police academy

Citizen Police Academy: How I got to be a pretend police officer for one night

I’m not a cop, but I played one yesterday. On the final night of the 9-week Citizen Police Academy that I’ve been attending, 30 participants paired up, suited up in bullet-proof vests and utility belts, loaded up with fake guns and were led through two role-play exercises [and a real shoot at the police firing range, which I’ll describe in a separate post].

[Note: In light of recent headlines, like the one about the Oklahoma reserve deputy who killed a suspect, Citizen Police Academy is NOT a reserve force or anything like it. We don’t get certified. We’re not deputized to do anything. We just learn about what police do.]

That being said, here’s what we did as pretend police last night…

Role-play #1: Suspicious person

A police officer led my role-play partner [a complete stranger] and me through a simulation. First, he read us the scenario:

We’re on patrol when, at 2:30 am, we are sent to an elementary school, where it’s suspected that someone has illegally entered the building.

Then, he leads us to a small room, opens the door and tells us to go to work. We enter the room and see no one.

In previous sessions of the program, we’ve been introduced to some of the laws that pertain to police work, the definitions of various crimes, options for interacting with suspects, and the gradations and rules for use of force. Now, we’re supposed to put that information to work.

Here’s what happened: [Remember, we were making this up as we went along. There was no script and no suggestions. Our police-officer mentor was watching. The “suspect” was a police officer with excellent acting skills.]

Pretend police: “Who’s in there?”

Suspect: “It’s just me. Bob.” [He was crouching in an alcove, out of sight.]

Pretend police: “What are you doing in here?”

Bob: “I had a fight with my wife, so I came over here. I went to grade school here.”

Pretend police: “That’s not okay, Bob. You’re going to have to come out of there. Show me your hands.” [Bob sticks his hands around the end of the alcove. One of them holds a beer can.] “OK. Keep your hands out like that and come out.” [Bob emerges from the alcove.]

Bob: “Are you arresting me?”

Pretend police: “Yes.”

Bob: “For what?” [We have to scramble to think up what the charge would be in this situation. Later, we find out that we got this wrong. It should have been burglary, even though he hadn’t stolen anything.]

Pretend police: “Trespassing.”

Bob: “I’m not trespassing. The door was unlocked. I’m one of this town’s most important defense lawyers, and I know the law.”

Pretend police: [This is my best line of the night, if I must say so myself.] “No, Bob. I AM the law. It doesn’t matter what degree you have or what you think. I’m in charge here.”

Bob: “Well, all I want to do is finish my beer and go home.” [He grabs a chair, sits down, puts his feet up on the table and goes for the beer can.]

Pretend police: “That’s not going to happen, Bob. We’re placing you under arrest. Stand up—now– and put your hands behind your back.”

[Bob complies. My fake-police partner fake handcuffs him, and we begin to walk him out the door.]

That’s when our real-police-officer monitor stops the simulation. He tells us we did pretty well, except for one rather major omission. “Bob” reaches into his pocket and pulls out a screwdriver and a bag of fake drugs. He also lifts up his pant leg and shows us the knife he had hidden there. We had failed to search him after we cuffed him. Not so good, but, apparently, acceptable for a couple of improvising idiots who should never be let loose on the streets.

Role-play #2: Traffic stop

Our next scenario takes place outside, in the parking lot of the police department. We get into a real police cruiser, and our monitor describes our new situation:

We’re on patrol. It’s 3 am. We’re answering a call describing a black car driving through a supermarket parking lot with no lights on. There’s also been a report of a burglary nearby, from which a black car was seen driving away. We have just pulled over a car fitting the description. Go.

Just as we get out of our police car, the driver of the black car jumps out and starts gesturing, as if he is telling someone in the distance to run away. Again, we have to improvise the dialogue:

Pretend police: “Get back in the car, sir. Get back in the car and put your hands on the steering wheel. Get back in the car!”

[He gets back in the car. We approach—me on the passenger side, my partner on the driver’s side. We have been told by several officers that working from the passenger side is safer when you are on a highway. I remembered that!]

Driver: [slurring his words] “Hey there, ossifer. I’m just stopping to take a pee over there in the woods with my ol’ friend. Hey! Two lady cops! Hello, ladies!”

Pretend police: “I need to see your driver’s license and insurance, sir.” [He hands it over.] “Now, get out of the car and put your hands on top of the car, where I can see them.

Driver: “Do I gotta?”

Pretend police: “Yes. Get out of the car and put your hands on top of it. Now.” [He complies. But as he gets out of the car, he tosses something on the ground, which I didn’t notice, because I was walking around the car.]

Pretend police: “Sir, you appear to be under the influence of something. I’m going to ask you to do a little test. Walk along that line, toward me. Now walk back the other way.” [He does it, but he is totally wobbly. He goes to pick up the knife. We stop him. ] “We’re going to have to take you in to the station for driving while intoxicated, sir. Put your hands behind your back.” [He does, and my partner fake cuffs him.]

End of scenario. Evaluation? We did fine, we are told. We even did some things right that we didn’t know we were doing, like staying between the driver and the flashing lights of the cruiser, making it hard for him to see us and possibly shoot us if he had a weapon.

Later, we learned that one pretend cop in a different group was “suspended from duty” when he went too far in his scenario and fake tasered the suspect four times.

Lessons [real, not pretend] learned

Not that I’ll ever have the chance [too old, too scared], but I wouldn’t want to be a cop. What I’ve learned in this 9-week program—mainly—is that police work involves a shitload of split-second decision-making. Every situation—even a routine traffic stop—involves juggling a lot of factors—the rules of engagement, awareness of the situation around you, effective communication, appropriate use of force, the proper sequencing of your actions, etc., etc., etc. .

The role playing made me acutely aware of how much I don’t know. I took a lot of detailed notes during the previous sessions, and I even looked at the handy Power Points that the academy generously sent to each of the participants. But synthesizing all that stuff into the live, on-the-spot role-playing experience was a different animal.

I ended up taking the lead in each of our scenarios, but I had no idea what was the right thing to do or say. I think, to a major extent, I was mimicking what I’ve seen on the 20 years of the fictional “Law & Order” that I have watched and re-watched many times. How embarrassing is that? Detective Lenny Briscoe is my role model? Geez. I hope that real cops are way better than that.

I’m assuming that the vast majority of them are. Of course, I realize that Citizen Police Academy is as much an exercise in community public relations as it is an honest effort at letting us in on the real, non-TV workings of law enforcement. When asked tough questions about recent police-involved news events, our presenters walked a tightrope between being 100 percent in defense of their fellow cops and letting in some measure of doubt.

I know that, in a pinch, I’d be the first to call for a cop to save my ass. And I know that I’ve drunk some of the Kool-Aid during these past nine weeks. But not all of it. The police officers we’ve met in this program have seemed very well-intentioned and dedicated to doing a good job. But even they have to admit that not everyone is. But I now can see that all of them–good one, bad ones, and everyone in between–face challenges and moral conflicts that are unimaginably daunting to someone like me.