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.

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