “Too late.”

Next: citizen volunteers and criminalistics.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Tracy and Barna approach a suspect in the Use of Force Simulator

Tracy and Barna approach a suspect in the Use of Force Simulator

For K-9 squad, a badge and a bond

It’s bite-training night at the Sarasota Police Department and Bronson looks ready.

The German shepherd remains in constant motion. In the dimly lighted garage beneath the department’s headquarters, Bronson sweeps the base of four storage units and finally paws at one. He will drill this over and over, this and other search and rescue tasks, for more than 480 hours of training. But tonight, he’s after a big, sweaty suspect who’s hiding inside.

Officer Nelson and Bronson

Officer Nelson and Bronson (Sheila Jellison photo)

The suspect is no ordinary person. It’s Sgt. Michael McHale, head of the SPD’s K-9 unit, the guy who bought Bronson from his European breeder, someone Bronson should know on sight. The dog acts as if he doesn’t, tearing into McHale’s padded sleeve as the sergeant comes out of the unit, yelling and spinning away from the animal. Bronson grabs the sleeve and hold until his handler, Officer Jake Nelson, allows a release.

It is night five of the SPD’s Citizens Academy and McHale is explaining that officers only send the dogs if a suspect repeatedly disobeys police commands. “This isn’t the 1960s. We don’t use dogs for crowd control.”

The dogs are domesticated. “You have such a bond with these animals. They are really a partner. The dog lives at home with us. At work he’s all business. When he walks through that door at home, he’s the family pet.”

They also are used to promote goodwill. “In our program, I want my dogs to be social,” McHale says. “We go to nursing homes and senior centers and elementary schools. Three-quarters of the job is showing the public that they are not attack dogs.”

Sgt. McHale and Officer Nelson (Sheila Jellison photo)

Sgt. McHale and Officer Nelson (Sheila Jellison photo)

After the arrest
Once a suspect has been apprehended and charged, the job of law enforcement shifts to the state attorney’s office, the Florida equivalent of the office of the district attorney or commonwealth attorney. In the 12th judicial district, which encompasses Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, those cases go to Ed Brodsky and his team of 75 prosecutors.

A board certified criminal trial attorney 23 years in the state attorney’s office, Brodsky says his office handles 45,000 misdemeanor and felony cases a year. In Sarasota County in 2014, that workload resulted in 131 felony jury trails, 83 misdemeanor trials and 53 juvenile bench trials.

The nature of the work also led to the development of specialized prosecutors. The office now has units for violent crimes, white collar crimes and animal abuse. Those three join the existing child sex crimes unit.

Brodsky says that while he enjoys prosecuting the bad guys, he likes aiding the good guys even more. “There’s nothing more exciting than helping victims and bringing justice to them.”

Next: the use of force simulator.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Bronson goes after Sgt. McHale while Officer Nelson controls the fight

Bronson goes after Sgt. McHale while Officer Nelson controls the fight

 

In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

Sgt. Daniel Weinsberg trains by watching footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sgt. Bryan Graham practices by building bombs with Play-Doh instead of C-4. Officer Tammy Featherstone role plays a scenario where she’s talking to a suicidal veteran with traumatic brain injury.

When they aren’t training, they’re confronting protesters, removing explosive devices and rescuing hostages, always dealing with a high level of danger, to the public and themselves. They accept the risks and seem to enjoy their work.

Just another day at the office for three specialized units of the Sarasota Police Department—Emergency Response, Explosive Materials and Crisis Negotiation. The three team leaders brought their equipment and expertise to the Citizen’s Academy in the third of a series of 12 classes that give civilians a glimpse of life behind the badge.

First up, Sgt. Weinsberg, team leader for the the department’s contingent on the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team. The ERT deploys during times of emergency or crisis when there is a high probability of criminal or civil unrest. Think hurricanes, riots and, yes, weapons of mass destruction. It consists of three teams from the sheriff’s office and one from the city, 10 officers per team.

Viewers who watched protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle will remember cordons of police with body armor called turtle gear wading into the crowds. “That’s what we don’t do,” Weinsberg said. The ERU doesn’t even suit up if it isn’t necessary to preserving life because that image alone can trigger a backlash.

Many of the drills involve learning how to not to respond when provoked. “As one of our training sergeants said, ‘You don’t want to be on TV.’”

As leader of the Explosive Materials Unit (EMU), or bomb squad, Sgt. Graham and team have a different but equally perilous situation to defuse. They use a host of equipment, from protective suits that weigh 90 lbs. to the Remotec ANDROS F6A robot. It has a telescoping camera, a claw to position an X-ray device and the ability to climb stairs.

The team’s primary job is to remove the bomb to a remote location and detonate it, often with a charge of highly pressurized water. No Danger UXB guesswork about which wires to cut first. But in the end, someone has to get close to the explosive device . . . if only to pick up the pieces for FBI analysis.

Officer Tammy Featherstone, a member of the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU), deals with another kind of danger—threats to the lives of hostages and potential suicide victims. The CNU deploys two negotiators to every incident. The first talks to the suspect, the second takes notes and feeds that information to intelligence officers.

Her goal is a peaceful end to the situation. “We want to bring everyone home.”

Next: SWAT and the dive team.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department's Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On the screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department’s Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

 

‘There is no such thing as a victimless crime’

Demetri Konstantopoulos stands before the screen and narrates a list of Florida police officers killed in the line of duty in the last few years. One slide shows a pair of faces, one fresh, one veteran. One officer leaves behind a pregnant wife, another a wife and three children. The slides continue for a long time.

On this, the second night of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy, Konstantopoulos has a tough lesson to present. He shows a video of a driver opening fire on Ohio police with an automatic weapon after a routine stop for a moving violation. He plays audio of an incident on Martin Luther King Boulevard when crowds and gunfire threaten Sarasota officers trying to rescue a man with arterial bleeding.

Konstantopoulos, a sergeant in the Bureau of Criminal Investigation assigned to the Street Crimes Unit, wants us to remember several things. Police work is dangerous. No call is routine. All crime has consequence. “There is no such thing as a victimless crime.”

That theme carries through the presentation by Jude Castro, the victim advocate coordinator for the department, who tends to the needs of people suffering the aftermath of crime.

“The victim advocate speaks up for people who can’t,” Castro says before outlining the major services she provides, including crisis intervention, death notification and bereavement support. She also helps victims file restraining orders and accompanies them to medical, legal and judicial proceedings.

If you think her job is any less stressful than that of sworn officers, consider that one of her most recent duties was to notify the family of a man who jumped from the Ringling Bridge.

Back to Konstantopoulos. After explaining when officers need a warrant to search a house, vehicle or person, the sergeant introduces the concept of consensual contact. It’s when a person agrees to a search and there is no evidence of coercion—a fine line to walk in even the best of circumstances.

To demonstrate, Officer Dominic Harris and Dick Smothers, a Sarasota resident and one half of the Smothers Brothers comedy team, create a scenario where Harris plays a drug dealer hanging on the street and Smothers an officer who does not have probable cause to search Harris but wants him to consent to a pat-down.

After about five seconds of street patois Harris says, “Man, you hassling me ’cause I’m black?” Things go sideways, fast. Officer Jeff Dunn, who organized this year’s academy, steps in to show how police would handle the request. He obtains consent . . . and finds a handgun.

Police work is dangerous. No encounter is routine. Crime makes victims of everyone.

It’s a tough lesson.

Next week: emergency response, explosive materials and crisis negotiations.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Officer Dominic Harris, left, and Dick Smothers role play a street encounter

Officer Dominic Harris, left, and Dick Smothers role play a street encounter

Beyond the badge: citizens get inside look at department through Sarasota police academy

One of the first things Bernadette DiPino did when taking over as chief of the Sarasota Police Department was to ban her 161 officers from eating doughnuts while in uniform.

Members of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy chuckled at her story but the chief has a serious purpose: she wants to counter stereotypes about officers as part of a larger campaign of community policing.

And that’s one of the reasons why 23 of us were admitted to the fourth offering of the academy, a boot camp for civilians who want to learn what it’s like to work as a police officer. The 12-week program will cover everything from search and seizure to criminalistics to firearms.

After introducing her command staff—Acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and Patrol Operations Chief Kevin Stiff—and Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn, DiPino opened the academy with a recital of her background. As the granddaughter and daughter of police officers, she’s a blueblood and proud of it, starting her career in Baltimore County, working as a narcotics detective and serving as chief in Ocean City, MD before assuming the position of chief in Sarasota at the end of 2012.

She talked about the challenges of a job in a seasonal resort town as well as her mandate to officers to stay visible, strictly enforce the law and appear professional at all times. Which is what led to the ban on doughnuts. But she spent most of the time discussing her philosophy of community policing. Because police need cooperative citizens to prevent and solve crime, they need to build trust and relationships with the residents on their beat. Officers need to get out of their cars and go door-to-door if necessary to introduce themselves and provide help.

As an example of that outreach, DiPino offered a barbecue police held for residents of Newtown. She said the strategy has led to numerous arrests and, more importantly, safer neighborhoods.

It didn’t take long for Dunn as the academy’s chief organizer to transition from strategic to tactical. He introduced bicycle patrol Officer Jerry Pucci, who illustrated DiPino’s goal of standardizing police uniforms for greater visibility. He reviewed dress and patrol uniforms for summer and winter and ticked off the 20 pounds of equipment officers carry on their duty belts: gun (.40 caliber Glock 22), two magazines, handcuff case, Taser, radio and flashlight.

Pucci drew the biggest laugh of the night when he pointed to a short black cylinder on the back of his belt and announced, “This is my ASP.” For the record, ASP is a brand of telescoping baton police can use in close combat.

Despite the laughter, Pucci didn’t miss a beat, saying police didn’t have much cause to use the defensive weapon. “If something goes sideways, I’d rather use the Taser.”

Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to eat a doughnut.

Next week: how crime endangers both victims and police.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?

Keeping the novel above stall speed

A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.

Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.

Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.

I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.

I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.

When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?