Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Citizen's Police Academy Wrap-up

by Mary Sutton / @mary_sutton73

For the past few months, I have been attending the Citizen's Police Academy hosted by the Pittsburgh
Bureau of Police. When you write police-procedurals, it's kind of important to know how real police work, um, works. And while I'd love to attend the Writer's Police Academy organized by Lee Lofland some day, this one was right here - and free. How do you say no?

I "graduate" in two weeks, so I figured now was as good a time as any to reflect on the experience.

Police are people too
Yeah, conceptually we know this. Police are people and that means they are only human. But somehow, expectations are higher when you see someone in uniform. And my instructors are okay with that. Really. But they are human. Most of these folks are fantastic people. But they make mistakes. They try not to, but it happens.

And if you have a less than stellar experience with the police, don't let it color your perceptions of all police officers everywhere. These are mostly good people trying to do a job they believe in.

Law enforcement is stressful
Every day job has some stress. Are you going to hit the deadline, resolve that conflict with a co-worker, make the client happy. In law enforcement, the stress can be, "Is anybody going to die today? Am I?" I really think only the medical community (and maybe the military in an active conflict) can compare. And literally, in this high stress environment, officers make split second - or faster - decisions.

Never is this more evident than in the case of firearms. We've seen the headlines, "Cop kills kid with pellet gun." How could this happen, you think. Surely they know better.

Last night, the instructor held up a firearm. Sure looked like a 9mm to me. "Real or toy?" he asked each student. After a second hesitation, "Bang, you're dead." And he moved on and repeated the question. All told, six of my fellow students "died" last night. It turns out that the weapon in question was a pellet gun.

I wouldn't want to make that decision, night after night. Would you?

It's not CSI or Law & Order
TV is great and it's entertaining. It's not real. I was surprised at how fast some things happen (a fingerprint search literally took 1.3 seconds to return a hit), but it doesn't go as fast as it does on TV. Police do not spout off the Miranda warning as soon as you are taken into custody - and Miranda isn't always necessary. You can pursue a suspect into a private dwelling (under certain circumstances) and you don't always need a warrant to make an arrest (it depends on the crime).

Oh, and that CSI stuff? You can't identify a fingerprint - or DNA - if there isn't a record of it somewhere. After all, it is called "matching."

They aren't in it for the glory - or the money
My instructors shared something - passion. From SWAT to K-9 to motorcycle traffic, they all believe they have the best job on earth. They aren't doing this for glory. Knowing municipal government spending, they aren't doing it for the fat paycheck or the overtime either. They do it because they love it. The dogs, the job, the cycles - because they believe in protecting others. And dammit, that's worth something. How many of us could say the same?

You have a part to play too
Every instructor ended the same way - thank you for giving up your evening to come learn. Thank you for caring enough to get the real story. Things happen fast, and it's easy for misleading information to leak into the media (for whatever purposes, not trying to slam the media here). But twice a year, about 20 people care enough to pull back the curtain and see what really happens.

And even if you never attend something like a Citizen's Police Academy - keep your eyes open. You live in your neighborhood. See something out of place? Call. Open your mouth. Teach your kids that guns and violence are not "cool." There are more citizens than police officers. On our tour of the 9-1-1 response center, someone asked about non-emergency calls. "If you aren't sure it's an emergency, call us. I'd rather get a non-emergency call than have you not call and something happens." They really don't mind - honest. I mean, don't abuse it, but if you think something is wrong, or might go wrong, make the call. Flag down a patrol officer. Report that bag that smells funny and has been sitting at the bus stop for 30 minutes unattended.

Yeah, I'm a writer. I got a lot of information that is going to make my stories better, and even a few ideas. And that's good. More than that. it's a little glimpse into the working lives of men and women who really are putting it all on the line so I can live my life in relative security.

So the next time you are pulled over for a traffic stop (which, by the way, is statistically incredibly risky for the officer), resist the temptation to be mouthy. Thank the officer for his/her work. Try to be the good guy.

Because you probably don't want their job. Trust me.


  1. Replies
    1. Certainly. It's an experience that any civilian should have. Very eye-opening.