(Read part I of this chronicle, as the Statesboro Police Department explains why the Citizens Police Academy is one of its key community outreach programs, Citizens Police Academy: Through the eyes of the officer, and view the photo gallery here.)
After taking the reins of the Statesboro Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy three years ago, Cpl. Justin Samples quickly honed in on the fact that students seemed to learn the most when stepping into the shoes of a police officer.
The hands-on experiences became the focal point, featuring numerous scenarios that simulate real police work and the types of situations officers encounter.
“We want them to go through as many different scenarios, as we can, that officers have to go through on a daily basis,” said Samples, who is the community relations officer for the department.
Students got just a taste of how real life sometimes unexpectedly plays out for on-duty police officers, even in something as routine as a traffic stop.
“You get to feel how they feel,” Academy student Tina Haranda said.
Brannen Smith, who is a co-worker and was a regular academy partner with Haranda, recalled their first scenario together.
“My biggest dealing with the police was with a speeding ticket, so the biggest eye-opener for me was the traffic stop,” Smith said. “We had a little old lady, and she was talking to me, and the next thing you know, she was shooting at us. And that’s something they (police officers) have to be mindful of. You never know. Tina got the business!”
“I did!! Haranda said. “And when I tried to answer, she (the driver) got even meaner. She put me through the ringer on that. I remember my mouth going dry. I just did not know what to say. It was so realistic. I think I asked her to get out of the car, just to move it forward, so she would stop yelling at me.”
Haranda squeezed the handle on her simulated handgun under that scenario.
“I just wanted her to shut up. When I look back, I did go for that gun. Would I have shot her? I don’t know. In real life, I would have turned around and walked away. But I couldn’t.”
And the winner is …
One of the keys to making the scenarios both entertaining and educational was the performance of police department staff.
Cpl. Samples himself, Accreditation and Grant Manager Jeanie Hattie, known to students as “Beachie Bum,” Patrol Bureau Administrative Assistant Yvonne Lane, and Community Relations Secretary Madison Bridges frequently turned in Oscar-worthy performances.
“They were fun,” said Ginger Larrabee. “They’ve got some great acting abilities. I was surprised at how well they kept in character. I think (Cpl. Samples) wasn’t even playing. I think those were real scenarios he’s dealt with in the past and I think he brought them to life for us.”
Students might be confronted with a mouthy subject in a traffic stop. One who states that she already has a boyfriend, so the officer should just leave her alone.
Or one who stumbles to answer a question, gets wide eyes, and suddenly flees the scene.
Or one who is playing loud country music, and turns out to be deaf and can’t understand verbal instructions.
Or a grandmotherly figure who seems benignly inebriated and flirty, but has a vehicle full of weapons and drugs.
Some subjects were hilariously nervous. Others absurdly confrontational. Fake weapons and fake blood were all in play. The students never knew what they would see next and had to watch one another navigate the circumstances.
“They don’t know if grandma’s going to come around back and grab your gun from you and shoot your partner,” Smith laughed. “Be very wary of grandmothers. That’s what I learned!”
While the scenarios produced numerous laughs and had students anticipating the next ones, they were keenly aware of the serious side to the lessons.
“I truly believe that they were true to life, and that this happens every day, and even five times worse,” said Tina Banks, owner/CEO of a local child care center.
“I guess I didn’t realize, also, how much they’re involved in dealing with craziness,” said Ginger Larrabee. “People are crazy – when they’re mad, when they’re upset. (Officers) have to be a little bit of a psychiatrist. A counselor.”
Cpl. Dustin Cross, who trains new officers, was in charge of the scenarios involving domestic disputes and mentally unstable persons. He frequently had to step in and offer his expertise when met with the blank stares of confounded students.
“I saw that scared look on their face,” said Cross, emphasizing that he puts new officers through the same scenarios. “I want that scared look on your face, because I want you to start thinking. And I want you to come up with a solution for the problem. And we have solutions. A lot of it comes from time and experience and being able to speak with people. It’s fun to make them think.”
“You realize there’s a lot more consequences to those decisions. You never know where it’s going to go. At the end of the day, it’s two humans interacting,” said Brannen Smith.
It’s not required, but every student is encouraged to participate in a ride-along during a patrol officer’s shift. Most took advantage of the opportunity.
For Laura Daniels, a certified public accountant and fraud examiner, the ride-along was a revelation.
“My eyes were opened as to what law enforcement must respond to, on any given day or night, including the number of calls received,” she said, after observing one officer responding to noise violations, suspicious persons, vandalism, domestic arguments, burglaries, and mentally unstable persons – all in one night.
One of the most memorable lessons didn’t involve any active scenarios. Students were walked through the scene and evidence of a real local murder investigation – including crime scene photographs. It made Smith realize that Statesboro isn’t so isolated from happenings in the world, ones that you usually see on television.
It made an indelible impression on Ginger Larrabee. “The murder investigation is the one that really got to me. I don’t know how these guys sleep at night. It really haunted me.”
“I saw it on her face,” said husband David. “She had trouble sleeping, a little bit, thinking about it. You gotta be a strong person to be a police officer.”
On the force
The use of force is often the subject of viral news and contentious discussion as videos proliferate on the internet. Many students, some for the first time, got to hear the law enforcement perspective and learned exactly how Statesboro police officers are trained in when and how to apply force.
Lesson one: there will be at least one firearm at every police call, 100 percent of the time – because police officers carry side arms. A detainee might not be armed at the outset, but all it takes is a tussle with an officer, and suddenly a suspect is armed and an officer is not. It’s something every officer is trained to think about, all the time.
Lt. Kaleb Moore walked the class through department policy and training, including their use of force continuum, which begins with verbal commands and progresses with an escalating series of actions an officer may take to resolve a situation, all the way up to the use of deadly force.
Students don’t get to handle real firearms in the class, but they got to experience a variety of training tools that simulate the experience of handling a real weapon during the scenarios. Many students had experience with firearms, but it was something new for several.
“That was my first experience with a gun. I don’t own one and I don’t know how to shoot one, so I was really amazed at the feel of it,” said Tina Banks, after being handed a dummy gun and an officer’s belt before the traffic stop scenario.
Tina Haranda, who is originally from the United Kingdom, offered a unique perspective. “Coming from England, I had never seen a gun until I came to America. I never grew up around them.”
Even though her husband hunts and owns guns, it was still scary for her. “The little village where I come from, the police rode bikes and carried bobby sticks.”
In the news…
The officers participating in the Citizens Academy often addressed many of the preconceived notions about law enforcement. Increasingly, those public perceptions are driven by social media and viral videos.
Almost every officer urged people not to make hasty judgements, especially based on the videos. Officers frequently have to consider circumstances that simply can’t show up in video, such as suspicious and nervous behavior, odors, eye contact or a lack thereof. These are all red flags officers must learn to read and navigate.
Cpl. Samples offered an example. “When you are arresting someone, and you can feel their muscles tensing, it might be a sign that this suspect is getting ready to fight you.”
In that case, an officer is faced with a decision – to engage in a fight, or try to nip it in the bud before it begins. But that doesn’t show up in a video.
“It’s not the same as watching it on TV on ‘COPS.’ It’s completely different,” pointed out Cpl. Cross.”
“Before, I just had this vivid idea of what I saw on television. And going through this academy has shown me that’s not at all how it goes in real life,” said Tina Banks.
The relationship between law enforcement and African-American communities has been a topic of contention for decades, but particularly since the events in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The topic wasn’t something that was discussed in the Citizens Police Academy, other than a very brief mention of the circumstances surrounding Michael Brown’s shooting from a police perspective.
Maj. Bryan believes the academy can play a role in helping to foster understanding, however.
“I see it as an opportunity to bring in our entire community and start having those difficult conversations that people might not be comfortable having, but we need to have. We also want to show that we, as an agency, want to be open and share what is going on, and be able to answer those questions and bridge that gap.”
Tina Banks and her mother, Edna Lovett, were two of three African Americans enrolled in the class of 20.
Does Banks believe that the Academy can help bridge the perceived divide between law enforcement and the African-American community?
“I do. I really do. I don’t believe that all police officers are bad. I really don’t. I believe that they try to protect themselves and the citizens to the best of their ability, depending on what the situation is. And sometimes things happen and they go wrong.”
Banks has another unique perspective, as her brother is an officer with the U.S. Capitol Police in Washington, DC.
“We’ve heard several stories of my brother and what he goes through at the Capitol, and (the academy) gave us our own insight of what he had been talking about,” she said. “I believe that you don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes with our officers, with what they deal with day-to-day. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t even know it all. Just a little bit.”
To sign up for the next Citizens Police Academy, look for an announcement on the SPD website or follow the SPD on Facebook to find out when they start accepting applications, usually in late summer. You can download applications or pick them up at the police department.
“I think everybody, when the class comes around, should join. But if you can’t get into the Citizens Police Academy, I think you should at least do a ride-along,” said Cpl. Cross. “It’s open to everybody. You can pick up a form at the front counter of the police department from 8 a.m.–5 p.m.”
Samples recently announced he would leave the Statesboro Police Department at the end of January, but expects the program to carry on and build on his accomplishments.
“I’m really proud of the program. Proud of what we are able to do with it, with a lot of support from the command staff and the rest of the agency, and I look forward to watching it continue and grow.”