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 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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