By Liz, enjoying my first week out of Book Jail!
Speaking of jail, I had a big moment recently: I graduated from the Citizen’s Police Academy in my town.
I jumped at the chance to participate in the 11-week program because, well, you know me—I love this stuff. Crime, law enforcement, the whys of murder and mayhem, how it all fits together. I take every chance I get to do a deeper dive into how law enforcement works, the things cops see and how it affects them.
Like the time Edith and I went to Lee Lofland’s fabulous Writer’s Police Academy. We did building searches, shot guns and dug up bodies from a shallow grave. Or the time when, as a journalist, I was asked to participate in a weekend-long SIG SAUER Academy program on handguns. Then there was the (now retired) chief of police whom I drafted as my consultant for another book. All of those experiences were invaluable.
Research like this has a huge impact on how I come up with ideas for a book and how I write about investigating a crime and other tactics. But it also helps me plot the book, develop characters, and ensure my setting fits with the story and the crime.
So I went into the program with the attitude of, Cool, I get to do more research, have more hands-on training, get to know some local police and hopefully get a contact on the force who’ll take my never-ending questions.
I have to admit, I was also curious about what I would find—both in town, and on the force. Willimantic has a reputation. I’ve lived here since 2008, and really only pass through on my way to work and home, or visit the food co-op, the gas station or a restaurant.
(Note – It’s kind of complicated, but I live in the larger town and am not covered by the local police. Only the city district has its own force, and the rest of us are covered by the state police.)
But it’s always good to get some understanding of your surroundings, right? So off I went, buoyed by the promise of SWAT teams and K9s and maybe, just maybe, getting to taser someone. I was like the nerdy kid looking forward to the first day of school.
I wasn’t disappointed. Sgt. Glode and Cpl. Miller, who ran the program, did a phenomenal job. This was the second iteration of the academy. There were about 30 of us—double the amount they expected, but they didn’t want to turn anyone away. The whole point, they said, was to educate the people of the town so they could take the message about what they do and how they do it back to the rest of the population.
Each week they focused on a different topic, and every officer on the force contributed. Some weeks had more than one topic, depending on subject matter. SWAT week, for instance, took the whole three hours. We got to see the weapons, sit in the MRAP (mine resistant, ambush protected military vehicle donated to the town), and even beat down a steel door with a battering ram.
During K9 week, we got to meet the three police dogs, all sworn officers, and watch them sniff out drugs their handlers had stashed for our benefit. During Use of Force week, we did drills—facing off with potential assailants and handling whatever situation arose. Some were able to talk their way out of it, others had to fight, still others had to taser. (Yes, I got to use the taser.) It was fun. It was also scary when you saw how fast things could go wrong.
Given the amount of news coverage lately about police use of force, this exercise was definitely timely. And so important, especially for people who have no experience with law enforcement and how they do their jobs. Experiencing it, even in a role-playing capacity, gives you a whole new perspective. Then you can sort through the facts of a specific incident before passing judgment on either party for their actions. As another police officer so succinctly put it, “All lives matter.”
So what’d I learn, aside from the mechanics of tasering someone? Here’s a few:
You can’t judge a community by reputation alone. Every place has its problems. This place is lucky to have such a dedicated group of men and women protecting its citizens.
Riding a police bike through an obstacle course is really, really hard. You have to go wicked slow. For the record, I didn’t do it. I knew I would fall off the bike. Or take out most of the cones.
Cops get scared, too. I suppose I knew this already, but in a sure, everyone gets scared sort of way. These officers have to deal with serious, sometimes deadly situations. I give them major credit for hitting the streets every day. Give them some support and respect, eh?
We all need to be part of the solution. Towns and cities won’t improve if everyone is fighting each other. Citizens who’ve taken courses like this can help simply by bringing the message to the rest of the public. Get everyone talking to each other and working together. It’s got to make a difference.
I may have told some of you that my grandfather was a policeman for nearly 30 years. He started out walking the beat and finally became a detective. He shared some stories with me, but not nearly enough before he died nearly 16 years ago. Every time I get to do something like this, I feel like he’s finding a way to share more of his stories with me. I’m thankful I got to be part of it.
And I’m thankful to all the officers of the Willimantic PD, and all police officers, for their service.
P.S. The ride-along was fabulous, too!
Readers, any experiences with a Citizens Police Academy?