At first, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Community Academy sounded like a big commitment: giving up Wednesday evening for 13 weeks, sometimes even driving to the other side of the bridge for field trips. With three kids and as many jobs adding up to a 60-hour workweek, I didn’t know if it would be worth the time. But it sounded like a good way to see the ins of our law enforcement system, and I found myself with a group of another 20-plus curious citizens filing into the Key Center fire station on Feb. 20 for the beginning of Session 84.
The program’s stated purpose is “to increase understanding between the department and the citizens of Pierce County trough education.” In other words, a PR campaign of sorts, at least on the surface.
On the first day, Sheriff Paul Pastor greeted us with a sort of a pep rally that put the academy into context. “Citizenship isn’t Costco. It’s not about how many goodies you can get cheaply,” he said. “Public safety is not a spectator’s sport… it ain’t a one way-street.” He noted Pierce County has one of the highest crime rates in the state and is one of the lowest staffed and financed (anyone see the connection?). “They (sheriff’s deputies and others) don’t have enough resources, they don’t have enough time—but they roll up their sleeves and somehow do it anyway. They have tremendous heart.” Pretty good for a PR pitch.
“You’re going to have a kick,” Pastor promised. I couldn’t wait.
Over the following weeks, we met a handful of very knowledgeable and friendly professionals, most of them obviously very passionate about their jobs. It was a journey of information overload, bizarre stories and even heart-tearing images– a crash course into the county’s justice system. The “curriculum” dipped into topics like domestic violence (did you know, according to state law, someone must always be taken into custody in a DV case?), constitutional law (who knew a dry subject could be so fascinating?), the courts system, patrol procedures, narcotics, and on and on. Some speakers could have gone on for hours—and we would have hardly noticed. It wasn’t a PR campaign at all—just a sincere desire to share how the system works.
Our hosts through this intensive training were Peninsula Detachment’s neighborhood patrol deputies Jake Kreis (a Key Pen resident assigned to the Gig Harbor side of the detachment) and Rich Folden (a Gig Harbor resident working the KP). Each is a veteran officer with more than a decade with the sheriff’s department. During one of the sessions, Kreis said the deputies have 10 hours of adrenaline ups and downs, but they get used to it after a while and get numb. By the end of the 13 weeks, I understood that statement. Seeing a photo of a baby burned in a bucket of meth-making chemicals, or the “take no prisoners” faces of some gangsters, and hearing real-life scenarios of do or die—it was all but a taste of why, so many of the presenters emphasized that their top priority every day is going home alive.
The visit to the forensics lab was a bust since the presenter apparently got the duty dumped into her lap (this was especially unsatisfactory for a CSI show fan); and we were dealt the disappointment of the century when we learned we wouldn’t drive the police cruisers (something about Cheney Stadium’s new owners not interested in allowing the sheriff’s free use any more — if any Nick Lachey fans are reading this, take notes). But other than that, for me personally, every evening’s two and a half hours spent on the academy was well worth the time.
We wouldn’t stop asking questions when K-9 trainer Deputy John Munson talked about his work, and then we got to visit with his buddy, Fox, as well as another officer and his K-9. During a demonstration, Fox, who had been as friendly as a dog can be, transformed into a ruthless attacker on command. The dogs, who look like ordinary quadrupeds in public, would never attack without the master’s signal, with one exception: “If mom or dad looks in trouble, the dog will come out of the car and take care of the problem,” Munson said.
Prosecuting Attorney Terry Lane walked us through the reasons why some cases are not prosecuted, and why plea bargains are so prized. “I may have three cases set for trial on any given day,” he said. “If I don’t resolve most of my cases (through plea bargain), the whole system goes to a screeching halt.” Having been subpoenaed to testify in one of his criminal cases the week or so before, I was connecting the dots.
Of course, we all loved the field trips. The jail was my favorite (how else could we, law-abiding citizens, get to see inside those walls?). We spent time in one of the “tanks,” not necessarily mingling with the criminal element but pretty darn close (too close for some people’s comfort). The visit was an eye opener, a sad commentary of our society. And as much as I enjoyed visiting and seeing the system first-hand, coming out truly felt like an escape from another world.
The 911 dispatch center (called LESA) lacked drama, as luck drew a slow night for us. But the pre-recorded 911 calls we heard made up for it. We heard someone requesting the arrest of a gay man and someone concerned about the aliens setting up base (incidentally, not far from the mental hospital), among other things. We listened to veteran 911 operator Dave Lovrak describe the forever scream of a woman who just arrived to see a hanging body in her garage. I decided I could never do that job, listening to nightmares unfolding in real time, trying to keep cool while summoning help. “What you hear as a monotone robotic voice is our attempt to keep you as calm as possible so we can gather information as best as possible,” he said. “It we spend time consoling and empathizing, we can’t gather the critical information.”
The presentation about narcotics was far too short—at least for a mother of a teenager and a pre-teen, and for residents of this area ripe with meth labs. This information is an absolute requirement for any parent, and I strongly recommend for parent groups to seek out a presenter for their schools. If nothing else, you could learn how to recognize the red flags in your children or how to tell if a neighbor’s cooking more than just dinner. “People [using narcotics] are from all walks of life,” said Deputy Oliver Hickman. “We’ve go lawyers, firefighters, teachers — once you get addicted, you’ll do anything to get the drug, even make it.”
While we experienced most of the action from our seats at the Home fire station, we did get in on the adrenaline kick once. At the Marskman in Puyallup, every student became cop for five minutes, using the same hi-tech training system officers use. The program uses simulated video scenarios (easily changed by the instructor) and a modified Glock with an infrared laser beam—a $90,000 videogame system where you can have a suspect put his hands in the air by simply shouting at him to do so (oh, and pointing the gun).
“Firearms training is officer survival training. They use firearms when there is no other way,” instructor Ron Schmitt said, and warned, “Forget all you’ve seen on TV, that’s entertainment. There are a lot of myths out there, a lot of dangerous myths… You’ll get an idea of what it’s like.” And that we did. The gun recoils and sounds like a real Glock, and is accurate within 1/10th of an inch.
Most students’ scenarios turned into shootouts, sometimes with multiple bad guys. It seemed real, alright—we had to keep all our senses sharp to make split-second decisions. I had a bit of an airhead moment when, after shooting the first bad guy in the knee and watching him flee, I assumed the scenario was over and put my gun down. Suddenly, the “victim” lying on the grown fired at me. I surprised myself at how quickly I grabbed the gun and returned fire (I got him in the butt — not lethal, but no doubt as effective). For a person who’s only shot a gun once (at the range) about a decade ago, it didn’t seemed too bad, even if I did try to take a coffee break in between shootings.
The rest of the students did equally well: Most hit their moving targets dead on, reacting swiftly to recognize an ambush. Our shooting reaction and precision impressed even Kreis. He later said we did better than some officers. But the training is not about one-upmanship. If our scenarios involved real guns, flinching could mean not going home in one piece.
Schmitt’s narrative put the entire academy in perspective. We were there to learn how the puzzle fits, but also to understand those men and women out there putting their lives on the line for us. “We hire humans first and we make police officers out of them, but they’re still human with all the human emotions,” he said. “They have to put those emotions aside (at work) so they can still go home at night after seeing horrible things all day long.”
Pastor, who returned to present “Policing the police” toward the end of the course, said people enter the law enforcement profession not for the money, but because they have a Boy Scout or Girl Scout attitude. “We’re ordinary people called upon to do extraordinary things,” he said. “They see up close and personal the worse of what people do to each other. There are times when we look at what I can only describe as evil.”
By the time we received our official diplomas on May 14, I had come out understanding what an incredible job these guys are doing. Yes, we all complain about the slow response time, even no-shows to minor incidents; and we sometimes hear local stories about cops who let their job go to their head. The academy, however, helped us see behind the scenes. It’s always easy to criticize from the sidelines.
One of the students may have summarized my conclusion when she said during one class, “After this class, you just can’t walk away anymore… I’d want to do something.”
Jim Bassey, an ex-police officer from San Jose, Calif., took the class with his wife, Lynne-Marie. He had been to a sheriff’s academy in Gig Harbor two years before, with 50 people in the class. He wanted to learn more about his local community, so he came back for this year’s KP session. “More people should be involved. (The academy) is an excellent idea,” he said. “I think it’s needed now more than ever because there’s a loss of respect in police serving the public.”
Kreis, who has facilitated two academies prior to this one, said this class has been his most eclectic to date — three service dogs, media and Safe Streets reps, even a woman in a mobility cart. He said a lot of people are curious about what officers do, or want to see where their taxpayers’ money goes. This is his chance to reach out to people who may only talk to him at traffic stops or calls, he said. “They get to do things people don’t get to do (like the field trips), and that’s special,” he said.
The department usually schedules three classes each year (fall through spring), and Gig Harbor or Key Peninsula get a rotation once every year or two. It’s unknown whether the program will be impacted in light of current budget cuts but according to the program’s coordinator, plans for next year will be formulated soon.
When the academy is back on this side of the Narrows Bridge, if you’re interested in our law enforcement system at work, don’t hesitate to give up 13 evenings. You may even get a bonus — I hear the cruiser driving session may be back.