Changing the view of black and blue

A police officer shoots an unarmed civilian. A criminal assassinates a deputy. People march, riot, while others call for peace. Across a widening divide, battle lines form. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. In the middle, a sheriff suggests that all lives matter.

America is coming apart. America is coming together. The people we hire to protect us attack and are themselves attacked. Support erodes. Doubts replace trust. In an increasingly hostile environment, what can law enforcement do to help society regain its balance?

It can show the public how policing works, the dangers, the challenges, the limitations officers face. Two agencies in Sarasota County do that, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office through its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy and the Sarasota Police Department through its Citizens’ Academy. I’ve attended both, riding with officers, conducting mock investigations, standing in the use-of-force simulator with a gun,  a TASER and the feeling that life has spun out of control.

It’s an issue all of America faces, one that prompted me to write a book about the experience. The book is called Riding with the Blues, Behind the Badge with the Sarasota Police Department. It’s an attempt to find out what law enforcement does when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s the first chapter:

Chapter 1: Simulated Fear
My partner and I sweep into the office building, weapons held in firing position, stomachs bouncing like trampolines. There’s an active shooter in the building. People move in and out of the frame, a jumble of corridors and desks, the wounded lying on the floor, workers, police officers, some calling for help. We have no time.

Riding with the BluesA tall man with shoulders rounding a white polo shirt crosses between several desks and turns into an office. He raises his arm and fires. We edge closer. As the man backs out of the office he spots us and, half-turned, starts to raise his pistol. My partner and I yell “Police! Drop the weapon!” but he doesn’t and we fire, hitting him several times. As he goes down, silence crowds the air, and as we inch forward, a dark figure climbs from behind a desk.

Is he a shooter, a victim, a hostage? Is he armed? We’ve been briefed about the law, how shooting unarmed civilians can land us in jail, how hesitating may get us killed. As the man rises, we have a nanosecond to make a decision.

We freeze. He’s too far away to see his eyes but he’s got something in his hand, and we’re in the open, nothing between us but raw space. Crawling around the side of the desk, crouching in the corridor, the man raises a handgun and starts shooting. We return fire until he collapses. I have no idea if we’re hit, just that he’s not moving.

The officer behind the computer freezes the frame. On a screen larger than the biggest home theater, crosshairs dot the shooter’s chest, marking the places where we’ve landed rounds. As the adrenalin cools, we come back to a different reality.

In the dim light, everything looks gray, the walls, the carpet, even the screen. We’re standing in a classroom on the third floor of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) in Sarasota, Florida, experiencing the use-of-force simulator as dozens of rookie officers have over the years. Only we’re not recruits. We are civilians enrolled in the SPD’s Citizens’ Academy, a twelve-week program designed to reveal the realities of police work and the people who live in the often closed world behind the badge.

The simulator is a humbling experience. It pinpoints our lack of training and resolve. It highlights the violence of our culture, and the risks that officers and civilians face in any encounter. This is the dark half of policing, the part we see in movies and on TV, always from the spectator side of the camera, the focus on how the situation looks, not how it feels. As we turn in our weapons and return to class, I recall the shooting of civilians by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina. I think back to the first session of the Citizens’ Academy and the chief’s talk about community policing, the part about cooperation and understanding, about winning the hearts and minds of the citizens, and I wonder how the two halves fit.

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.

 

‘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

‘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