Dispatches from the Academy – Part VII: Rookie of the Year? (Happy Tactics Day, everyone)

Editor’s note: ‘Dispatches from the Academy’ is an ongoing series relating Review reporter Luciano Marano’s experiences as a member of the latest Bainbridge Island Police Department’s Citizen’s Police Academy class. Anyone can apply to attend the periodic program, which gives participants a hands-on look at the function and duties of the BIPD and other local, related agencies. Call 206-842-5211 or email policedept@bainbridgewa.gov for more info about the next academy.

I was murdered Saturday.

Twice, actually.

It was my fault both times, technically. But in my defense, I’d only had like an hour of training.

Steven Seagal, I ain’t.

Saturday was Tactics Day for the Bainbridge Island Police Department Citizen’s Police Academy. The class congregated at the Sportsman Club for a presentation about “Use of Force Tactics” by the BIPD’s Sgt. Trevor Ziemba and Officer Jeff Benkert, and then broke into smaller groups to get our hands dirty. We visited the shooting range and got to fire police weapons, and we worked through two basic scenarios, role-playing as cops, conducting a burglary response and a traffic stop.

Like I said, I went 0-2.

Do you get nervous when a cop pulls you over? Is it a little nerve-wracking, sitting there wondering what you did to merit the focus of the long arm of the law? What was it exactly that thrust you into the spotlight? Aren’t there real criminals about? Don’t these cops have anything better to do?

I’ve been pulled over several times. Full disclosure: I deserved it every single time. But I still had those thoughts.

Something I learned Saturday: The cops are nervous, too. At least, at first.

A traffic stop, Ziemba and Benkert explained, is actually one of the two most dangerous interactions police are regularly involved in. The other, arguably even more dangerous, is a domestic violence call. Those can go south real quick.

But a traffic stop is a total unknown, and it makes the cops antsy.

Hands darting about, quick movements (as if to hide or, worse yet, retrieve something), getting out of the car — these are all red flags. Visibility for a cop approaching your car is not great. In our training scenario, I had “pulled over” a perfectly harmless looking mini van under ideal lighting conditions and I couldn’t even say for sure how many people were in the car at first. I couldn’t see what the driver was up to as I got closer, and then, when I was at the window, he started rummaging around in his pockets and on the floor. He was looking for his license, of course. But I didn’t know that. And it was a tense moment. Cops get killed doing this stuff.

After I’d taken the driver’s license back to the cop car and was distractedly typing his info into the computer, he promptly got out, gun in hand, and shot me.

Conclusion: If you’re pulled over, keep your hands in plain sight and tell the cop what you’re about to do (like reach for a purse on the floor or wallet in the glove box), and then stay in the car. You’re probably not a maniac, like the guy in my scenario clearly was, but they can’t know that.

In my next go around, I was responding to a burglary call. When a guy with a flashlight came running at me, yelling, I did OK. I gave myself space and identified myself as a cop and ascertained he was the “homeowner.” I was rocking this one, I thought smugly — just as I realized I’d given myself space by backing into the open door of the house and, of course, the burglar was now behind me. The guy with the flashlight was trying to warn me, and I was dead again.

Everything had been going so well, too.

Conclusion: Every situation is fluid, and cops are coming in to some rather dramatic goings on right in the middle. They’ve got to figure out who’s who and what’s what under less than ideal circumstances. It’s a job that’s clearly not for everyone.

Ziemba and Benkert were passionate speakers, obviously proud of and committed to their profession. They gave a really great presentation about what does and does not merit a use of force by the police, what exactly is force (we’re not just talking about deadly force, after all), and the realistic aftermath of such events for those involved.

Like a rookie cop responding to a burglary, the whole story is always more complicated than it seems at first. More complicated, the BI cops said, than a mere headline.

Now, I’m not going to defend “the media” as a whole. There are irresponsible reporters just as sure as there are lousy cops — and fry cooks and teachers and doctors.

That last one’s kind of an interesting example. I had at least one moment Saturday where my reporter’s radar blipped, as Ziemba was discussing the idea of public bias. Many more Americans, he said — like way, way more — are killed in this country every year by medical malpractice instances than police. That sounded reasonable enough, but his numbers sounded way off. So, being one of the responsible members of “the media,” I looked into it.

He was right.

According to the Washington Post, 991 people were shot dead by police in 2015 (the 2016 numbers are reportedly being finalized now).

According to a 2016 Johns Hopkins study, more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. In the words of NPR, “On the CDC’s official list, that would rank just behind heart disease and cancer, which each took about 600,000 lives in 2014, and in front of respiratory disease, which caused about 150,000 deaths.”

I thought, how could I not know that? And so read on …

NPR had an idea how: “No one knows the exact toll taken by medical errors. In significant part, that’s because the coding system used by CDC to record death certificate data doesn’t capture things like communication breakdowns, diagnostic errors and poor judgment that cost lives.”

“Medical mistakes,” by the way, in this sense, “range from surgical complications that go unrecognized to mix-ups with the doses or types of medications patients receive.” That’s a rather broad spectrum, to say the least.

So, I’m still not sure if I completely buy the comparison. Even standard medical procedures involve a certain amount of inherent and obvious risk that should not be present in even acrimonious interactions with police. Everybody’s got to die sometime, true. But, in hospitals, waivers are signed, potential difficulties calmly discussed.

Ziemba’s point about bias, though, is well-made. Medical science, it seems, is often not an exact science.

And neither is law enforcement.

I learned that the (simulated) hard way on Saturday.

I’m not apologizing for cops any more than I am vilifying doctors, defending the press or mocking Steven Seagal. He’s a fine man who has done some great work (“Under Siege” is a masterpiece). Again, there are bad examples in every walk of life. Cops know that, obviously. And Ziemba and Benkert — and all the other honest police — are as eager as anybody to get those few rogues off the job. They like oversight. They like procedural review. They like feedback.

What they don’t like, understandably, are the generalizations.

Cops are racists! Cops are bullies! Cops are liars!

That would get old quick. I know. In that regard, we in the fourth estate can relate.

Fake news! The press is lying! I was quoted out of context! Media bias!

Sometimes, sadly, it’s true. In both instances. Some cops are racists. Some reporters are lying. That’s not exactly a revelation for any smart person in this day and age, and we’re admittedly are tackling this subject from a place of privilege, living and working here on the low crime bastion of Bainbridge Island. The stakes tend to be lower.

But I’m reminded of an editorial by Jack Shafer that appeared on Politico. In it, he chastised the American press for the uproar following a temporary exclusion by the Trump Administration of certain affiliates from an off-camera briefing. In it, he called the fourth estate’s subsequent freak-out unprofessional and counterproductive. Citing the First Amendment as critical to American democracy, he said, is absolutely true, “but just because something is true doesn’t make it persuasive.”

I would advise the good cops of the world to apply the same sentiment.

Once more, all together: It’s a hard job. We all get it. That’s why we don’t do it. But if you’re going to be a cop, if you’re going to choose that profession, you have to understand that a certain elevated level of scrutiny is going to come with that and a fraction of the population is always going to assume you’re up to something shady.

To be fair, most of them do.

What I’ve found throughout my time in the Citizen’s Police Academy is that most cops understand they won’t always be beloved, or even respected, and that in the event they do use force — of any level, really — the burden is always on them to defend and justify their actions. They get that. They understand we do hold them to a higher standard, require they be semi-superhuman in their unflappability, their objectivity, their reasoning — fair or not as that may be.

And they choose to do it anyway. It’s dangerous. It’s thankless. It doesn’t pay well. And they do it regardless. They love it.

And that’s worth thinking about for the rest of us. Once more for good measure: It’s a hard job, but that doesn’t mean we have to make it any harder.

Was that cop a little short with you? Did she not wave back as you drove past? Did he not look you in the eye as you talked? Were they too “Robocop” in their dealings with you?

(These are all real complaints received by the BIPD at one time or another, by the way.)

Maybe, in those instances, we give the cops a little leeway. You don’t know what else happened to them that day, where they just came from or what they maybe had to deal with there. There’s plenty of big stuff to worry about. Let’s save the stress.

Maybe — hopefully — it will never amount to more for you here than a tense traffic stop, but even then you can’t let one bad interaction, or half-formed headlines about a story taking place somewhere else, affect the way you deal with people here and now.

I’ve had a lot of lousy waiters in my life, but I know they’re not all jerks. Not all politicians are two-faced sycophants (I guess). Not all lawyers are ambulance-chasing charlatans. Not all reporters are trolls, and not all cops are Dirty Harry.

Especially me. I got killed twice in one day.

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