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.

Hook, line and action scene

David Hagberg doesn’t mess around. During a workshop in Venice, Florida, he said genre writers have to hook readers early, and the best way to do that is with action. He should know. He’s written a dozen thrillers for TOR.

After the session, I said I couldn’t decide how to begin Peak Season, a crime novel set in the fictional Florida beach town of Spanish Point. Should I start with the inciting incident, the one that drags the protagonist, CW McCoy, into the action? Or should I start with the scene that caused her to lose her gun, her badge and her self-confidence, the incident that propelled her to take refuge in this resort town by the sea?

In that big, bellow of his Hagberg said, “Start with the action!” I think people from Tampa to Naples heard him. I certainly did.

Was he right? Take a look at the first few pages of the novel and tell me what you think. (You can reach me through the email link at the bottom of this website’s homepage.)


I spotted the gun as soon as I walked through the door. Nicholas Church aimed a Glock 22 at his wife and daughter, arms straight and locked, his finger touching the trigger. His wife’s hands held nothing but air. The daughter gripped the back of her mother’s dress. Church’s eyes looked hard, the wife’s anguished, the little girl’s wide with terror.

“Bitch!” he roared and the soGun range silhouetteund echoed throughout the dead kitchen.

My face burned. After leaning out to call for backup, I stepped fully into the room and identified myself. He knew me. We’d worked together for two years. I held my hands away from my holster where he could see them. Non-threatening. No show of force. Talk him down.

Church filled the kitchen. He stood over six-feet-six and weighed more than 250 pounds, black hair slicked back, khaki slacks still creased despite the hour, white shirtsleeves rolled to the forearms to reveal a blue Marine Corps tattoo nestled among a thatch of hair. Under the fluorescent lights his silver badge glowed. Two years ago he’d received a citation for rescuing a woman trapped in a car. A year later the department had placed him on leave for beating a suspect during a drug bust. The wounded hero.

At five-foot-five, Anita Church shrank before her husband. She looked mid-twenties with a sharp nose and wisps of blond hair that floated around dangling earrings. She wore a sundress of pale yellow and blue, belted at her slender waist, and ballet shoes. Her wedding and engagement rings sparkled, as if to mock Church’s badge. When I moved closer, she glanced at me as if to say, you’re a woman, you can save me, and reached behind to clutch her daughter.

The girl was maybe seven, dressed in jeans and a sparkling pink T-shirt that depicted one of the Disney princesses. She wore pink slippers with rabbit ears. Junie, I thought. Nick called her June Bug.

For the third time that night I reminded myself that I didn’t belong there. Patrol responded to domestics, not detectives. My luck I was passing the neighborhood when the call came in. I inched forward, using Church’s name, reminding him that I was a cop and understood his anger, telling him to lower the weapon, showing him that we could talk. I gestured in slow circles, sliding to the right, watching his face, his fingers.

No one else in the room. Copper-bottom pots hanging from the ceiling. Two openings arching into shadow, one on the left that led to the laundry, one to the right that opened onto a formal dining room. In the silence I could hear him breathe, shallow, nasal. Somewhere in the house a clock chimed.

Where the hell is backup?

Church stood to my left, aiming across a table set with flowers and fruit, feet braced, both hands gripping the gun. With the slightest movement of his head he glanced right and ordered me to leave.

Tension clawed my neck. “Nick.” I kept my voice steady, my hands where he could see them. “You don’t want to do this. Put the weapon down. We can talk, whatever it is, we can talk.”

Behind me I sensed movement. A young male officer drew his weapon and crouched into firing position, his boots chirping on the tile. A radio squawked. Anita Church clutched at Junie and started to wail.

I shoved my hand into the holster and raised my weapon while edging to the right. In a voice deep from the gut I yelled, “Drop the gun!”

He kept the pistol trained on his wife. “Stay out of this!”

I tightened my grip, arms and stomach clenched, breath and blood pounding in my ears. “Drop the gun! Now!”

I watched his face, watched the eyes refocus on his wife, the jaw muscles tightening with the finger of his right hand, his stance shifting as the gun settled on the target. My vision narrowed and at the end of the tunnel Nicholas Church took in a deep breath as his index finger moved backward in slow motion.

Bam! Bam! The shots exploded in the tight space. The first round hit his chest and turned him. The second knocked him into the refrigerator. He slumped, his gun rattling on the tile. Anita screamed. Clinging to her mother’s dress, Junie gasped for air.

Ears ringing, the tang of gunpowder biting my nose, I holstered the weapon and put two fingers against Church’s neck and rose to call for an ambulance and the coroner. Walking across the kitchen to Anita and Junie, I guided them to chairs in the dining room. The crying crushed their faces. They’d soon slide from grief to shock. My arms shook and my stomach threatened to crawl out of my mouth.

You can buy Peak Season on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, iBooks 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.


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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.