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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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

Beyond the gun at Sarasota PD

Detective Dwayne Shellhammer holds up a ballistic shield and vest and talks about the training and judgment needed to serve on the Sarasota Police Department’s SWAT team. He lists the other equipment used by team members, the less-lethal stun grenades, CS (tear) gas and sponge bullets. Only near the end of his presentation does he pick up an M4 assault rifle, one of the few deadly weapons in the team’s arsenal.

Make no mistake, SPD officers adhere to what they call the Priority of Life Model: protect the victims, hostages, bystanders and police first. Suspects come last, and if it takes an assault to serve a warrant on a felon with guns, the SWAT team is ready. But all of that militaristic equipment is designed to defend the public, not assail it.

“What about the militarization of the police—how do you feel about that?” Shellhammer asked residents attending the SPD’s Citizen’s Academy. One woman said it made her a little afraid. Others wanted the police to have the same weapons and training as the assailants. Or better.

“The key,” said SPD training Officer Jeff Dunn, who helped to organize the course, “is having the training to know when to use these tools.”

Det. Dwayne Shellhammer helps Zulay Gallagher into a ballistic vest

Detective Dwayne Shellhammer helps Zulay Gallagher into a ballistic vest

That ethic applies to the department’s Underwater Search & Recovery Team as well. The Dive Team uses boats, lift bags, sonar, dry suits and metal detectors to raise derelict boats and find weapons and bodies. But the mission isn’t about the tools.

“Why do we need all this equipment? Underwater is a deadly environment,” Officer Trip Schwenk said. “The equipment keeps us safe and enables us to find what we’re looking for.”

Beyond that, the Dive Team’s work can help people cope with tragedy. “It’s finding the victim quickly and getting them back to their family that’s important,” Schwenk said. “I love catching crooks, but if I have somebody’s that’s hurting and we can give them closure, I get more satisfaction out of that.”

On the fourth night of SPD’s Citizen Academy, Shellhammer, Schwenk and Dunn did more than list the equipment and training need to do their jobs. They demonstrated the issues police officers face and the strategy and restraint needed to resolve them.

Or as Shellhammer put it, “We’re not a bunch of guys running around with guns.”

Next: The roles of the state attorney and the K-9 squad.

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

Officer Trip Schwenk demonstrates a full-face AGA dive mask.

Officer Trip Schwenk demonstrates a full-face AGA dive mask.