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

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