At the gun range, a cautionary tale

After hours of instruction, we file onto the gun range and prepare to shoot. Three officers have reviewed the standard-issue weapons of the Sarasota Police Department: a Glock 22 handgun, a Colt AR-15 rifle and a Remington 870 pump shotgun. Today we’re going to fire the Glock.

Dressed in our white shirts with the blue SPD Citizens Academy logo, about 15 of us line up at the gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis to receive eye and ear protection and more instruction. Some classmates have permits to carry guns, although personal weapons are outlawed today. Some have worked as firearms instructors. I shot a rifle in high school but it was a bolt-action .22. I’ve never handled a handgun and, until today, never had the desire.

SPD Training Officer Kim Stroud instructs us in how to hold and aim the Glock. The strong hand wraps around the grip, index finger pointing forward, never on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. The supporting hand wraps around the fingers on the grip with the thumb pointing forward. “That’s 60 percent of your control.”

As I listen, I remember the warning SPD Training Officer Jeff Dunn gave as soon as we walked into his classroom, the most important of all of the safety rules: Even if the weapon is disassembled or unloaded, “We are never going to point a gun at anything we aren’t willing to destroy.”

Safety first
Stroud repeats the message as she leads us downrange. The range is built with concrete strips like football field markers starting 50 yards from the targets. Stroud stops at the 3-yard marker, in front of a paper silhouette of a head and torso backed by a sandy hill. Dunn, a member of the SPD SWAT team, flanks her on the right and maintains control of the magazine. Officer Ken Goebel, the former leader of the department’s sniper team, stands where he can see us and the shooter.

I step up. Stroud hands the Glock to me and positions my hands. At no time does she let go of the weapon. She places her other hand on my back so the weapon doesn’t come up into the 180-degree position after firing.

The target has a red circle in the center of the chest and a smaller one in the middle of the head. As I line up the front and rear sights on the larger circle, the target seems to waver. It’s the slight motion of the hands. Stroud says that’s normal. She steadies the gun and inserts the magazine. I grip harder, inhale, hold my breath and squeeze the trigger.

Time stands still
I experience everything at once. I hear an explosion, loud but not as loud as a cherry bomb, and the gun kicks up but not far. There’s little recoil into the palm. With the ear protection, I don’t even hear the clink of the shell on concrete.

The bullet rips through the target and scuffs the bank, kicking up a small plume of sand. I see a small bright hole in the red dot, not dead center but close, slightly below where I’ve aimed. We take turns, each firing a single bullet, then Dunn and Goebel give a brief demonstration of the rifle and shotgun. I’m reminded of the use-of-force simulator, where you have a nanosecond to decide whether to fire on a suspect. Safety training takes 2½ hours. Our one shot takes 30 seconds.

SPD officers receive far more instruction—mandatory training twice a year for all sworn officers with additional rifle training for patrol officers. These are real-world scenarios that stress shooting while moving while minimizing collateral damage. Officers also practice fixing and reloading their weapon during combat.

Range practice over, the class breaks for lunch. It’s Goebel’s day off and Dunn has enlisted his help as cook. He grills hamburgers and hotdogs and we sit on picnic tables under a lean-to roof and listen to stories we rarely hear from police, stories about triumphs and mistakes, about devotion and misspent youth.

It is the best part of the day.

Next: drug deals and traffic stops.

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

The gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis, Florida

The gun range at Knight Trail Park in Nokomis, Florida

Street fighting men and women

The patrol car camera shows officers of the Cottonwood Police Department approaching a family in a Wal-Mart parking lot after midnight on March 21, 2015. The police are responding to an alleged assault of a Wal-Mart employee, a relatively routine call in Arizona, or anywhere. When they arrive, they find eight people milling around what looks like a heap of laundry bags behind a Chevrolet Suburban.

As another patrol car arrives, one of the officers says, “We need to separate these folks and talk to them.”

“No, you’re not going to get . . . you’re not going to separate me from my family,” a male family member says.

And then they attack, hitting officers, gouging their faces, wrestling for their weapons. Police try pepper spray, TASERs, a baton. Nothing works. The combatants pummel the police. They raise their hands in surrender only to resume the attack. By the time the fight ends, one officer is shot, one suspect is dead, another wounded and seven taken into custody. The fight lasts seven minutes.

Later, the Arizona Republic will report that the Gaver family performs as musicians on the streets of Boise, Idaho. For the past four days they have been living from their car in the Wal-Mart parking lot in Cottonwood, a town of 11,000 located about 60 miles southwest of Flagstaff.

Nothing is routine
“It’s an example of how things can go wrong fast,” Sarasota Police Officer Sean Gleason says as he shows the video to residents in the SPD Citizens Academy. “I show this video to the [members of the police] defensive tactics class because we need to know about fighting. I want [the officers] to say, ‘I’d survive this situation.’”

The situations are becoming more common. “These days, everybody knows this stuff. They see martial arts on TV all the time. You could be doing a routine traffic stop and the next thing you know you’re fighting for your life.”

Which is why the department’s lead defensive-tactics instructor teaches Brazilian jujitsu, a ground-fighting martial art that schools officers in grappling techniques and escapes.

Officer Gleason applies the vascular neck restraint hold on Officer Shellhammer --Sheila Jellison photo

Officer Gleason applies the vascular neck restraint hold on Det. Shellhammer
–Sheila Jellison photo

Fighting the fighters
The inside of the SPD defensive tactics room looks like my high school wrestling class, with thick blue pads on the walls and floor and a yellow bucket and mop in the corner. Gleason, a K-9 officer, and assistant SWAT team leader Det. Dwayne Shellhammer demonstrate the moves police are most likely to need. Such as when drunks pile out of a bar and start a fight and officers have to wade into the pack.

The drunks turn on the officers. They’re too close to use weapons. The assailants move too quickly to handcuff. Someone grabs an officer around the throat from behind and pulls. That action shows intent to hurt or kill the officer, and lethal force is justified, but Gleason and Shellhammer know a better way. Gleason breaks the hold and applies pressure to the sides of the neck, explaining the move as he demonstrates it.

Non-lethal hold
“We’re the only agency that does the vascular neck restraint. It’s a blood choke where you cut the blood flow to the brain. It’s not like this.” He puts his arm across Shellhammer’s throat. “That’s a choke hold and it can be lethal. The VNR will put them to sleep.” Shellhammer’s face glows red, a testament to the effectiveness of the hold.

“When you become a police officer,” Gleason says, “you have to completely change the way you think about things . . . everything you do, whether eating dinner or making a traffic stop. You ask yourself, ‘what am I going to do if somebody walks in with a gun or someone in that car shoots at me?’ Every call you go on, you have to think, ‘is this person going to attack me and am I ready?’ Mom, dad, a kid . . . anybody could kill you at any time.”

Next: On the firing range with the SPD.

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

‘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

Inside the yellow tape

The phone rings at 2 a.m. Dispatch reports two unresponsive adults in a car in a parking garage next to Kari’s Restaurant. Officers have secured the scene. Detectives from the Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, are on the way. As part of the Criminalistics Unit, so are we.

Our team walks into the parking garage to find a gold Prius surrounded encircled in yellow crime-scene tape, a bottle of Corona a few feet from the car, liquid spilling from the bottle. On the deck, a plastic sandwich bag and what looks like a candy wrapper.

In the front seats, a man and woman in their late twenties or early thirties, the driver holding a gun. He’s wearing a black short-sleeved athletic shirt, black pants, ring, no watch. He’s been shot once in the right temple. She’s wearing a white short-sleeved shirt with khaki pants, a ring and a watch. She’s been shot once in the left temple.

A shell casing rests on the dash, another on the back seat, a Super Vel .44 Mag. Two bottles of insect repellant in the seat pocket. Papers in the trunk.

Tunnel vision
As we crawl around the car, the head of the unit, Kari McVaugh, says, “Don’t get tunnel vision. Don’t get focused on the yellow tape.”

So begins the scenario created by the Sarasota Police Department for week seven of its Citizens Academy, the program that runs residents through the same training as police officers. The bodies in the car are real, officers within the department, but they’re acting, allowing us to collect and analyze evidence like our civilian counterparts in the real Criminalistics unit.

Kari the suspect in the interview room

Kari the suspect in the interview room

Back at headquarters, we review surveillance footage from the garage and video of two interviews with the department’s prime suspect, the owner of Kari’s bar, played with magnificent realism by McVaugh. As we watch, Sgt. Tom Shanafelt of the department’s Major Crimes Unit tell us what to observe, what to doubt and what would happen if we worked in CID.

We would run the tag and compare a license photo with the deceased–turns out he’s Kari’s ex-husband. Surveillance video shows Kari helping both victims to the car, wiping her hands on a towel as she walks away. We would ask experts to analyze body fluids, fluids on the towel, tool markings on the shell casings.

Truth or consequences
Months later during a second interview, two detectives have suspect Kari wedged in a corner of a bare room. The first thing they do is read her Miranda rights. Then they present DNA evidence that contradicts her initial statement. She’s confrontational at first, telling detectives her medical history is none of their business. She backs up, fidgets, stares at her hands. She’s confused. She doesn’t understand why the DNA evidence should matter.

Finally, she confesses, ending her monologue with, “I guess I just snapped.” Detectives charge and cuff her.

While the confession solves the case, the collection and analysis of evidence wins it, every careful step from autopsy to interview. Or as Shanafelt puts it, “The next-best thing to a confession is a provable lie.”

Next: dealing with the public.

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

 

Citizens Academy participants investigate a mock shooting in a parking garage

Citizens Academy participants investigate a mock shooting in a parking garage

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

 

Beyond the gun at Sarasota PD

Detective Dwayne Shellhammer holds up a ballistic shield and vest and talks about the training and judgment needed to serve on the Sarasota Police Department’s SWAT team. He lists the other equipment used by team members, the less-lethal stun grenades, CS (tear) gas and sponge bullets. Only near the end of his presentation does he pick up an M4 assault rifle, one of the few deadly weapons in the team’s arsenal.

Make no mistake, SPD officers adhere to what they call the Priority of Life Model: protect the victims, hostages, bystanders and police first. Suspects come last, and if it takes an assault to serve a warrant on a felon with guns, the SWAT team is ready. But all of that militaristic equipment is designed to defend the public, not assail it.

“What about the militarization of the police—how do you feel about that?” Shellhammer asked residents attending the SPD’s Citizen’s Academy. One woman said it made her a little afraid. Others wanted the police to have the same weapons and training as the assailants. Or better.

“The key,” said SPD training Officer Jeff Dunn, who helped to organize the course, “is having the training to know when to use these tools.”

Det. Dwayne Shellhammer helps Zulay Gallagher into a ballistic vest

Detective Dwayne Shellhammer helps Zulay Gallagher into a ballistic vest

That ethic applies to the department’s Underwater Search & Recovery Team as well. The Dive Team uses boats, lift bags, sonar, dry suits and metal detectors to raise derelict boats and find weapons and bodies. But the mission isn’t about the tools.

“Why do we need all this equipment? Underwater is a deadly environment,” Officer Trip Schwenk said. “The equipment keeps us safe and enables us to find what we’re looking for.”

Beyond that, the Dive Team’s work can help people cope with tragedy. “It’s finding the victim quickly and getting them back to their family that’s important,” Schwenk said. “I love catching crooks, but if I have somebody’s that’s hurting and we can give them closure, I get more satisfaction out of that.”

On the fourth night of SPD’s Citizen Academy, Shellhammer, Schwenk and Dunn did more than list the equipment and training need to do their jobs. They demonstrated the issues police officers face and the strategy and restraint needed to resolve them.

Or as Shellhammer put it, “We’re not a bunch of guys running around with guns.”

Next: The roles of the state attorney and the K-9 squad.

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

Officer Trip Schwenk demonstrates a full-face AGA dive mask.

Officer Trip Schwenk demonstrates a full-face AGA dive mask.