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