The lights turned on and that sheepish "oops" expression came across my face as I realized what I had done. I had shot an unarmed man, who had nothing but a wrench in his hand. Now he laid dead on the ground.
That's the sort of scenario one encounters early in the Rhinelander Police Department's Citizens Academy, a crash course on the inner workings of the department and police work. The fifth edition of the academy just recently concluded, and while the certificate I received as part of the Citizens Academy graduation ceremony gives me no actual authority (I think), there is also no better way to get a taste of life in law enforcement -- other than actually pursuing a career in law enforcement.
For eight weeks, I and 11 others got to see, learn about and experience (through simulations) aspects of the police department and police work most people never do. Take the simulation I initially described to start this article. After some training and target practice with the actual firearms carried by Rhinelander police officers (modified to shoot paint rounds), we split off into pairs and took turns handling the following scenario: a security alarm went off at a local garage; you're going to investigate; here are your guns; go.
And so my "partner" and I entered one of the department's garages. It was dark, we identified ourselves, explained that we were investigating a security alarm call, then things happened quickly. The "mechanic" who had emerged from behind the car was acting somewhat hostile. As he slowly waked toward us, he suddenly raised his right arm quickly. I saw a flash of silver in his hand, and I reacted, putting a single paint round in his chest.
What happened then is what I previously described. After the slight heart-rate elevating experience of the simulation, I felt like a prime idiot after the lights came on and I saw the officer wearing full body armor who was playing the role of the "mechanic" lying on the ground with a wrench sitting there in his right hand.
Looking back on the entire eight weeks, it was perhaps that one moment that gave me the most insight into the daily work of a police officer. I had a better understanding of the kind of stress officers deal with on a regular basis, even with something as simple as a security alarm call. It's the uncertainty that causes the stress. You can never be sure about what exactly you will be walking into. A lot of training is necessary so officers are prepared and can easily resort to muscle memory when responding to a situation in which the average person would "freeze."
In that moment, I also had a better understanding of the mistakes that can happen -- like the result of my scenario -- even when everything is done correctly on the officer's end. Those are the details that can sometimes be left out when the public hears about cases in which an officer may shoot somebody who was unarmed. In my case, I felt better after my debriefing with Sgt. Josh Pudlowski where he told me that considering the circumstances (it was dark, the aggressive manner in which the "mechanic" raised his arm, what I saw), he thought the shooting was justified. To be official with the law enforcement jargon, I had a reasonable belief that I was in imminent threat of death or great bodily harm.
Just the same, my "partner" didn't fire because she said she wasn't sure what she saw, and Pudlowski said that action, too, was justified.
And that was just Week Two of the Citizens Academy.
I, and my fellow citizen cadets, had some very hands-on lessons about:
- Defense and arrest tactics (An officer's most valuable tool is good communication).
- Crime scene investigations (As you can imagine, TV shows seriously warp reality; actual CSI work is not for the impatient person and can get a bit tedious).
- The fire department
(Luckily the simulation that had me in full firefighter's gear trying to locate a person in a burning building -- that is a dummy in a smoked out fire department garage -- wasn't reality; I got pretty turned around in there).
- The department's K9 unit (Drago is one of the happiest, friendliest dogs I have ever seen; he is also incredibly well-trained; the only "weapon" the department has that can't be turned on the officers).
- OWI procedures (Having the opportunity to practice OWI tests on actual intoxicated volunteers was interesting; when officers make a stop and suspect OWI one of the tests is passing an object like a pen back and forth in front of the driver and having him or her follow it with their eyes; when doing that, officers are looking for an involuntary jerking of the eyes; it's amazing how apparent that jerking is in an intoxicated person).
The simulated in-class scenarios all culminated with an opportunity to do a ride-along and get a sample of some actual police work. My night with Officer Robbins began with picking up garbage scattered across the sidewalks downtown. We weren't able to catch the trash-can-tippers in action. There were a couple of alcohol-induced injuries where I got to see how law enforcement, fire department paramedics, and hospital staff all come together, each performing their required role. The night ended with a fight at a downtown bar, which led to a few arrests and where I got an up-close view of the result of trying to resist a police officer.
Overall, much more than one could reasonably expect from a program that costs nothing for the participants. I don't know how many law enforcement agencies in the state put on annual citizens academies. It should perhaps be a state requirement.
On the first night of the academy, back in March, Police Chief Mike Steffes nailed it when he described what most people do upon seeing a squad car while driving: become highly aware of what they're doing, immediately pump the brake. People only see police officers in generic terms. Nothing but a badge. Something like the stern-expressioned face hidden behind mirrored aviator sunglasses in the classic film Cool Hand Luke.
Thanks to the Citizens Academy, I'm able to see well beyond that.
Kyle Rogers may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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