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Diary from the Citizen Police Academy: K9s, SWAT, Misconduct and Final Thoughts

I'm catching up on several weeks of highlights from the citizen police academy. We graduate tonight.

I’m the first to admit that I’ve slacked terribly on my blog about the Citizen Police Academy. I apologize profusely. There’s just so much going on in San Leandro it’s hard to keep up!

Now the academy is over. We had our final class last week and today we “graduate.” (Thanks for not giving us any tests, Sgt. Torres!) Here I’ll recap some of the highlights of the last few sessions (minus some that I’m saving for longer stories), and give some final thoughts on what I learned at the academy.  

First off, I want to thank the police department for a wonderful opportunity to better understand how it operates. All of the officers and staff who gave presentations to our class were candid — both about their jobs and their personal lives — and extremely generous with their time and knowledge. 

Going back a few weeks… 

Canines 

After the incident last December where an off-duty San Leandro Police canine fatally attacked another dog, I was obviously curious about this one. Here’s what I learned: 

The police department currently has three dogs, all German Shepherds, working for it. One is certified for sniffing out narcotics, another for tracking criminals. 

The department purchases its canines from Menlo Park-based Witmer-Tyson, which specializes in importing and training police dogs. Most of the dogs come from Europe, particularly Germany and, in the case of the dog we met, the Czech Republic.  

Police canines can cost around $7,500, plus a couple of thousand dollars more in extra schooling on top of that, according to Officer Mike Fischer. 

Officers apply to have a dog as a partner, and then, if accepted, sign a four-year commitment to work with the canine. 

Contrary to public perception, Fischer said, police dogs are not trained to hurt people. That “couldn’t be further than the truth,” he said. 

Canines are trained to find people, usually suspects, and clamp down on a suspect’s arm or leg until officers can catch up. “To them it’s a game,” Fischer said. The potential harm comes when suspects try to fight back or free themselves, he said. 

Officers can give a dog an article from a person’s car or something that person was near, and he’ll try to pick up the scent. But police canines can also follow a scent straight from a person, zigzagging back and forth until he finds the person. 

Canines are called out on cases well over 100 times every year, Fischer said, particularly for burglaries and robberies, and to search buildings or find suspects hiding in backyards. 

“He’s a locating tool,” Fischer said. At the same time, Fischer and his K9 partner, Oliver, work a regular patrol beat, in a car specially outfitted for the dog. 

Interestingly, officers cannot legally use lethal force against a person who abuses a police dog (e.g., a criminal who beats or shoots a dog who has located him or her). Officers consider their K9s as partners, but the Supreme Court considers them equipment.  

Criminal Investigation 

SLPD’s criminal investigation unit is made up of 15 detectives, including supervisors (and including Lt. Jeff Tudor, the poor guy who has to answer all my and others’ press queries). 

You may have heard that Oakland is reorganizing its criminal investigation unit and shifting some of its officers back to the streets, because of budget cuts. San Leandro is lucky to have kept its unit intact thus far, although budget cuts have certainly affected SLPD, as well. 

Besides their regular hours, investigators are responsible to be on call six to seven weeks per year, and must be within an hour of the station during those times. 

But in practice, many officers work much more than that. Sgt. Bob McManus said he had logged about 350 hours of “involuntary” overtime so far this year. (More on the overtime issue coming soon to Patch….) 

Usually two detectives will work a case, but if there’s a homicide or other major crime, four to six detectives may get called. 

SWAT 

San Leandro has a specially trained 15-member SWAT (special weapons and tactics) Team. They train together every two weeks for at least five hours, but otherwise its members are scattered throughout the department. 

The SWAT Team leader, Sgt. Doug Calcagno, said tactical thinking in emergency situations has changed radically since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. The standard used to be to sit and wait out that kind of large-scale hostage situation. 

But after two Columbine seniors killed 12 students and a teacher over the course of an hour, people questioned why law enforcement waited so long. Tactics have since changed.

When it’s an officer’s life versus that of a threatening suspect, I’ve often heard officers repeat the mantra that they will make sure they go home to their families. But when a victim’s life is at stake, you might take comfort in this quote from Calcagno: 

“If it’s an officer or my daughter [whose life is at risk], ultimately the officer gets paid for that.” 

Some people in the class asked why the department didn’t just borrow the Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT Team when needed. (When she was police chief in Benicia, SLDP Chief Sandra Spagnoli merged Benicia’s SWAT Team with Vallejo’s to save money.)  

It’s unclear whether this would save the city any money, or even be possible, but Calcagno said one advantage of the city keeping its own team is having officers with extra tactical training in different areas of the department. 

Internal Affairs 

This section deserves its own post, but I’ll try to keep it short and basic. 

Complaints from the public about a particular officer go into that officer’s file and are kept there for five years. The public can’t read those complaints because they’re protected under a privacy exemption in the Public Records Act, since they are personnel issues. 

However, in a criminal case involving an officer — for example, if a defendant alleges the officer used excessive force — a judge can let the defense attorney look at personnel files (the attorney’s request is called a Pitchess motion). That is done in private in the judge’s chambers, not in the open courtroom. 

Similarly, prosecutors are obligated to turn over information about an officer’s prior misconduct to the defense under a precedent set by a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland. The officer’s name is kept confidential and the judge decides whether the evidence of misconduct is sufficient to warrant dismissal of the officer’s testimony. 

Some public defenders, including those in San Francisco and Alameda County, are fighting to obtain “Brady lists” of officers whose testimony could be thrown out because of prior misconduct or past criminal records (police unions are pushing back). 

The issue came to light in San Francisco last year after an employee of the SFPD’s drug lab confessed to taking small amounts of cocaine from the lab. Later, it was found that police hadn’t told prosecutors about the employee’s prior conviction for domestic violence. You can read a story about that issue from KTVU here

Back to citizen complaints. Complaints from the public are investigated internally, depending on the seriousness and legitimacy of the complaint. If the complaint is found justified, discipline may be taken in accordance with the severity of the case. 

When recommending disciplinary action to the police chief, internal affairs looks at the history of the officer and prior disciplinary measures for similar allegations. Sgt. Mike Sobek, who teaches Internal Affairs at the police academy, said they try to keep punishment consistent, and think about what kind of message they want to send to the officer and to the department, but there is no standard punishment for offenses. It depends on the nuances of the case. 

If an officer is put on administrative leave, he or she has to remain in the area and ready to be called in if needed. 

Officers have the right to appeal disciplinary decisions. 

Final Thoughts 

Putting aside the personal danger long shifts, and often-monotonous work that many officers face, one of the hardest things about the job is public perception. As one officer joked, everybody loves firemen, but police serve a public that diversely appreciates, hates, fears and distrusts them, sometimes all at the same time. 

At the citizen academy we had drilled into us on several occasions the importance of maintaining a good relationship between the police force and the public. San Leandro’s police force has a much better reputation in the eyes of city residents than Oakland, they repeated. If police lose that trust, it’s much harder for them to do their work, they said. 

An oft-repeated criticism, not just in San Leandro, is that officers don’t live where they work. First of all, we met many officers with deep ties to San Leandro, officers who attended local schools, and/or who have long histories with the police force, sometimes extending back generations. 

But there’s a very good reason many officers choose not to live in the city where they work. It can be dangerous for them. If you’re known as the guy who put someone’s gang buddies in jail, how safe are you going to feel heading out, without a gun or uniform, to a local restaurant with your family?   

I had never before thought about it this way. It makes sense. 

If you weren’t aware, it’s police officers appreciation week. People are asked to wear blue ribbons to show their support for the force. I’ll be wearing mine to graduation tonight.

HONESTY June 05, 2011 at 04:37 PM
What does it even matter where an officer lives and what the statists show on that??? Will that change your mind about the Police???? I highly doubt it! Oh and next time you need the cops are you going to "seriously question them" before deciding which one you want to come help you??
Thomas Clarke June 05, 2011 at 04:49 PM
Honesty, you know when someone tells me that they are honest, I generally do not believe them. I will certainly change my mind about the police when the transparency, honesty, fairness and legal actions on their part are present. Right now, and for a very long time, stretching back to before World War 2, when San Leandro was 99% White the city of San Leandro and its Police Department have protected the Caucasians in the city. The usual suspects have always been the minorities. San Leandro has a long way to go before it can shed itself of it racist traditions and fascist methods. Pontifications aside, just look at the history of the town. Go to the library. Look at the newspapers from the fifties and sixties. You will be shocked at what you find. Then move to the seventies and eighties and you will find that the police are there in faithful service to the Whites and in a constant state of war with all other ethnic groups. When the government comes to help you, run.
HONESTY June 05, 2011 at 05:36 PM
Mike Sobek, very well said!! I don't feel your attitude is "condescending and threatening" at all! It is a simple fact...no one is going to care where an officer lives when you are calling 911! However it is almost obvious to me why an officer wouldn't want to live where they work. Kind of like why maybe a teacher or principal wouldn't want to live where they work. I can only imagine how many times their houses get TP'd or egged. Some officers may be totally okay with living where they work (depending on the city) but I would think most wouldn't want to put their family in any unneccessary danger. Whether it happens or not why would anyone want to find out? I don't understand why this is even being questioned...
Marga Lacabe June 05, 2011 at 05:54 PM
Wow! It's pretty amazing that after weeks of apparently searching for some support, the SLPD could not find ONE person to be willing to stand for them, and they had to create a fake personality to do it. Way to go, guys!
Barry Kane June 05, 2011 at 06:46 PM
Very few actually post here when you look at the repeating names. I have had nothing but good experiences with the SLPD. I had a burglary they resonded to promptly and they were compassionate and caring. I have talked to the bicycle policeman downtown and watched him work with citizens and merchants and he is amazing and our HOA has had their community officer (SL resident) come out to meet with us many times and their officers have been quick to respond to burglaries, service calls, requests for information and community needs. Compared to other agencies in all of the other cities I have lived in including: SF, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, Roseville, they are a very good organization that is responsive and cares about their community. Of course their are exceptions within every organization.

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