‘No More Dead Dogs’

“Did you kill off the dog?” my wife said as she read the chapter in Tourist in Paradise on Sugar Bear. My wife is a fan of Gordon’s Korman’s children’s book No More Dead Dogs and doesn’t truck with such nonsense.

“Yes,” I said, maybe regretting the decision to let her edit the manuscript. “Is that a bad thing?”

Sugar Bear is the name of an American bulldog adopted by Susan Thompson in the second of the CW McCoy crime novels. I based the dog on the unofficial mascot of the Sarasota Sheriff Office’s Animal Services Center, a sweetheart that goes by the same name. The office let me photograph her during one of our classes in its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy.

The fictional Sugar Bear, who makes her debut a few chapters before the one my wife was editing, isn’t as mean spirited as some of the people coming after CW, her mentor Walter Bishop, his new friend, Lois, and Officer Chip Stover. But crime novels aren’t known for happy endings. So given my wife’s warning, I had a decision to make.

Was it the right one? The final paragraphs of Chapter 29 set up the outcome. I’ll let CW tell the story:

“Oh, my God,” Lois said. “Where’s Sugar Bear?”

“If she’s here,” Walter said, “the police would have found her.”

“Stover didn’t go through the house,” I said

“The fire crew has heat sensors,” Walter said.

Lois shook her head. “I heard them say they didn’t need them, that the neighbor said there was no one inside.”

I headed for the house.

“CW!” Walter yelled but I was already running across the shell-covered driveway, stamping through a watery scum of burned wood and sand, knocking aside the fence that circled the outdoor shower to let myself into the house through the back door.

Enough fiction. Let’s talk reality.

The Sarasota Animal Services Center is a class operation. Supervisor Tami Treadway, Volunteer Coordinator Kristen Little and staff are eager to match good people with pets that deserve good homes. If you want to see animals like Sugar Bear thrive, visit the shelter at 8451 Bee Ridge Road or the center’s website or call (941) 861-9500.

Tell them CW sent you.

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.

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.

 

In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

Sgt. Daniel Weinsberg trains by watching footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sgt. Bryan Graham practices by building bombs with Play-Doh instead of C-4. Officer Tammy Featherstone role plays a scenario where she’s talking to a suicidal veteran with traumatic brain injury.

When they aren’t training, they’re confronting protesters, removing explosive devices and rescuing hostages, always dealing with a high level of danger, to the public and themselves. They accept the risks and seem to enjoy their work.

Just another day at the office for three specialized units of the Sarasota Police Department—Emergency Response, Explosive Materials and Crisis Negotiation. The three team leaders brought their equipment and expertise to the Citizen’s Academy in the third of a series of 12 classes that give civilians a glimpse of life behind the badge.

First up, Sgt. Weinsberg, team leader for the the department’s contingent on the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team. The ERT deploys during times of emergency or crisis when there is a high probability of criminal or civil unrest. Think hurricanes, riots and, yes, weapons of mass destruction. It consists of three teams from the sheriff’s office and one from the city, 10 officers per team.

Viewers who watched protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle will remember cordons of police with body armor called turtle gear wading into the crowds. “That’s what we don’t do,” Weinsberg said. The ERU doesn’t even suit up if it isn’t necessary to preserving life because that image alone can trigger a backlash.

Many of the drills involve learning how to not to respond when provoked. “As one of our training sergeants said, ‘You don’t want to be on TV.’”

As leader of the Explosive Materials Unit (EMU), or bomb squad, Sgt. Graham and team have a different but equally perilous situation to defuse. They use a host of equipment, from protective suits that weigh 90 lbs. to the Remotec ANDROS F6A robot. It has a telescoping camera, a claw to position an X-ray device and the ability to climb stairs.

The team’s primary job is to remove the bomb to a remote location and detonate it, often with a charge of highly pressurized water. No Danger UXB guesswork about which wires to cut first. But in the end, someone has to get close to the explosive device . . . if only to pick up the pieces for FBI analysis.

Officer Tammy Featherstone, a member of the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU), deals with another kind of danger—threats to the lives of hostages and potential suicide victims. The CNU deploys two negotiators to every incident. The first talks to the suspect, the second takes notes and feeds that information to intelligence officers.

Her goal is a peaceful end to the situation. “We want to bring everyone home.”

Next: SWAT and the dive team.

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

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department's Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On the screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department’s Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.