Police Academy Part 3: Firing range and ride-along
Editor's note: This is the third of a three-part series on the Alexandria Citizens Police Academy as seen through the eyes of one of its participants - reporter Crystal Dey.
Twelve brave souls trudged through the February 28 blizzard for a shot at the ATCC firing range.
As part of our Citizens Police Academy training, we popped into virtual reality and then snapped back into reality.
The Range 2000 put us through computer simulations in which we needed to determine whether or not to fire on a suspect. In most cases I made the right call, but in a few I would have been punished for my passive judgment.
I was nervous in the virtual room - on the range I was perplexed. I've shot a gun once before; I think it was a rifle. Firearms conjure different feelings in people. To some they are dangerous, to others they are for sport; to me they're foreign.
The ATCC firing range cost $1.5 million to build, said Scott Berger, law enforcement coordinator at ATCC. Air is cycled through the indoor range six times per hour to reduce lead levels. Chief Wyffels said the partnership with ATCC is a great asset to the APD.
We had ample safety precautions, two officers to one cadet, ear and eye protection, and a controlled environment. Still, I was timid about touching the first gun, a .40 caliber model 22 glock. After running through a few dry runs (without ammunition), it was time for the real thing.
Had I not been coached on how to stand, how to aim, how to hold the gun and equipped with a laser sight, it could have been a great mess. But I shot the first round right in the center of my paper target's chest. My target was a shifty looking fellow aiming a gun in my direction. I wondered how he got that modeling job.
I hadn't spent the 10 40-caliber bullets in the glock before I was ready to take on the big gun - a .40 caliber Universal Machine Pistol that could spit 600 rounds if I let it. I think I popped off six singular shots before I was done. Most of them stayed in the central range of Mr. Shifty. The entire class seemed to really enjoy the experience, holding an automatic weapon next to their targets for a photo op.
Target practice is one thing. When officers draw their weapon they have to face the reality that the target isn't a picture of a man on paper. It's a real person who will bleed and may die.
If you think our police officers drive around all day in cozy warm cars drinking coffee and dunking doughnuts - you're wrong.
Curiosity and anxiety probably best describe how I felt driving to the police station for my ride-along on Saturday, February 11. What am I going to experience tonight? What do they expect from me as a reporter? Is it like C.O.P.S.?
Turns out it kind of was like an episode from C.O.P.S. But that happens later in my story. The evening began at 6 p.m. with officer Chad Melton dictating tickets he had issued earlier in the day. Officers have the luxury of a transcriptionist who will type up their description of incidents to be kept on file.
There had been 23 calls prior to my arrival at the station - 15 more would be added by night's end.
A tip came in about a possible party that could involve drugs, underage drinking or both. Melton followed up on the lead throughout the night as we took a spin around town.
The interior of a squad car will instill a newfound appreciation for the simplicity of your civilian ride. A laptop, camera, and radar and dispatch equipment are a few components that require simultaneous attention. Radar is tested before each officer's shift and calibrated with scientific equipment once a year.
Civilians are not allowed to text while driving, as a safety precaution, which is totally understandable. I asked how it is that officers are able to operate all their equipment while remaining safety conscious.
"We focus on driving first and foremost," Melton said.
Laptops in the squads have a touch screen that minimizes the time it takes to navigate between fields and windows on the computer screen. Occasionally, officers will be required to type while driving. Milton said that is something they try not to do and they pull over as often as possible.
The computer information system in the squad is linked to the system officer's use at the station. Melton said having a mobile office in the car has its benefits. It allows more time to increase police presence around town. Melton has been with the APD for six of the 10 years he's been in law enforcement.
Between 8:20 and 8:40 p.m. there were three traffic stops. Speeding seems to be the most common reason people are pulled over.
I don't recall any sirens but the flashing lights and quick turns on Broadway did discombobulate me for a few seconds.
Melton didn't give up on the tip he was given earlier in the night and scoped out a few of the potential party pads.
"I like the investigative aspect of the job," Melton said.
We still hadn't found the party before shift change rolled around.
At 9 p.m., I switched partners and met officer Ryan Cook. Cook has been with the APD for four years.
More information was received on the party tip given during my ride with Melton, so we were off. I felt rather helpful since I recalled the name, description and other details of one of the suspected people involved in the party plan. Turns out it was a bust though - and not the kind where anyone was apprehended.
At first I was a little disappointed. But then I realized the police don't actually want anything to happen. They are just there in case something happens. And it did about 40 minutes later.
Cook and Sergeant Tina Peterson responded to a call where the two of them mediated a marijuana situation. The drug was never found so the claim could not be substantiated but the presence of law enforcement prevented the incident from escalating.
Cook informed me it's not technically illegal to be high on drugs but it is illegal to possess them. Now, how does one become high on drugs without first having them in possession? That's a question for our lawmakers, not our law enforcement.
Between 11:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Cook made a few stops for speeding and then we got the call that made my night a lot more like reality television.
A loud party complaint was logged (unrelated to the tip from earlier). Cook met his partner, Keith Melrose, at the scene. It became a non-violent stand-off where the tenants refused to answer the door.
Cook caught two attempted escapees fleeing out the back door. Juveniles who blew zeros on their preliminary breath test were sent home. One straggler out the front door was put in Melrose's squad for safe-keeping.
Outside the house I could hear whispers inside through an open window, "Stay still, be quiet," they said. As if we were just going to give up and go away. Beer cans were strewn about the yard.
When my toes went numb I retreated to the warm safety of the car. It was only 5 degrees outside!
After what seemed like forever, Peterson radioed that a search warrant was in the works. Peterson arrived along with two deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office around 2:30 a.m.
Peterson announced she had a warrant and if the door wasn't answered, it would be booted. No answer. She repeated. No answer. Melrose kicked-in the door.
"Get down on the ground!" the officers yelled in a blackened room. I later learned that there were approximately 60 individuals in the house. I witnessed six older than the age of 21 exit the premises after it was determined they had a sober driver. Twenty-two of those remaining would be issued under-age drinking citations.
Around 2:45 a.m. a domestic disturbance call came across the radio. Cook left to respond; I shadowed. A deputy met him at the scene. At 3:20 a.m. more back up was sent. I had no idea what was going on. Domestics can be unpredictable so in my best interest, Cook advised I remain in the car.
Domestic disturbance is often perceived to be a man and a woman who live together having a verbal or physical dispute. Domestics actually include any people who live together, have lived together or have a child together.
This time it was a man and a woman. The man was escorted in handcuffs to a deputy's squad. The woman was placed in the backseat of Cook's car - where I heard a string of violent language erupt from her intoxicated mouth.
She clearly had been drinking - I could smell it through the transparent Plexiglas barrier. She was violent, angry and her night had just gotten worse.
At one point it was necessary to replace her handcuffs with a hobble - shackles with a belt connecting the two sets of cuffs.
It was disturbing to see this human hog-tied and to know this was someone's life, not an episode of C.O.P.S. where people casually observe from their homes and pretend it doesn't really happen in their town.
Around 3:45 a.m. my ride-a-long concluded at the police station. I was dropped off at my car and someone else would be spending the night in jail.
This is only what I experienced in one night. The APD staff goes out every day and night not knowing what will or won't happen to protect us from others and from ourselves. They should be respected and recognized for the service they provide.
If you have the opportunity, I strongly encourage you to experience it first-hand through the Citizens Police Academy. More than 30 people applied this round - only 16 can be accepted. Applications are usually accepted in November.
Because my ride-along experience was a little unusual, Sergeant Chad Schroeder, Chief Rick Wyffels and Officer Ryan Cook checked up on me the following day. Not necessary, but appreciated.
2012 GRADUATING CLASS
Our last Citizens Police Academy class brought the experience full circle - back to the community. Since the academy began in January, Chief Wyffels has emphasized the importance of community partnerships.
Officer Jim Gripne led a presentation highlighting all the APD's community program partnerships. Gripne has been working with Alexandria schools for 13 of his 23 years in law enforcement. He said APD has learned to be more proactive than reactive.
Some of the APD alliances include community clean-up projects, education endeavors and safety training. The APD website, alexandriapolice.com, provides information on these programs, a "Help Solve It" page and a community message service.
After we recapped our seven-week endeavor, we received our graduation certificates and celebrated with cake and ice cream - I had expected doughnuts.