Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Report from Citizens' Police Academy

by Annette Dashofy

I used to think that research was a challenge. Almost painful. That was before I learned how much fun it can be. When I was working on my veterinary/racetrack mysteries, I hung out on the backside (barn area) of Mountaineer, hotwalking the horses, grooming them, chatting with trainers and other horsey people. Loving horses, this kind of research was nothing short of heaven.

Now, I’m working on a new novel. One in which one of the main characters is a rural police chief. I may have spent several years working in emergency services, but I’ve never been a cop. And let’s face it, CSI and Law and Order may be entertaining television, but they’re not good reference material for how the police operate.

So I have enrolled (along with fellow Working Stiff, Gina Sestak) in Pittsburgh’s Citizens’ Police Academy. Once again, research is entirely too much fun.

Each week, a different officer speaks to us on various topics. It’s kind of a Cliff’s Notes version of the real Police Academy—without the demands of whipping our bodies into the kind of physical condition required to chase and take down thugs on the street.

On week one, we met a number of the city’s police elite, all promising that we were going to have a wonderful time. We also heard a lecture on the history of police. Not just our police. ALL police, going back to 2100B.C. I admit I was more interested in more recent local history. Did you know that the first bank robbery in Pittsburgh happened in 1818 and the thieves got away with $108,000.00? A hundred and eight thousand dollars! In 1818!

Week two introduced us to the criminal justice system. We learned about misdemeanors and felonies and what the police can and can’t do in the way of arresting suspects. Did you know that a police officer cannot arrest someone who has committed a misdemeanor unless he was actually present to witness the offense? (Okay, these questions aren’t for Lee or Joyce. I know you guys already know this stuff). There are some exceptions to this rule however, such as cases of domestic violence, drunken driving, and (get this) scattering rubbish. (???) Any of our resident cops want to explain THAT one?

The discussion then wandered into the realm of how a citizen should deal with crime in their neighborhood and specifically, when a person is justified in using deadly force.

For a look at the Pennsylvania Crime Codes regarding deadly force, click here.

This was week three and the topic was use of force, specifically getting an actor to comply with the officer and how to handle him if he doesn’t. Our instructor for the evening, Dave Wright, demonstrated a few wrist locks on some of the younger academy attendees (thankfully, NOT on me) and also demonstrated how to place someone in a position of disadvantage in order to handcuff them. All of this was underscored by a video he showed early in the evening involving a “routine” traffic stop that went horribly wrong for one officer.

Here are some statistics to mull over: An average of 55 officers are MURDERED per year nationwide (53 in 2007). That’s not counting things like traffic accidents or heart attacks during foot chases. That’s MURDERS. Of those 53 in 2007, 37 of the officers never had a chance to pull their weapon. These killings generally happen at a close range (within 10 feet). The average murdered officer is 35 years old with 10 to 12 years of service behind them. And the killing usually involves a handgun. At one time, it was usually the officer’s gun, but not so much anymore. Texas and the south are the most violent areas with 30 of the 53 deaths happening there. Only six occurred in the northeast.

On the other hand, the police kill an average of 355 people per year. However, if you calculated in the amount of times an officer would be JUSTIFIED to use deadly force, the numbers SHOULD be in the thousands.

The average killer is 26 years old, in good shape, and is UNDER THE INFLUENCE.

It’s amazing how fast things can go bad. That video we saw on Monday night will haunt me for a very long time.

Next up: Firearms safety.


Tory said...

Thanks for the report, Annette! I wish I had to time to attend.

The "under the influence" part doesn't surprise me. How many stupid acts happen because of drugs, sex, or money? I bet most of them!

Joyce said...

Great report, Annette. Thanks for passing along all this info. It sounds like they're teaching all the right stuff!

Annette said...

Hearing what police officers go through in the line of duty and seeing how fast bad things happen, sure gives me a new perspective. Even when it's stuff I already KNOW (or thought I knew), I'm seeing the police with a heightened level of admiration and respect.

Lee Lofland said...

Annette - You really said a mouthful in that first sentence. People are quick to judge a police officer's actions, but what they don't realize is how quickly a situation can go sour.

Officers have to make life or death decisions in a split second. Not a minute or even a few seconds. I'm talking a portion of a single second. Think about that. As fast as you snap your fingers an officer could die because he tried to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

Annette said...

Lee, that's what I came away with from Monday's class. In the video, a female officer was about to handcuff a fellow she'd pulled over on a traffic stop and then learned of an outstanding warrant for his arrest. In less than the blink of an eye, he sucker-punched her and then proceeded to punch her nine times in the face. He later told investigators that the only reason he didn't kill her (he almost did anyway) was because his young daughter was standing there watching the whole thing and he didn't want her to see this woman die. Noble, huh?

Joyce said...

When I attended our CPA here (ten years ago!) we did mock traffic stops--the cops got to play the "bad guys" and the students were the cops. In one of the stops, the pretend cop got "stabbed." The person he pulled over (for suspected DUI) was clean cut, polite, using "yes sir" and "no sir." The pretend cop failed to pat him down properly (he said afterward that he didn't think he was a danger) and ended up getting "stabbed." Even though it was all acted out, it was chilling nonetheless.

Annette, will you guys get to use the simulator, where you get to do a "shoot or don't shoot?"

Annette said...

Joyce, I have no idea. But I'm intrigued and eager to find out!

Stay tuned...

Donnell B said...

Annette, wonderful account of your first three weeks; I cannot wait to see what you come away with after six. Me thinks, you will never look at law enforcement the same. I hope you're already planning a blog for week six. Thanks for sharing, and I'll bet you anything your novel is bursting inside that talented writer's brain!

mike said...

Fascinating stuff, Annette. Now I wish I had signed up for the course...maybe next time.

I'm always wondering what something is worth in today's dollars, so I googled "dollar inflation calculator" and, after a few tries, was able to convert that $108,000 in 1818 dollars to a 2007 figure: almost $1.4 million! That was one heck of a bank heist.

Along those same lines, did anyone else hear the NPR report yesterday about the decline in the number of burglaries? One burglar, since "retired," said, essentially, that everyone has everything, that stealing goods--TVs, stereos, jewelry, etc.--from homes isn't worth the trouble cause none of its worth anything on the street. He said the only thing worth stealing anymore is cash.

Joyce said...

Someone should tell that to all the burglars in our township.

As long as there are junkies, there will always be burglaries--and retail thefts. A junkie will steal a two hundred dollar DVD player and sell it for twenty. They don't need a lot of cash--just enough to get their drugs. They'll even steal loose change from unlocked cars.

Felicia Donovan said...

Annette, great post. Citizens Academies are a wonderful way of making the public aware of the ups and downs of law enforcement. My department is trying to get one going right now, so it's interesting to hear about topics others are covering. I hope you get a ride-along, too.

Felicia Donovan

martha reed said...

Annette, your academy class sounds like a real eye-opener. Take lots of notes - and we'll come up with the questions!

Your comment about how quickly violence can happen hit home. Did you ever see History of Violence? A couple of violent scenes in that movie took my breath away - because I know that happens.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Lee Lofland said...

So true, Joyce. Everything goes for $20 on the street - television sets, DVD players, tools, computers, (including laptops), IPods, stolen cell phones, etc.

I've even seen cars sold for twenty dollars. That's not to mention the services that crack-head prostitutes offer for twenty.

Lee Lofland said...

Felicia's right. No one can know what it's really like to be a police officer unless they've actually gone through the training, worn the uniform, been placed in the same situations as real police officers, and actually performed the job.

A citizens police academy gives people a taste of that experience. It is a wonderful opportunity and I'm pleased to see so many writers taking advantage of the program.

Annette said...

I'm back from visiting Mom at the Health Center. Phew, there are a ton of stories in THAT place, too.

Donnell, actually it's fifteen weeks, not six, so I'll be blogging on this topic until summer!

Felicia, YES, we get a ride along, but not until AFTER we graduate. I can't wait!

We also get a t-shirt. Whoo hoo!!

And don't worry, Martha, I am taking LOTS of notes!

Annette said...

By the way, Lee, I'm using your book as a kind of "textbook" for the course.

donnell b said...

Fantastic, Annette, by the end of this course, we'll be calling you Officer Dashofy :) And maybe you can show them a thing or two in Yoga :)

Annette said...

Donnell, one of the things our instructor kept stressing last night regarding the "presense" of the officer being so important was BALANCE. And I was sitting there thinking, these guys need to take my yoga class and let me teach them Tree and Dancer. Yep, that would help with the balance issue! Ha ha!

Joyce said...

Lee, we were just in the squad room talking about those "services" being offered for $20. The conversation started out with the ex-governor of NY and rapidly deteriorated from there!

Lee Lofland said...

Annette - I hope you find the book useful for your course. Remember, though, things are different in every department.

Joyce - There's no difference in paying $20 or $4,000. The end result is the same. Besides, the governor could have saved a lot of money and his job by going to a crackhead. And, she wouldn't have had a phone to tap.

Anonymous said...

Dave Wright and I train Jiu Jitsu together. He is not somebody you want to f*&% with.

Gregory Reese said...

"... if you calculated in the amount of times an officer would be JUSTIFIED to use deadly force, the numbers SHOULD be in the thousands."
you are one sick fuck.