Apologies! I’m playing catch-up here, so combining some notes from the last two police academy classes.
But first, a quick story: I ran into someone yesterday who had gone through the first Citizen Police Academy class (or the first one in a long time, anyway) a few years ago. She said before taking the course, she had never talked to a police officer and hadn’t particularly wanted to. She said the course completely changed, for the better, the way she thinks about our local police force and the job of a police officer.
I hadn’t had much contact with police in my life before becoming a reporter, and even then, most of my experience with police has been with Guatemalan police, which is a whole different story (actually, I have some really funny stories that I’ll share sometime with anyone who’s interested).
The police – reporter relationship is an interesting one. Obviously, reporters depend on police for a lot of information. But at the same time, since they’re in a position of great power, we have our eyes on them.
There’s a guy who works for the Oakland Tribune who’s famed for getting crime/police stories out before anyone else because he has a tight relationship with the police. I remember having a heated discussion about him once in journalism school, and debating how close is too close to get to your sources.
It’s tough for journalists to manage source relationships, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks (yeah right).
In any case, if you’re going to cover a government agency, you should know how it works. So I’m very thankful to be taking the Citizen Police Academy and getting incredibly valuable lessons in how and why cops do what they do.
Our third session of the academy was dedicated to emergency preparedness and police ethics. Since the latter is obviously juicier than the former, I’ll keep the former short.
Kathy Ornelas, the city’s community relations manager and jack of many other trades (did you know she was a police officer for six years?), talked about the city’s role in emergency situations, and preparing for disasters.
One of Ornelas’s many hats at the city is that of emergency services coordinator. The new Senior Community Center on East 14th Street doubles as the city’s emergency operations center, in case of need. That’s where the city would base any sort of emergency response, not where residents should go in case of an emergency.
AM 1610 is San Leandro’s emergency radio station, where residents should tune in for information if there’s an emergency at the local level. In case you haven’t heard it, the city tests its alert system every first Wednesday of the month at noon.
Ornelas emphasized the need for families to have an emergency plan in place, and supplies at the ready — a week’s worth of supplies, not just 72 hours, as used to be standard advice.
The Alameda County Fire Department has an interesting program called “Map Your Neighborhood,” where neighborhood groups are asked to get together and plan a community response to a disaster, mapping out key people and places, like local shelters. You can find out more on the fire department’s website (click on the link above).
Mike Sobek, from the police department’s special investigations unit, gave the talk on police ethics. Sobek does a lot of work around the state on police labor issues. He was appointed by former governor Schwarzenegger to the Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training, which helps set standards for selection and training of California police officers.
Sobek talked about the kinds of things the San Leandro Police Department looks for in new recruits, including honesty, an unwavering belief system, impulse and anger control, and ability to accept responsibility for mistakes. He said the department could afford to be very picky in choosing new officers because it’s so small.
Sobek said things have changed a lot in terms of police handling of civilians’ personal information. When he started as an officer 28 years ago, young cops would look up information on film stars and the like, just for fun.
Now, officers have to document their reason for accessing someone’s personal information.
Officers are prohibited from taking any gratuities from the people they serve, so no free coffee at the gas station or donut shop.
One thing Sobek said provoked a long discussion: while officers are screened for a history of substance abuse when they’re brought on board, the department does no routine drug testing after that.
Some in the citizens academy thought the department should absolutely be drug-testing officers, especially following an officer-involved shooting. Sobek said supervisors can test anyone they suspect of being under the influence, but rarely do so. He said supervisors work so closely with officers every day that they would know if someone was using drugs or alcohol on the job.
What do you think?
The highlights of last week’s class at the citizens police academy were show and tell weaponry, and an interesting discussion on Miranda rights.
Contrary to what many people believe from watching cop shows on television, police officers don’t have to read a person his or her Miranda rights until after that person is arrested, and until just before questioning.
So you could be detained by the police, say put in handcuffs, but not yet arrested, and if you say something incriminating, that evidence could potentially be used in court against you.
Officers can even take you to jail before admonishing you of your right to remain silent if that officer doesn’t question you. It’s only before questioning that a suspect must be admonished.
Also, if a suspect comes in for questioning voluntarily, the officer doesn’t have to read that person his or her Miranda rights. (More info at the link above.)
During the second half of last week’s session, several officers explained the department’s policy on the use of force against suspects. The department can use tasers, high-powered pepper spray and a couple of other scary looking “less-lethal” weapons if a suspect is actively resisting an officer or displaying assaultive behavior.
If an officer thinks his or her life is in danger, or a suspect’s actions could cause great bodily harm, that officer is trained to shoot to kill.
I asked, probably naively, whether an officer ever aims his or her gun at a suspect’s leg or some other part of the body not likely to kill the person. The answer was no, because if you aim for anything other than the chest, you’re more likely to miss and a stray bullet could kill someone else. Plus, that missed hit could be the end of the officer’s life.
With so many police-involved shootings in the Bay Area lately, the use of force by officers is a delicate subject. If the shooting isn’t caught on someone’s cell phone, it’s extremely hard for the public to make an informed judgment about whether or not the shooting was justified. Even then, it’s always impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
That’s all I’m going to say about that. Every case is, of course, different. I do think that the police providing more information about these cases, rather than less, and about why officers make the decisions they do, would help prevent people from jumping to conclusions.