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.

Goodbye, Old Friend

Last Friday, my friend Jason passed away after a two-year battle with cancer.

We met in high school.  He was the friend of a friend, and we were set up for a dance, my first one.  On the big night, we meet up at my girlfriend Colleen’s house for photos.  When I take off my coat, someone’s dad asks me if my mom knows I’m wearing that dress, a form-fitting number with a sweetheart neckline.  “My mom bought me this dress,” I tell him which is true; my mom’s from Peru and frankly, she thinks showing a little skin never hurt anybody.

In the photo below, I’m trying to pin a boutonniere on Jason as Colleen’s mother looks on.  I look young, but Jason looks younger.  When I show this picture to my husband he laughs and says, “You look like his babysitter.”

Jason and me
Jason and me, his babysitter

From Colleen’s house, someone’s mom drives us to Le Titi de Paris, an expensive French restaurant.  It’s the first and (sadly) last time I’ll eat there.  Our waiter raises his eyebrows in dismay when we order our filet mignons “well done”.  The teenage sous chefs in the kitchen make goo-goo eyes at Colleen and me and write I Love You in raspberry sauce across our dessert plates.  She and I leave the restaurant in a flurry of giggles and whispers, our poor dates all but forgotten.

It’s not a love connection (few are when you’re fifteen), but Jason and I become good friends.  He’s quiet and kind and I like to tease him.  I have so many good memories:

-Taking Jason’s 16th birthday present, a brand-new Camaro, for a test drive around my neighborhood.  At 70mph.  Before I have a driver’s license.

-Driving downtown with Jason, and his brother, Kyle, in said Camaro to see a Blackhawks game.  Somehow ending up in Cabrini Green instead.

-Listening to Jason’s band “jam” after school with a girlfriend, inspiring us to have fake concert t-shirts printed up for their upcoming world tour.

It’s Saturday night.  I’m sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant when I receive a CaringBridge update via email.  Jason’s wife, Kirsten, has posted a journal entry.  The first line reads, “He is Home.”  I stare at the screen of my phone.  In a few minutes, I’ll be meeting up with some girlfriends for a mom’s night out.  I put on some lipstick, get out of my car, and try to pull it together.

Inside the restaurant, Louis Armstrong is singing “Dream a Little Dream”:

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you  

Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you  

But in your dreams, whatever they be  

Dream a little dream of me

Jason was a big fan of New Orleans and its jazz.  I take the music as a sign that my friend is enjoying his new life on a higher plane, finally worry- and pain-free.

He and another friend were the inspiration for Quentin Knight, a policeman and sidekick to my novel’s protagonist, Camila Castillo.  Quentin gets his looks and big heart from Jason, so a little piece of my friend’s spirit lives on for me as I write my first book.

Jason, you were a fighter and a man of faith.  You were a good friend, husband, and father.  You were a good man.  You will be missed but not forgotten.  Rest in peace, my old friend.

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