Month of Mayhem

Next week kicks off a Month of Mayhem, with a look at the places that shaped Brinker’s story in his debut crime novel Mr. Mayhem—all in preparation for the return of the defrocked journalist and PR whiz this fall in the sequel, Mr. Magic.

Brinker returns a kinder, gentler guy who draws inspiration from his girlfriend Carly, a mate he calls The Buddha and the landscapes of the Greater Lehigh Valley. But in the meantime, he’s still stalking the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

Each day in August, visitors on social media view the scenes that inspired Brinker’s day job and his extracurricular work, as well as the ones that fueled his loves and addictions. Here’s a look at some of the sights that became models for the novel.

1959 Cadillac hearse used by Col. Mabry when the modern version breaks down.

1959 Cadillac hearse used by Col. Mabry when the modern version breaks down.

 

Stroudsburg, Pa. funeral home that inspired Brinker’s workplace, Mabry & Sons.

Stroudsburg, Pa. funeral home that inspired Brinker’s workplace, Mabry & Sons.

 

The house on Sarah Street in Stroudsburg, Pa. where Eddie Maps allegedly killed his wife and daughter plays a seminal role in Mr. Mayhem.

The house on Sarah Street in Stroudsburg, Pa. where Eddie Maps allegedly killed his wife and daughter plays a seminal role in Mr. Mayhem.

 

Corner house in Stroudsburg, Pa. served as a model for the home of the first victim.

Corner house in Stroudsburg, Pa. served as a model for the home of the first victim.

 

Brinker’s mascot, Pecan Man, haunts Mabry & Sons funeral home.

Brinker’s mascot, Pecan Man, haunts Mabry & Sons funeral home.

 

One of most famous taverns in the Burgs, Rudy’s served as model for Willy’s Tavern.

One of most famous taverns in the Burgs, Rudy’s served as model for Willy’s Tavern.

 

Infamous intersection at 7th & Main in Stroudsburg, Pa., host to politicians and fatal accidents.

The intersection at 7th & Main in Stroudsburg, Pa., plays host to politicians and other fatalities.

 

The Water Gap Trolley became the model vehicle for Brinker’s Magical Murder Tour.

The Water Gap Trolley became the model vehicle for Brinker’s Magical Murder Tour.

Why we write

The chief benefit of publishing an e-book through Smashwords is the distribution channel–Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBooks and indie e-book retailer Kobo. There’s one other feature writers might consider, an interview with the author. Here’s mine:

What motivated you to become an indie author?

After sending queries to 76 agents, I received a number of kind comments but no offers of representation. Then an indie author alerted me to Joanna Penn and The Creative Penn podcasts about the publishing industry. I found her rationale for going independent so compelling I decided to learn as much as I could. The materials on Smashwords were also a great help. In an increasingly DIY world, indie publishing makes a lot sense.

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?

The greatest joy of writing is the process, the act of writing. Something I think publishing is just an excuse to keep writing.

What do your fans mean to you?

Fans mean contact with people who share common interests and feelings. The feel of a book is so important, and so elusive, especially during the drafting phase, when the author is isolated from others. To hear that I’ve entertained or touched someone else . . . that’s the real joy of writing.

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548What are you working on now?

I’m writing the sequel to Peak Season, the second book in the CW McCoy series. It’s called Tourist in Paradise and starts with the premise that someone is trying to kill the tourism industry in Southwest Florida. I’m also working on the audiobook version of Mr. Mayhem, the first in the Brinker series of crime novels. It’s high-concept, the kind of treatment you’d expect to see on HBO or Amazon Prime.

Who are your favorite authors?

An eclectic group of crime novelists ranging from Raymond Chandler, Ken Bruen and Chelsea Cain (“One Kick) to Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Ruth Rendell and Tony Hillerman. I like the Anns–Anne Lamott, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen. I also like the romantics, Jennifer Crusie and Janet Evanovich, and British writers P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster) and John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey).

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?

Another chance to create, to build new worlds and live inside them.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Hiking, taking photos, reading, listening to classical music and NPR.

How do you discover the e-books you read?

I follow recommendations from fellow members of my writers’ groups.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

No, but I remember a wonderful professor who rekindled my interest in fiction to such a degree that I wrote a book-length collection of short stories. Now that’s inspiration.

What is your writing process?

I try to write first thing in the morning and save marketing and social media for later in the day.

Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?

I remember my parents reading to me, and since then, I’ve grown fond of spoken-word audio.

Riding 3D coversHow do you approach cover design?

After design the cover of my first nonfiction book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, I wisely took the advice of a seasoned indie author and hired a professional to design the covers of Peak Season, Mr. Mayhem and Riding with the Blues. The designers have captured the tone of the work better than I ever could.

What are your five favorite books, and why?

Listening Woman by Tony Hillerman, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan and Road Rage by Ruth Rendell. Let’s add a sixth: California Fire and Life by Don Winslow. All offer sensitive characters thrust into compelling situations.

What do you read for pleasure?

Standalone books like The Girl on the Train and series novels by Parker, Hillerman, Rendell, Grimes and the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse. (Who can top Jeeves and Wooster?)

What is your e-reading device of choice?

I have an iPad mini and a Kindle and I’m looking forward to buying an Android tablet in the near future.

What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?

Social media and word of mouth, although I will send review copies to journalists and bloggers.

Describe your desk

My dining room table.

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?

I grew up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, a once-rural area that attracted tourists to the clean mountain air. Perched on the border with New Jersey, it is now a bedroom community for New York. The area inspired a love of nature and a desire to experience the art and culture found in the city.

Mr Mayhem 3d_coverWhat’s the story behind your latest book?

After moving to Florida, I decided to revisit a lifelong interest in fiction. During a writing class, the instructor suggested we turn a short story into a news report and a news story into a piece of short fiction. As a working journalist, the first part felt easy. (I chose one of my favorites, a John Updike short story.) For the second part, I found an article about a fugitive financier that fascinated me and turned it into a short story. I liked the product and the process so much, I worked the character into the novel Peak Season and created someone worthy of challenging him, CW McCoy, a woman who had renounced violence . . . under the fugitive kidnaps her family.

For the second novel, Mr. Mayhem, I channeled some of the anger at literary rejection and cynicism about public relations and marketing in general.

When did you first start writing?

In elementary school.

What’s next for you?

The debut of Mr. Mayhem and the character of Brinker, a disgraced journalist doing PR for a funeral home and its trolley tour of murder sites in rural Pennsylvania. He hates the job, the place and himself. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders to draw a crowd. An assassin would help. The audio version should be a killer.

A walk on the dark side with ‘Mr. Mayhem’

Sued by his publisher for libel, Brinker is reduced to promoting trolley tours of crime scenes. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders to draw a crowd.

A good serial killer would help.

When his doctor asks for aid in euthanizing terminal patients, Brinker hires an assassin named Angel, who reigns chaos and fame on the sleepy resort town.

But as Angel’s demands soar with the body count, Brinker wonders whether he’ll become the latest addition to his own list.

For better or worse, Mr. Mayhem, the first in the Brinker series of crime thrillers, comes alive in this video.

[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/uovYcBIkjME”%5D

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.

Riding with the blues

Officer Bryant Singley walks into the glass and metal headquarters of the Sarasota Police Department with a shell casing in a surgical glove and heads upstairs to the evidence room. Someone found the brass in a yard and called the police. It’s a minor matter, no crime has been reported, but Singley takes his time to get the paperwork right.

He fills out a property report, puts the casing in a plastic bag, seals it, fills out an evidence sticker, notes the case number on a paper log and puts the bag in one of the black lockers. “In case they need it in another case.”

Singley is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Austin Police Department. He’s worked for the SPD for the past 11 years. Today he’s doing light duty, hauling a writer around in the passenger seat of his cruiser on what law enforcement calls a ride-along. He gets to fight crime; I get to watch.

He’s not even out of the building when he gets a call on his radio. I can’t make out the assignment, just his summation to me. “We’ll clear the call and then it’s crossing-guard duty.”

The car is black inside with a molded gray plastic backseat with seatbelts and a plastic partition and, in front, a computer mounted on a tray within easy reach of the driver. I squeeze in next to it and we roll.

Sign of the times
The first stop is the 1800 block of Loma Linda Street near Sarasota Bay. Two property owners are having an argument over a stolen NO TRESPASSING sign. We park on the narrow street with a pest-control vendor on one side and dump trucks rumbling down to the cul-de-sac to excavate for a new home.

“Stay by the car until I introduce you,” Singley says and walks to the door of a brick and beam house with a metal roof.

We meet a woman in running gear with a bright cap pulled over her eyes who says the neighbor in back of her lot keeps taking her sign. She’s early fifties with a low, calm voice and a slight curl to her upper lip. She’s holding a new sign with a stapler tucked under her arm.

The officer introduces me to the woman—we’ll call her Becky. We stand in the sun in the neighbor’s driveway and look at the lot, a stretch of that light gray sand that covers most of Florida. A wooden fence stands in back. A tall man with a water bottle and a gray T-shirt depicting a sailfish wanders into the conversation. Maybe the husband. The neighbor, a middle-aged woman with broad blond hair and a smile to match, joins the group.

Singley looks at the fence that separates Becky’s lot from her neighbor’s house and asks for the story. Becky says she knows the neighbor took the sign she’d tacked on the fence, but she can’t prove it. Singley says, “You two have had some troubles before.”

Becky think about this revelation. “Yeah,” she finally says and accuses the woman in back of tossing her lawn clippings over the fence and wandering into other people’s yards. “She’s crazy.”

Sidewalk diplomacy
Singley dismisses the comment. He asks for details and says he’ll be back. We get in the patrol car, drive around the corner to Bahia Vista Street and stop at a wooden house we later learn is 100 years old. A wooden fence surrounds the house, garage and shed. We stand on the gravel landscaping and try the gate. It’s locked. The officer and I walk up two concrete strips to the garage and he shouts “Hello?” but no one answers.

We find the woman we’ll call Linda around the other side of the house, near the shed. She’s mid-sixties, short and thin with dark hair and eyes that bounce between us.

Officer Singley says, “You know why I’m here,” and asks if she took the sign. She shakes her head vigorously and says she didn’t even know there was a sign and begins to delineate her property lines. She wants to show us the fence so we walk to the back of the house and she points to a tree on her land. Someone has sawed off the limbs that would have hung over the fence. Linda accuses her neighbor of doing that, when she wasn’t home.

Singley tells her how it’s going to be: she’ll agree to keep to her side of the fence and Becky will do the same. “Just ignore each other,” he says and we return to the empty lot, where Singley says the same thing to Becky, who looks up and down the street and shakes her head and frowns.

We sink back into the car and bathe in the air conditioning and head to our next assignment—lunch at Nancy’s BBQ, where we sit outside and eat pulled pork sandwiches and talk about the Temptations, Bobby Womack and early Michael Jackson, “Before he fixed his nose,” Singley says. How about Etta James? “That’s my mama’s generation.”

I ask him about recent incidents involving police and the use of force. He declines to comment, saying “I wasn’t there.” His philosophy about policing is simple. “I don’t comment on what I don’t know,” then adds, “I just want to go home at the end of the day.” Go home alive, he means.

Hitting the road
At Southside Elementary School, it’s hot and getting hotter, with temperatures and humidity in the upper 80s. It’s the kind of day where if you stand outside, you find a patch of shade. In the middle of the crosswalk, there is no shade.

This morning Officer Singley got word that the crossing guard at Southside couldn’t work so his lieutenant assigned the duty to him. I can’t tell if this is scut work or part of the chief’s community policing policy. Probably neither.

We arrive before 2:45 p.m. for a one-hour shift. Officer Singley parks on the grassy shoulder and hits the roof lights to slow traffic. Then he gets out, dons a yellow vest and whistle and waits at the corner of South Osprey and Webber by the signal box for pedestrians. On the rough concrete sidewalk someone has spray painted in perfectly straight letters the words, “Wait here.”

We wait.

When the kids show up, Singley’s ready. He watches everything—cars going too fast through the school zone, cars parked on the sidewalk, a guy driving with a phone to his ear, a man on a ladder half a block away. He yells at a young female driver to buckle her seatbelt. He’s got eyes in back of his head. He’s also got a cheerful banter going with the people leaving school, and not just the mothers and grandmothers with their younger kids and strollers and umbrellas. He asks the kids what grade they’re in and why they’re carrying a basketball and whether they or their younger sister has more freckles. And then he punches the button on the pole and blows his whistle and walks to the middle of the intersection and wishes them all a good day.

“It’s hot,” he says on his way back and looks for more pedestrians and punches the button and does it all over again.

Remains of the day
At 3:50 p.m. the sidewalk empties and we pile into the squad car and head for headquarters. As we drive on Osprey, something about the black VW Jetta in front of us catches his eye. In the 1600 block of Main Street, Singley calls in the tag number and pulls the car over.

“Wait here,” he says.

Approaching the driver’s side of the car slowly, he places a palm on the rear window to mark the car and leans forward to talk to the driver. When he gets back in the cruiser he says, “She says she doesn’t know why I pulled her over,” and punches the license number and tag into the computer. Up comes a photo of the driver’s father and a yellow block of type that says the tag has expired. Singley compares the woman’s information on the screen with her license and through a series of drop-down menus completes the ticket. He clicks a button labeled “issue citation” and a printer between the seats spits out two copies of what looks like a grocery-store receipt. He gives one copy to the driver.

Then it’s back to the glass and metal headquarters and we’re done. I thank him for the ride. We shake hands. It’s still hot and he’s got another hour-and-a-half to go before his 12-hour shift is up but he smiles anyway.

An uneventful day, but at least we both get to go home.

Next: graduation from the SPD Citizens Academy.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

Officer Bryant Singley ticketing VW Jetta 72dpi

With drug trade, big wheel keeps on turnin’

The driver with the dreadlocks to his shoulders backs into the parking space at Marina Jack’s and powers down the window. He’s looking to buy 200 oxycodone pills from an undercover agent posing as a dealer.  The agent, a man with graying hair and a shirt slung over his shoulder, leans in to talk.

As members of the Sarasota (Florida) Police Department’s narcotics unit film the exchange from a nearby car, they see too many red flags. The driver backed in. He’s on the phone. He’s flashing a wad of cash with a twenty on top and ones underneath. The deal’s worth $1,600, so the buyer intends to steal the drugs. He wants to count the pills and tells the undercover agent to get in the car. The officer refuses.

Before anyone can react, the passenger reaches across the driver and points a handgun at the agent’s head. The driver bolts. Officers stop him before he can leave the lot.

“We did get him,” the sergeant in charge of the unit tells members of the SPD Citizen’s Academy. “We had controlled phone calls of their intent to do the deal. That’s an attempted armed robbery, and it trumps the drug charge. It was a loaded .45 handgun.”

Moving target
Detectives were seeing an uptick in the abuse of prescription medication like Percocet and OxyContin until local law enforcement, led by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, began a crackdown in 2009. Since then, the target has shifted.

“As far as upper-level crime, what we mostly see is cocaine,” a detective in the SPD unit says. “We’re starting to see a lot more heroin because oxycodone has become more expensive. People are lacing heroin with fentanyl [a synthetic opioid analgesic that is 80 times more potent than morphine] to increase potency. They’re dying with the needle in their arm.”

But the big drug today is spice.

The Associated Press is reporting a huge nationwide spike in hospitalizations caused by synthetic marijuana. The number of cases rocketed from 359 in January to more than 1,500 in April, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Synthetic marijuana usually is non-marijuana plant material sprayed with cannabinoids and marketed under brand names like Spice, K2 and Scooby Snax.

After two people died at New College of Florida in early May, the Sarasota Police Department said its initial investigation showed that “both deaths appeared to be drug related.”

“This stuff is really bad,” the sergeant says. “Users don’t know what they’re smoking. People put potpourri in cement mixers and spray it with chemicals they get from China. It’s sprayed with a Level 1 narcotic like XLR-11 [an ingredient in synthetic cannabis]. That’s why these people are going crazy when they smoke it. These chemicals, they’re a lethal cocktail.”

Working the street
The SPD narcotics unit consists of five officers and a technician in charge of the recording equipment. The unit does undercover drug buys, executes searches and conducts long-term investigations to nab importers and dealers.

Detectives get their cases from a variety of sources—neighbor complaints, patrol division reports, Crime Stoppers of Sarasota and other hotline programs. They follow prostitutes to drug houses. They do surveillance to verify information. They drive unmarked cars through dealer turf and set up street buys with cameras covering every inch of the car’s interior.

One of the most effective tools is the confidential informant. “A lot of times we’ll arrest somebody who says he’s tired of this life,” the sergeant says. “Once we determine that they’re fairly mentally capable, we’ll pay that person to do a controlled drug buy for us.” He pauses and in those few seconds you can watch the wheels turn as he mulls the unanswered questions from the audience, about the Faustian bargain, about ethics rather than souls, so he adds, “We say we’re making a deal with the devil,” and leaves it at that.

Bigger fish
Detectives can take only so much product out of circulation with street-level deals. So they work with federal authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to arrest leaders and escalate charges.

In 2014 the unit wrapped up a two-year investigation called SRQ Cartel II that resulted in the arrest of 10 people alleged to be mid-level suppliers. Police confiscated 12 kilograms of cocaine, five cars, seven guns and $115,000. A prior sweep resulted in the arrest of a Sarasota man allegedly tied to a Mexican drug cartel.

“Our goal is to climb the ladder,” the sergeant says.

Publicly, both he and the detective—I’m not naming or photographing them to protect their ability to conduct undercover work—they call their job “stressful, dangerous and fun.” Privately, while proud of their work to remove the cause of other crimes such as burglary and assault, they have times of doubt.

Such as the day when an informant who promised to go straight climbed into their car for another deal. “The detective pulled his hat down over his face,” the sergeant says. “The informant didn’t even recognize him.”

He shakes his head at the memory. “You put them away and more take their place. Sometimes you feel like a gerbil on a wheel.”

Next: on patrol with the SPD.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

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

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.

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