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.

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.