Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 6 or The End

Last week we met in Plymouth at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Communications Facility (ECF).  The ECF houses both the data center and the PSAP or public-safety answering point (ie: 911 call center). The $32 million building, which opened in 2014, is an awe-inspiring hunk of concrete.  The PSAP area of the facility is built to withstand winds of 150 mph or the equivalent of an F3 tornado.  The data center area, which also houses technical services, can withstand winds of 250 mph or the equivalent of an F5 tornado.

Note to the big, bad wolf: You can huff and you can puff, but you probably aren’t going to blow this house down.

Big bad wolf Source: Walt Disney Co.
Big bad wolf Source: Walt Disney Co.

As you might expect, PSAPs, or public-safety answering points, are call centers that answer calls to an emergency telephone number for police, firefighting, and ambulance services.  Plymouth’s PSAP is one of a handful in Minnesota, answering emergency 911 dispatch calls for most of Hennepin County (excluding Minneapolis).  The PSAP answers over 600,000 calls per year for 37 communities, 21 fire departments, and 23 law enforcement agencies.

911 Dispatch Center Source: HCSO
911 Dispatch Center Source: HCSO

Information sent to and from Minnesota’s PSAPs is delivered through the allied radio matrix emergency response (ARMER) program which was developed after 9/11.  ARMER is the infrastructure for emergency responders within the State of Minnesota.

ARMER services the radio communications needs of almost every city, county, state agency, tribal government and non-government public safety entity across Minnesota.  The only part of Minnesota that’s not covered by one of ARMER’s 328 radio towers (due to the terrain in that region) is the northwest corner of the state which includes Clay, Norman, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, and Red Lake counties.

ARMER map Source: MN Dept. of Public Safety

We tour the 911 dispatch area and see a moving video which includes the quote, “Just because you don’t see my face, doesn’t mean I’m not saving your life.”  We listen to calls coming in, and watch as the location and type of each call flashes across a flat screen on the back wall: a found pet, a domestic disturbance, a missing person, even a shooting.

911 Dispatcher Source: HCSO
911 Dispatcher Source: HCSO

Interesting things we learn:

  1. Hennepin County residents can call 911 for any type of emergency and will be connected to the right department.
  2. If you call 911 by accident please stay on the line. Don’t just hang up.
  3. 911 dispatchers categorize each call that comes in from first to fourth priority. A burglary report is an example of a fourth priority call.
  4. If someone’s missing, the police need a search warrant to find them. However, if an officer has a life-threatening situation, 911 can override a court order. Life-threatening emergencies include Amber Alerts, domestics in progress, and a verified suicide threat.
  5. 911 can get a geographic location and address for landline phones right away. With cell phones, they can triangulate and identify the area where the call originated, but not the exact location.

Our time at the Hennepin County Citizen Law Enforcement Academy is coming to an end (sniff, sniff) and it’s been an amazing experience.  I’ve learned so much more than I’ll ever be able to write in this blog, but I’m sure the information will come in handy as I continue to write my novel, The Rip.  As Midge’s husband, Tim, said to Sheriff Stanek, “Why is the academy so good?  It’s almost too good.”  I agree with Tim; the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office rocks.

This graduation cake takes the cake Source: HCSO
This graduation cake takes the cake Source: HCSO

Here are some photos of my Sisters in Crime friends, Midge Bubany and Kristin Lerstrom, Rose Stanley-Gilbert and me at the graduation party.  Standing next to us are Sheriff Richard W. Stanek (left) and Chief Deputy Mike Carlson (right):

Midge Bubany Source: HCSO
Midge Bubany Source: HCSO
Kristin Lerstrom Source: HCSO
Kristin Lerstrom Source: HCSO
Rose Stanley-Gilbert Source: HCSO
Rose Stanley-Gilbert Source: HCSO
Jessica grad
Jessica Ellis Laine Source: HCSO

Ways to get involved with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office:

  1. Sign up for the Fall 2015 Citizen’s Academy and learn more about law enforcement.  Sheriff Stanek said our friends and family would have preferred sign up for the Fall 2015 academy which starts in September.
  2. Become a Special Deputy.
  3. Join the Community Advisory Board the next time there’s an opening.
  4. Volunteer at the HCSO’s MN State Fair booth. Here’s some information on last year’s event.

I would like to thank Sheriff Richard W. Stanek, Chief Deputy Mike Carlson, and Sergeant Jennifer Johnson, the driving force behind the academy and the recipient of a 2014 Award of Merit from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.  Sergeant Johnson told us we were her favorite group yet, and I think she was telling the truth because let’s face it — we were pretty great.  😄

Two other individuals who made the academy a wonderful experience for everyone are Deputies Mary Lelivelt and Kara Vanderkooi.  Several others (too numerous to name) have been extremely generous with their time and expertise.

Mil gracias.  Many thanks to you all.

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 5

Last week’s class was held at the Law Enforcement Education Center on the campus of Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park.  We’re in for another jam-packed evening, meeting with members of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Community Engagement Team (CET) and representatives of the Professional Standards Division which includes Personnel and Range Instructors.

Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Education Center source:
Law Enforcement & Criminal Justice Education Center source:

The highlight of the evening is the time we spend with the HCSO’s Range Instructors.  At the firing range, we’re given shooting vests, ear muffs, and protective eyewear.  I fuss over the eyewear because my fading eyesight is a product of old age: I’m farsighted but can’t see anything up close.  To wear glasses or not to wear glasses, that is the question.

Police Firing Range
Police Firing Range source:

I decide not to wear glasses.  When it’s my turn to shoot the handgun, a standard-issue Smith & Wesson M&P.40, the hunky instructor tells me to aim for the grey rectangle in the center of the person-shaped target.  Holding the gun (which is surprisingly heavy), my hands shake like FBI agent Clarice Starling’s as she follows serial killer, Jame Gumb, into that basement of horrors in The Silence of the Lambs. 

Silence of the Lambs Source: Orion Pictures
The Silence of the Lambs Source: Orion Pictures

Between my carpal tunnel, not lining up the target with the handgun sight properly, and frankly just not knowing what the $&@! I’m doing, I land one shot out of five in the grey rectangle.  One bullet hits the target’s head, another hits the cardboard outside the target’s body, and a third bullet hits the target’s groin area.  Ouch.

While my dreams of being drafted as an elite sniper are dashed, it turns out fellow Twin Cities’ Sister in Crime member, Theresa Weir is something of a natural: all five of her shots hit within the grey rectangle.  Her sharp shooting skills lead to some friendly teasing on Facebook.  “I’ll remember not to piss you off,” one person jokes.

My aim is a little better with the rifle because it has a scope.  All of my shots hit the target’s stomach. “You all hit there,” the instructor says, taking the wind out of my sails.

Interesting fact #1: While the military tests first-to-market guns and rifles, the HCSO tests first-to-market bullets from Alliant Techsystems in Anoka.

After the firing range, we head over to a video simulation lab.  These video simulations are used to train new recruits and offer a variety of potentially lethal scenarios: a domestic violence call, an unusual traffic stop, and a hold up-in-progress at a convenience store.

Video simulation Source: Jim Wilson, New York Times
Video simulation Source: Jim Wilson, New York Times

My scenario involves the convenience store, where my partner and I point our simulation guns at the robber who faces the cash register.  We shout things at him like, “Sir, move now!  Move now!  Put your hands up!  Hands up!  Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me!  Why won’t you look at me?”  Before we can yell out anything else, the robber turns around and shoots us both dead.  Cagney and Lacey, we are not.

Cagney and Lacey Source: Rex
Cagney and Lacey Source: Rex

It’s a scary predicament, being a cop in a potentially life-threatening situation.  Some experts believe more training, especially in tactics to defuse high-stress situations, could help both officers and suspects.  A recent study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum concluded that the majority of training hours were spent on firearms and defensive tactics rather than on de-escalation and crisis intervention.

We’ve heard several people say, “You don’t read about HCSO officers in the papers,” and it’s true, you don’t.  On average, HCSO employees receive twice as many training hours as other police departments.  Does the additional training make a difference?  It certainly can’t hurt.

The training instructors also teach the new recruits how to read the Cooper color code of the tactical (or combat) mindset.  As one instructor explains, understanding your mindset during a tactical situation can be more important than your firearm or Taser skills.  Your mindset can literally make the difference between life and death.

Cooper Color Codes of Awareness Source:
Cooper Color Codes of Awareness Source:

There are five colors in the color code:

  1. White: Living in oblivion. Not a good place to be if something’s going down.
  2. Yellow: Slightly observant. Okay, but not ideal.
  3. Orange: Heightened awareness. The “sweet spot” on the color code.
  4. Red: High alert. An imminent threat has been identified.
  5. Black: Combat debrief. Your mindset after something goes down, processing what just happened. It should not be your mindset before something goes down or while something’s going down.

After the video simulation, we watch a Taser demonstration. The instructors assure us that it’s very uncommon for someone to die after being Tased.    Interesting fact #2: Even people with pacemakers can be safely Tased, so grandpas beware.

I could write a boring paragraph about how a Taser works, but there’s no need since I found this awesome graphic:

How a Taser Works Source: James Hilston, Post Gazette
How a Taser Works Source: James Hilston, Post Gazette

Interesting fact #3: The instructors say that the worst part of being Tased is pulling the fish hooks out of your skin after the Taser is fired.  Tasers eject standard fish hooks (size six, I think).

This week, the academy will come to an end (sniff).  So far, it’s been an excellent adventure.   I’m looking forward to learning how 911 works and wrapping things up with our celebration party.

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 4

Last week, my friend Rose and I battled rush hour traffic to arrive at the Sheriff’s Crime Lab in Minneapolis on time.  While I’m pumped to visit the crime lab, I have to admit I gave up on the television show CSI years ago after Director Gil Grissom fell in love (or lust or whatever) with a dominatrix named Lady Heather (what the ???).

Gil Grissom & Lady Heather Source: CSI
Gil Grissom & Lady Heather Source: CSI

With 30 minutes to kill, Rose and I hit Hubert’s Bar for a quick drink.  It’s karaoke night and we’re treated to one-hit wonders from the 70s, 80s, and 90s as interpreted by several inebriated individuals.  I decide to sing along with one contestant who’s belting out “What’s Going On” by 4 Non Blondes because the lyrics really capture my thoughts that evening:

And I say hey…And I say hey what’s goin’ on

And I say hey… I said hey what’s goin’ on

And I scream from the top of my lungs

What’s goin’ on

At Hubert’s?

Some pretty scary karaoke, that’s what.

Rose at Hubert's Source:
Rose at Hubert’s Source:

Ears bleeding, we head over to the Sheriff’s Crime Lab which provides forensic support to over 35 local, state, and federal agencies.  The crime lab’s departments (called sections) include Crime Scene, Evidence, Firearm and Tool Mark Examination, Latent Print, and Biology/DNA.

Director Scott Giles kicks off the evening with an overview of the crime lab.  Interesting fact #1: Over 50% of the crimes investigated by the lab relate to property crimes.  After he says this I think, I wish I’d known about the crime lab when my car got broken into in Uptown.  Adding insult to injury, the thieves took my spare change and useless loyalty cards but left all of my CDs behind.  Hey, I have good taste in music.  Really.  (See section on karaoke above.)

Crime Scene Tech Source: Star Tribune
Crime Scene Tech Source: Star Tribune

Working on property crimes related to cars, homes, and businesses, the crime lab has identified several offenders through their forensic databases.  Interesting fact #2: one of the largest and most-used forensic databases is called CODIS.  It houses DNA profiles for over 14 million offenders.

One of the scientists explains that property crime offenders are often involved in other types of crimes.  “For some criminals, break-ins are almost like their day job,” she says.  By identifying the perpetrators of property crimes, the crime lab can help law enforcement agencies to get violent offenders off our streets.

The highlight of the evening is our visit to the Biology/DNA section where we learn how DNA is extracted.  Interesting fact #3: DNA evidence needs to be kept in a dark, cool and dry environment but does not need to be refrigerated.  In the lab, DNA samples are put into test tubes and a reagent is added to amplify the DNA sample.  The test tube is then put into a machine called a thermocycler which is cooled down to four degrees Celsius so that the DNA will replicate itself.  Interesting fact #4: DNA will not replicate if it’s one centigrade above four degrees Celsius.

Unfortunately, we aren’t able to enter the laboratory for fear of contamination but Suzanne Weston-Kirkegaard, the DNA technical lead, more than makes up for this by sharing on-the-job tales.  One of her best stories involves the Corn Dog Caper where a small-time burglar smashed his way into an office building and then went bananas.  Like a deranged Goldilocks, he ate food from the employees’ communal fridge, leaving behind a half-eaten corn dog as well as a large sample of DNA which led to his identification and arrest.

The Corn Dog in Question Source: HCSO
The infamous corn dog. Source: HCSO

Suzanne tells us that cases like these aren’t as uncommon as you’d think.  Apparently, some burglars like to leave mementos.  Like bodily fluid mementos.  I won’t get into specifics, but let’s just say I’ll never look at the bottle of ketchup in my fridge the same way again.  Yuk.

Ketchup Source: Ildar Sagdejev
Ketchup Source: Ildar Sagdejev

Next week, there will be tasers and rifles and guns, oh my!

Citizen Law Enforcement Academy: Week 1

Source: Hennepin Co. Sheriff's Office
Source: Hennepin Co. Sheriff’s Office

Last week, I’m wandering around South 4th Street in Minneapolis with my face buried in a map when a woman wearing a uniform asks me, “Are you here for visiting hours?”


“You’re not here to visit someone in jail?”


Turns out the building I’m looking for also houses the holding jail, but I’m heading there to attend the Hennepin County Sheriff Office’s Citizen Law Enforcement Academy instead.  The academy is a six-week course offered free of charge to anyone who is interested in learning how law enforcement and the criminal justice system work.

“You’re probably going to learn a lot tonight.  A lot,” the uniformed lady says before she points me in the right direction.

After being herded through a metal detector, our group of thirty is escorted upstairs into a classroom.  Four of my classmates are fellow Twin Cities Sister in Crime members: Theresa Weir, Kristin Lerstrom, M.E. Bakos, and Midge Bubany.  Also present are Midge’s husband/chauffeur, Tim, and a friend from my mystery writing group, Rose Stanley-Gilbert.  A female deputy tells us they’ve had several crime writers take this course including Sister in Crime’s own Julie Kramer.  It seems we’re in good company.

Tonight, we’ll be hearing from Sheriff Richard W. Stanek and several departments in Investigations including Criminal Information Sharing and Analysis (CISA), Detective Unit, and the Violent Offender Task Force (VOTF).

Citizens Academy week 1
Sheriff Stanek presents at the Spring 2015 Citizen Law Enforcement Academy. Source: Hennepin Co. Sheriff’s Office Facebook page

Some of the officers seem to get a kick out of having crime writers in the audience.

One of the detectives ends his presentation with a special request for the Sisters in Crime members: “I know you’re all looking for material.  If you use me as a character in your book, please make me taller than I am in real life.”

The highlight of the evening is a presentation by two officers assigned to the Violent Offenders Task Force (VOTF).  Comprised of deputies from the Sheriff’s Office and from some of the higher-risk cities within the county, VOTF works with data analysts in CISA to identify both crime trends and the most dangerous criminals in Hennepin County at any given time.

Since they work undercover, I’ll refrain from describing the VOTF deputies other than to say they are a writer’s dream come true.  I’d love to take the deputies’ quirky looks and personalities and just drop them —plop– straight into my story.

Things I learn from the deputies:

-VOTF is a young person’s game.  Eventually, you will age out of VOTF, probably after five years.

-They wear normal clothes and drive unmarked cars.  They are nic-certified, meaning they can field test for narcotics.

-They have some cases that are assigned to them but in general they get to create their own investigations.

-Their work usually involves busts where they find “a couple of guns and some drugs”.

-It’s hard work to cultivate informants and yes, informants are as annoying as you’d think they’d be.

The deputies spend a lot of time chasing down or babysitting their informants but, as one of the deputies says during their presentation, “What am I gonna do?  Get information about drug dealers from you?”  He bends down and looks at me.  “Do you know any drug dealers?”

It’s a rhetorical question, right?

At the end of their presentation, the VOTF deputies allow us to handle confiscated weapons including an AK-47.  We also get to try on bullet-proof vests.  I wish I could have taken a photo of the SinC members wearing those vests, but photos were forbidden due to the sensitive nature of the VOTF deputies’ work.  I hope we can get a group picture soon.

AK-47 Source: Wikipedia
AK-47 Source: Wikipedia

As the lady in uniform predicted, I learned a lot.  Can’t wait to see what week number two of the academy will bring.

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