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Features - Posted November 25, 2011 9:18 a.m.
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photos by Jeff Harbin, Life of Riley Photography

Stand By Me

And other rules to follow in the Amarillo Police Department Citizen’s Academy.

When I heard about the opportunity to become a part of the Amarillo Police Department Citizen’s Academy, I was immediately intrigued. The academy is designed to give citizens an understanding of how the police operate and fulfill their jobs in the community.

As the daughter of a policeman, I thought I knew a little something about police work. However, after accompanying officers on ride-alongs, witnessing the Tasing of a fellow academy student, and pulling the trigger of a 9mm pistol, I realized that wasn’t the case.

Taser Demonstration
Early on in the 12-week academy, the class was introduced to the Taser. I knew little about these innocent-looking hand-held devices but I knew from "America’s Funniest Home Videos" that even the simple home versions deliver a powerful charge. I admit, I don’t like to feel pain and other people’s pain bothers me, too. When the demonstrating officer Tased the police cadets, I cringed and covered my face.

“Who’s next?” The officer looked around the room. I can tell you one thing, if it meant I was going to have to bust through the blue line, it was not going to be me! I fell back in the crowd because this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I was willing to pass up.

An enthusiastic group member with an apparently high tolerance for pain stepped up to the Taser challenge. As I observed from just a few feet away, I watched her body contract for a few seconds and then relax. I had flashbacks of giving birth to my children. The contractions seemed similar… hurts like heck for a few seconds and when it stops, no pain at all.

The Shooting Range
“We will be shooting guns at the range this Saturday,” Captain Funtek, director of training and personnel at APD, announces. Most of the people in the class seemed excited. I, on the other hand, was hesitant. My brain just doesn’t comprehend pulling a trigger on a gun.

I’m a counselor. My brain says, “Let’s talk about it.” I use self talk when I have to work out a dilemma and this was one of those times. I used every spare minute talking to myself about how I could shoot a gun. My only frames of reference were Nerf and water guns. This counselor-do-gooder had never even shot a BB gun. Self talk works for me. After much reflection and trepidation, I did make it to the range on the designated day.

I was afraid as I held the hefty gun. A SWAT team member gave me some tips: “Lean in.” I leaned in. “Hold the gun firmly.” My grip was white-knuckle firm. “Put your weight on your left leg.” (I was concentrating so hard on trying to keep my balance, I wasn’t sure I could aim the gun. I just wanted to keep from falling over.) I shot four different types of guns: an M4, H&K, 12 gauge with buckshot and a 9mm pistol. At the end of the day I felt a sense of accomplishment.

Ride-alongs
I participated in three ride-alongs and they were my favorite part of the academy. When I arrived at the police station, I was issued a bulletproof vest to wear for the day, which I didn’t put on right away. As I walked out of the APD with several police officers, a strange feeling came over me. Why am I carrying this vest? I need to be wearing it! There is a conflict of what I know is right. I should feel safe and protected walking with the officers but I felt slightly vulnerable.

The officer I rode with gave me a few instructions. He tells me his call number if I need to call something in on the radio. I’m thinking, “What would I call in?” Before I can configure a worst-case scenario, he mentions, “If I need help…” He keeps talking but I hear nothing. Doesn’t he realize I’m already worried enough?

“Stand by me.” That’s a classic song but it’s also instruction No. 2 for the observer (that’s me) on a ride-along. I am told, “Stay close to me when we are on calls.” I really am a follow-the-rules type of person; however, there were one or two instances that I did not do as instructed. When my partner walked over to talk to another officer, I lingered and stayed back. I happened to glance toward the officer as he turned to check on me.

Even with those sunglasses on I could tell I was getting “the look.” He proceeded to motion for me to take my place next to him… and I did. I don’t think he noticed I had a little smile on my face. “I guess
I better do what I am supposed to do,” I thought. I know he wanted me to stay near him for safety reasons and I appreciated it.

He mentioned early in the day, “I won’t let anything happen to you.” I figured I should at least make it easy for the guy. Throughout our day, there were clearly some calls where proximity to the officer made me feel safe and then there were those calls that were less intense and I didn’t feel like his shadow.

The third directive was basically geography: know where we were at all times. Well, I knew where we were most of the time but when the officer asked, it pretty much went like this: Officer: “Do you know where we are?”

Me: “Not really.”

Things moved so quickly and I was trying to absorb and observe so much. I did try to read street signs and I know if pressed into action, I could have figured out where we were if I had to. For example, if I had to call the dispatcher with his number if he needed help, right?

It’s one thing to tend to a traffic accident when you are an officer, but it’s another thing to be in one. And we were! The police vehicle we were riding in was hit from behind by another car. We were bumped forward. At that time the officer put the cruiser in park and switched on the video camera. In most cases, we would get out of the car, do some paperwork, etc.

But before we could do that, our vehicle was hit a second time and this time we were being pushed by the car behind us. The driver was confused about which pedal braked and which one accelerated.

As we recovered from shock, I felt my eyes widen. Thoughts were running through my mind. What the heck? My car has been hit before and I didn’t keep getting rammed. Is this how things go for the police? I look back and see smoke. Should I get out of the car? Should I stay inside?

The officer calmly tells me, “Stay in the car. The smoke is from her tires spinning.” She is still accelerating. Wow, tires really do burn rubber and I learned that firsthand on a police ride-along. I remained seated in the parked car, the officer’s foot on the brake pedal so we would not continue to be pushed down the road. I had visions of action movies, the scene ending with the car in flames. Finally, the other person thinks to turn off the car. We can relax after a few tense moments.

In the three days I spent riding with officers, we went on many calls. These varied between the mundane and the insane – domestic violence, trespassing, car accidents, warrant arrests, traffic stops, runaways and physical fighting.

Police officers are observers, thinkers and decision makers. They have a confidence about them without being removed from the people they are dealing with. They take their jobs seriously, yet can laugh with each other to keep things real.

While taking part in the academy, I toured the property and evidence rooms, the dispatch center and the bomb center. I used radar to clock the speed of cars and met all the police dogs. We heard from each and every department at the police station and learned about many programs.

My father rarely told me about his police work. Maybe he was protecting his little girl from what he was experiencing or maybe it was to help him have a healthy balance between work and home.

Whatever the reason, the stories and information I knew growing up don’t compare to actually riding along with officers. I realized that the job we citizens see members of the police department do just scratches the surface. They are brave, multi-tasking jacks-of-all-trades and I feel safer and more secure about my community after spending time with them.

The A.P.D. Citizen’s Academy
What: Subjects include how the APD is organized and what each police unit’s job is; Patrol Division field operations; canine demonstration; motorcycle and radar demonstration; Dive Team demonstration; employment opportunities and requirements; Police Academy training; crime prevention strategies; School Liaison program; gangs; Criminal Justice System; felony stop procedures; crime scene ID hands-on demonstration; property and evidence tour; radio room and 911 tour; jail tour; Narcotics Unit operations; SWAT operations and demonstration.
When: Tuesday evenings from 7-10 p.m. for 11 weeks during the fall season
Where: Amarillo Police Department, Fourth Floor Training Center, 200 East 3rd
Who: For more information, contact Capt. Ken Funtek at 378.6170 or Police@Amarillo.gov.

by Gina Ruggeri Law

Gina is a Licensed Professional Counselor and works for the Amarillo Independent School District. She is married and is a mother of two teenage boys. She is currently working on a book “Ten-Minute Turnaround" and has also written an iTunes app called iScout Tips.
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