‘There are places I remember’

What are the places in Southwest Florida that inspired Curb Appeal, the third book in the mystery/suspense series featuring CW (Candace) McCoy, the former detective applying her investigative skills as a real estate agent? To paraphrase John Lennon, here are a few of the places I remember, including one many residents hope they’ll never see: the inside of the Sarasota Police Department.

 

Model of the house where CW McCoy finds first murder victim in #curbappeal

 

One of the many condo buildings gracing the skyline of Sarasota, FL #curbappeal

 

 

Sarasota police officers demonstrate vascular hold that Skip Taggert tries on CW #curbappeal

 

 

The Power of Place

How many times have you read a novel and fallen in love with the location? (Fans of Ellis Peters and Nevada Barr, raise your hands.)

CW McCoy’s Spanish Point holds the same allure for those of us who, like CW, fled the darkness of the North for Florida’s Gulf Coast. The result is Spanish Point, a fictionalized mashup of the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton that isn’t the paradise it first seems.

Over the few weeks, we’ll look at the places in the region that inspired Curb Appeal, the third book in the mystery/suspense series featuring CW (Candace) McCoy, the former police detective turned real estate agent whose struggles with career and personal issues lead her into dangerous terrain.

While Curb Appeal is fiction, it’s the tragic attacks on real estate agents that form the backbone of the book—that and efforts by the National Association of Realtors to promote awareness and safety.

Each day on social media, we’ll take a look at the homes, boats and watering holes of CW’s friends and enemies as we reconcile the images of paradise with reality. I hope you’ll join us for a guided tour. In the meantime, here are a few deceptively ordinary images from the Gulf Coast.

On the Gulf of Mexico near Siesta Key: sailing the high seas near sunset on a day that’s divine—until you turn your back.

 

Lakewood Ranch luxury: remember the movie “Play ‘Misty’ for Me”? You may never go near a soaking tub again.

 

Myakka River State Park: the mysterious woods (and the alligators of Deep Hole) beckon the unsuspecting.

 

Dark side of the sun

Curb Appeal, the third novel in the CW McCoy series about a detective turned real estate agent, may be fiction but it has its foundation in reality. And while the book isn’t based on a specific crime, it was spurred by a dangerous trend in a seemingly benign industry.

According to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), nearly 40 percent of Realtors report that they have experienced a work-related situation that made them fear for their safety. In 2013, 25 real estate professionals were the victims of homicide, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Crime against agents is not a new phenomenon. In the decade between 2003 and 2012, the bureau reported an average of 17 real estate homicides per year. It is, however, one that continues to threaten the industry. In the final weeks of 2016, two real estate agents were shot and killed while showing homes in Georgia and Texas, according to the NAR.

Set in a fictional city on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Curb Appeal opens with CW (Candace) McCoy discovering the naked body of a rival real estate agent, a black bra wrapped around her neck. It’s the least of CW’s problems. The hot new cop she’s dating may face assault charges. Relations with both her best friend and mentor have frayed. And back-to-back hurricanes threaten to flatten a city groaning under the weight of over-development.

As the deception and bodies mount, CW must uncover the truth about her friends, her lover and a serial killer bent on murdering fellow agents . . . before she becomes a victim herself.

Curb Appeal is the third outing with CW, after Peak Season and Tourist in Paradise. The novel is available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo, as well as bookstores everywhere.

Out with the in crowd

For CW McCoy, appearance aren’t just deceptive. They’re deadly. Which is why the former detective turned real estate agent can trust no one, including herself, in Curb Appeal, her third adventure exploring the dark side of the Sunshine State.

While showing a mansion on tony Spanish Key, CW discovers the naked body of a rival real estate agent, a black bra wrapped around her neck.

It’s the least of CW’s problems. The hot new cop she’s dating may face assault charges. Relations with both her best friend and mentor have frayed. And back-to-back hurricanes threaten to flatten the coast.

As the deception and bodies mount, CW must uncover the truth about her friends, her lover and a serial killer bent on murdering fellow agents . . . before she becomes a victim herself.

Curb Appeal will be published on June 7 but you can preorder the e-book version through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo.

 

Celebrating openness with the SPD

We gather on the second floor of the Sarasota Police Department to celebrate our graduation. There’s a cake, a couple of proud parents and about 20 members of the SPD Citizens Academy. We’re a collection of real estate agents and financial advisers, retirees and writers. We have come to peek into the guarded world of law enforcement and over the past 12 week’s we’ve learned about the hazards of policing on both sides of the badge.

Members of the SPD command staff are here, acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and the captain of patrol operations, Kevin Stiff, as are those who organized the academy, Training Officer Jeff Dunn and the volunteers who lugged coolers of soda and water and boxes of pastries and name cards every week.

They have certificates, photos and a parting message for us: we’ve helped them as much as they’ve helped us.

“We are grateful for people who want to live through our eyes,” Capt. Robinson says. “Officers are put under an immense amount of stress. The more folks we can educate on why we do things, the better our interaction with the citizens.”

Jeff Dunn says officers also benefit from the class by getting feedback from some of those citizens.

Robinson echoes that, adding that police can become jaded because they deal with a small but difficult portion of the population. “Sometimes you lose perspective.” (You can download an application for the next citizens’ academy here.)

For our part, we’ve learned about legal rights and wrongs, equipment and procedures, prostitution and traffic stops, court cases and crowd control. We’ve heard from the victim advocate, the public information officer, the state attorney, the coordinator of volunteers. We’ve watched K-9 dogs attack and officers defend themselves. We’ve investigated a crime scene, toughed it out in the use-of-force simulator and fired weapons at the gun range.

In between, we’ve listened to officers describe their background and their passion for the job.

In 12 weeks we’ve learned things aren’t simple. Most officers play by the rules. Some don’t. During traffic stops, most people are polite. Some shoot cops. When we watch video of situations where police use force, the solution looks simple. Hindsight will do that. But we weren’t in that battle, with bullets and adrenalin flying, with limited time and information and options. People make decisions that aren’t rational. The second-guessing, the labels good and bad . . . those come later.

After riding with officers, sharing a meal and listening to their stories, many of us are convinced the most important part of the course isn’t about guns or self-defense or crime scenes or SWAT. The most interesting aspect of police work are the officers themselves.

Getting them to open up might be the biggest cause for celebration.

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

 

SPD Facebook banner photo Web

Riding with the blues

Officer Bryant Singley walks into the glass and metal headquarters of the Sarasota Police Department with a shell casing in a surgical glove and heads upstairs to the evidence room. Someone found the brass in a yard and called the police. It’s a minor matter, no crime has been reported, but Singley takes his time to get the paperwork right.

He fills out a property report, puts the casing in a plastic bag, seals it, fills out an evidence sticker, notes the case number on a paper log and puts the bag in one of the black lockers. “In case they need it in another case.”

Singley is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Austin Police Department. He’s worked for the SPD for the past 11 years. Today he’s doing light duty, hauling a writer around in the passenger seat of his cruiser on what law enforcement calls a ride-along. He gets to fight crime; I get to watch.

He’s not even out of the building when he gets a call on his radio. I can’t make out the assignment, just his summation to me. “We’ll clear the call and then it’s crossing-guard duty.”

The car is black inside with a molded gray plastic backseat with seatbelts and a plastic partition and, in front, a computer mounted on a tray within easy reach of the driver. I squeeze in next to it and we roll.

Sign of the times
The first stop is the 1800 block of Loma Linda Street near Sarasota Bay. Two property owners are having an argument over a stolen NO TRESPASSING sign. We park on the narrow street with a pest-control vendor on one side and dump trucks rumbling down to the cul-de-sac to excavate for a new home.

“Stay by the car until I introduce you,” Singley says and walks to the door of a brick and beam house with a metal roof.

We meet a woman in running gear with a bright cap pulled over her eyes who says the neighbor in back of her lot keeps taking her sign. She’s early fifties with a low, calm voice and a slight curl to her upper lip. She’s holding a new sign with a stapler tucked under her arm.

The officer introduces me to the woman—we’ll call her Becky. We stand in the sun in the neighbor’s driveway and look at the lot, a stretch of that light gray sand that covers most of Florida. A wooden fence stands in back. A tall man with a water bottle and a gray T-shirt depicting a sailfish wanders into the conversation. Maybe the husband. The neighbor, a middle-aged woman with broad blond hair and a smile to match, joins the group.

Singley looks at the fence that separates Becky’s lot from her neighbor’s house and asks for the story. Becky says she knows the neighbor took the sign she’d tacked on the fence, but she can’t prove it. Singley says, “You two have had some troubles before.”

Becky think about this revelation. “Yeah,” she finally says and accuses the woman in back of tossing her lawn clippings over the fence and wandering into other people’s yards. “She’s crazy.”

Sidewalk diplomacy
Singley dismisses the comment. He asks for details and says he’ll be back. We get in the patrol car, drive around the corner to Bahia Vista Street and stop at a wooden house we later learn is 100 years old. A wooden fence surrounds the house, garage and shed. We stand on the gravel landscaping and try the gate. It’s locked. The officer and I walk up two concrete strips to the garage and he shouts “Hello?” but no one answers.

We find the woman we’ll call Linda around the other side of the house, near the shed. She’s mid-sixties, short and thin with dark hair and eyes that bounce between us.

Officer Singley says, “You know why I’m here,” and asks if she took the sign. She shakes her head vigorously and says she didn’t even know there was a sign and begins to delineate her property lines. She wants to show us the fence so we walk to the back of the house and she points to a tree on her land. Someone has sawed off the limbs that would have hung over the fence. Linda accuses her neighbor of doing that, when she wasn’t home.

Singley tells her how it’s going to be: she’ll agree to keep to her side of the fence and Becky will do the same. “Just ignore each other,” he says and we return to the empty lot, where Singley says the same thing to Becky, who looks up and down the street and shakes her head and frowns.

We sink back into the car and bathe in the air conditioning and head to our next assignment—lunch at Nancy’s BBQ, where we sit outside and eat pulled pork sandwiches and talk about the Temptations, Bobby Womack and early Michael Jackson, “Before he fixed his nose,” Singley says. How about Etta James? “That’s my mama’s generation.”

I ask him about recent incidents involving police and the use of force. He declines to comment, saying “I wasn’t there.” His philosophy about policing is simple. “I don’t comment on what I don’t know,” then adds, “I just want to go home at the end of the day.” Go home alive, he means.

Hitting the road
At Southside Elementary School, it’s hot and getting hotter, with temperatures and humidity in the upper 80s. It’s the kind of day where if you stand outside, you find a patch of shade. In the middle of the crosswalk, there is no shade.

This morning Officer Singley got word that the crossing guard at Southside couldn’t work so his lieutenant assigned the duty to him. I can’t tell if this is scut work or part of the chief’s community policing policy. Probably neither.

We arrive before 2:45 p.m. for a one-hour shift. Officer Singley parks on the grassy shoulder and hits the roof lights to slow traffic. Then he gets out, dons a yellow vest and whistle and waits at the corner of South Osprey and Webber by the signal box for pedestrians. On the rough concrete sidewalk someone has spray painted in perfectly straight letters the words, “Wait here.”

We wait.

When the kids show up, Singley’s ready. He watches everything—cars going too fast through the school zone, cars parked on the sidewalk, a guy driving with a phone to his ear, a man on a ladder half a block away. He yells at a young female driver to buckle her seatbelt. He’s got eyes in back of his head. He’s also got a cheerful banter going with the people leaving school, and not just the mothers and grandmothers with their younger kids and strollers and umbrellas. He asks the kids what grade they’re in and why they’re carrying a basketball and whether they or their younger sister has more freckles. And then he punches the button on the pole and blows his whistle and walks to the middle of the intersection and wishes them all a good day.

“It’s hot,” he says on his way back and looks for more pedestrians and punches the button and does it all over again.

Remains of the day
At 3:50 p.m. the sidewalk empties and we pile into the squad car and head for headquarters. As we drive on Osprey, something about the black VW Jetta in front of us catches his eye. In the 1600 block of Main Street, Singley calls in the tag number and pulls the car over.

“Wait here,” he says.

Approaching the driver’s side of the car slowly, he places a palm on the rear window to mark the car and leans forward to talk to the driver. When he gets back in the cruiser he says, “She says she doesn’t know why I pulled her over,” and punches the license number and tag into the computer. Up comes a photo of the driver’s father and a yellow block of type that says the tag has expired. Singley compares the woman’s information on the screen with her license and through a series of drop-down menus completes the ticket. He clicks a button labeled “issue citation” and a printer between the seats spits out two copies of what looks like a grocery-store receipt. He gives one copy to the driver.

Then it’s back to the glass and metal headquarters and we’re done. I thank him for the ride. We shake hands. It’s still hot and he’s got another hour-and-a-half to go before his 12-hour shift is up but he smiles anyway.

An uneventful day, but at least we both get to go home.

Next: graduation from the SPD Citizens Academy.

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

 

Officer Bryant Singley ticketing VW Jetta 72dpi

With drug trade, big wheel keeps on turnin’

The driver with the dreadlocks to his shoulders backs into the parking space at Marina Jack’s and powers down the window. He’s looking to buy 200 oxycodone pills from an undercover agent posing as a dealer.  The agent, a man with graying hair and a shirt slung over his shoulder, leans in to talk.

As members of the Sarasota (Florida) Police Department’s narcotics unit film the exchange from a nearby car, they see too many red flags. The driver backed in. He’s on the phone. He’s flashing a wad of cash with a twenty on top and ones underneath. The deal’s worth $1,600, so the buyer intends to steal the drugs. He wants to count the pills and tells the undercover agent to get in the car. The officer refuses.

Before anyone can react, the passenger reaches across the driver and points a handgun at the agent’s head. The driver bolts. Officers stop him before he can leave the lot.

“We did get him,” the sergeant in charge of the unit tells members of the SPD Citizen’s Academy. “We had controlled phone calls of their intent to do the deal. That’s an attempted armed robbery, and it trumps the drug charge. It was a loaded .45 handgun.”

Moving target
Detectives were seeing an uptick in the abuse of prescription medication like Percocet and OxyContin until local law enforcement, led by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, began a crackdown in 2009. Since then, the target has shifted.

“As far as upper-level crime, what we mostly see is cocaine,” a detective in the SPD unit says. “We’re starting to see a lot more heroin because oxycodone has become more expensive. People are lacing heroin with fentanyl [a synthetic opioid analgesic that is 80 times more potent than morphine] to increase potency. They’re dying with the needle in their arm.”

But the big drug today is spice.

The Associated Press is reporting a huge nationwide spike in hospitalizations caused by synthetic marijuana. The number of cases rocketed from 359 in January to more than 1,500 in April, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Synthetic marijuana usually is non-marijuana plant material sprayed with cannabinoids and marketed under brand names like Spice, K2 and Scooby Snax.

After two people died at New College of Florida in early May, the Sarasota Police Department said its initial investigation showed that “both deaths appeared to be drug related.”

“This stuff is really bad,” the sergeant says. “Users don’t know what they’re smoking. People put potpourri in cement mixers and spray it with chemicals they get from China. It’s sprayed with a Level 1 narcotic like XLR-11 [an ingredient in synthetic cannabis]. That’s why these people are going crazy when they smoke it. These chemicals, they’re a lethal cocktail.”

Working the street
The SPD narcotics unit consists of five officers and a technician in charge of the recording equipment. The unit does undercover drug buys, executes searches and conducts long-term investigations to nab importers and dealers.

Detectives get their cases from a variety of sources—neighbor complaints, patrol division reports, Crime Stoppers of Sarasota and other hotline programs. They follow prostitutes to drug houses. They do surveillance to verify information. They drive unmarked cars through dealer turf and set up street buys with cameras covering every inch of the car’s interior.

One of the most effective tools is the confidential informant. “A lot of times we’ll arrest somebody who says he’s tired of this life,” the sergeant says. “Once we determine that they’re fairly mentally capable, we’ll pay that person to do a controlled drug buy for us.” He pauses and in those few seconds you can watch the wheels turn as he mulls the unanswered questions from the audience, about the Faustian bargain, about ethics rather than souls, so he adds, “We say we’re making a deal with the devil,” and leaves it at that.

Bigger fish
Detectives can take only so much product out of circulation with street-level deals. So they work with federal authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to arrest leaders and escalate charges.

In 2014 the unit wrapped up a two-year investigation called SRQ Cartel II that resulted in the arrest of 10 people alleged to be mid-level suppliers. Police confiscated 12 kilograms of cocaine, five cars, seven guns and $115,000. A prior sweep resulted in the arrest of a Sarasota man allegedly tied to a Mexican drug cartel.

“Our goal is to climb the ladder,” the sergeant says.

Publicly, both he and the detective—I’m not naming or photographing them to protect their ability to conduct undercover work—they call their job “stressful, dangerous and fun.” Privately, while proud of their work to remove the cause of other crimes such as burglary and assault, they have times of doubt.

Such as the day when an informant who promised to go straight climbed into their car for another deal. “The detective pulled his hat down over his face,” the sergeant says. “The informant didn’t even recognize him.”

He shakes his head at the memory. “You put them away and more take their place. Sometimes you feel like a gerbil on a wheel.”

Next: on patrol with the SPD.

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

 

Traffic stops: the good, the bad, the nightmare

It was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. Two Middlefield, Ohio police officers pull over a Saturn sedan for running a stop sign in March of 2013. In the video, the sky’s a typical washed-out winter blue. Cars keep rolling down the street as if nothing’s happening in this town of 2,700, located 45 miles due east of Cleveland.

Suddenly the driver opens his door and unleashes 37 rounds from an AK-47. The patrol car’s windshield splinters. Smoke drifts across the dash-cam as the officers return fire. “Kill me!” the man shouts and collapses in the street.

Police had pulled the driver over for a simple moving violation. The stop turned into an armed attack that resulted in the death of the driver and the injury of both officers.

Most traffic stops don’t end like that one but the danger exists–witness the killing of two officers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 9. So does the legal hazard of police violating a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to protection from illegal search and seizure. For the Sarasota Police Department, where three officers face investigation after a man pulled over for a moving violation died, traffic stops are anything but routine.

Officers Helios Blanco and John Vanik show the Middlefield video to members of the SPD Citizens Academy to make a point: that when it comes to traffic stops, the operative word is safety. Police must protect themselves when approaching a vehicle. Drivers should keep that in mind when evaluating an officer’s behavior . . . and their own.

Danger all around
There are three types of traffic stops: routine; redirect, where the stop becomes a criminal investigation; and pretext, where police use a legitimate traffic violation for a closer look at the suspect. Call them the good, the bad and the really ugly, the Middlefield shooter the poster child for the latter.

“Every traffic stop is different—the person, the weather, the location,” says Vanik, a patrol division officer who specializes in DUI checks. “When I stop a car, I don’t know who’s in the car, their race, their nationality, even after I run the tag and make contact. Everybody has tinted windows and when it’s two in the morning and it’s a dark street, I can’t even tell if there’s a person in the car.”

An officer’s first step is to determine the number of occupants and whether they are moving in an effort to hide guns or conceal drugs. After that, police look for signs of trouble. “Bumper stickers are a giveaway. NRA stickers tell me there’s a gun in car. Stickers like ‘I hate government’ and ‘I hate police’ . . . tell me how they feel.

“Most of the time,” Vanik says, “people are polite to us.” Still, he and other officers park so they can shine headlights on the suspect’s car and use theirs as a shield. They will order suspects out of the vehicle and have them walk backwards. They will stand where a shooter would not expect to find them.

“Always, keep eyes on,” says Blanco, a gang officer and Spanish-speaking translator. “Those few seconds can make the difference between me going home or going to the morgue.”

Proceed with caution
Since 52% of all encounters with police occur during traffic stops, SPD offers this advice:

  • When you notice lights behind you, pull your vehicle to the curb and stay stopped.
  • Keep both hands on the steering wheel until the officer approaches.
  • Provide your license, registration and proof of insurance.
  • The officer will tell you the reason for the stop.
  • Back in the patrol car, the officer will check DMV records to determine if the vehicle is stolen or if the driver is on inmate release.
  • The officer will say whether you will receive a citation or a warning.

If the officer smells something coming from the car, he or she may have probable cause to search the vehicle. “The window is down,” Blanco says. “I get an odor. It’s not Febreze. If it’s marijuana, we have probable cause to search.”

Not so with alcohol. Vanik says police need at least two behavioral cues to conduct a field sobriety test, such as the smell of alcohol and slurred speech.

Regardless of whether the stop results in a warning or something more serious, the encounter is usually stressful for everyone.

“I never say ‘have a nice day,’” Blanco says. “I say, ‘take care.’”

Good advice . . . for all concerned.

Next: marine patrol and drug awareness.

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

 

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.