socks itched. So, you can imagine it was with some trepidation that I completed the enrollment form for the annual Traverse City Citizens Law Enforcement Academy.
For the past decade the Traverse City Police Department has been running a 10-week course every spring so that interested locals can learn more about what it takes to be a cop in TC. As a new author of true crime books, I thought it would be a good idea for me to learn about investigation techniques, police terminology, and guns from the people who fight crime, and not just from the criminals I was busy researching. I must have passed the background check because I was admitted.
The 2008 Citizens Law Enforcement Academy was held from March 4 through May 6, for two to three hours every Tuesday evening in a classroom in the basement of the Dennis W. Finch Law Enforcement Center on Woodmere Avenue. Here are some highlights:
Week One Introduction to the TCPD
A policewoman in dress blues introduces herself as officer Mary Jane Gay and leads 20 of us into the classroom for our first session; my eyes land on something that immediately puts me at ease a big bowl of peanut M&Ms. Has someone been staking me out? How did they know peanut M&Ms are my refuge in times of stress? When I see the neighboring bowl of broccoli and carrots, I realize the candy selection must be just a coincidence.
Ten tables with two students to a table are set up and at each place is a name placard, a binder of information well use throughout the course, an embossed pen, a pin-on nametag, and a notepad. Officer Gay welcomes us and introduces Chief of Police Michael Warren, Captain of Patrol Stephen Morgan, and Captain of Detectives Brian Heffner. Between them, they have 107 years of police experience, two bachelors degrees, three Masters degrees, a PhD, umpteen FBI seminar certifications and official commendations, and two U.S. Police Hall of Fame mentions. They are smart, they are articulate, they are decorated. I am in awe.
Which, I have to admit, is not how I expected to feel. Ive seen the original and the sequels, and I expected to feel like an extra in Police Academy Five.Captain Morgan asks us if we have any questions. I have too many to count. Have you ever used your gun? Who is the highest profile criminal youve ever arrested? What goes through your mind when youre on your way to an emergency call? A hand goes up, but its not mine. A 30-something guy sitting two rows in front of me asks, So, on your night off, do you guys like, watch COPS? Ok, I get it; we are in a Police Academy remake, but its us, the students, and not the officers who have landed the starring roles. My bad.
Week Two Jail Tour and Central Dispatch
After spending only 45 minutes inside the County Jail on a tour, I can tell you that jail is loud, jail is tense, and jail is smelly. Not stinky smelly, but disinfectant smelly. The place is spotless. Jail Administrator Captain Robert Hall explains that jail can also be boring, a situation that he has tried to remedy in numerous ways.
The County Jail has an indoor gymnasium with a portion of the roof that is retractable. Hall had two basketball hoops installed, and for a while the inmates played the kind of polite driveway-type basketball games most of us played as kids. It didnt take long for them to turn it into extreme basketball, with broken ankles and banged-up kneecaps the result. Captain Hall took away the basketballs and rolled in ping-pong tables. At first the inmates played the kind of polite basement-type ping pong most of us played as kids. Then, they turned it into extreme ping-pong with smashed fingers, broken thumbs and torn nets the result. Now, foosball is the bomb in the County Jail. Well, not the bomb, but you know what I mean.
Every day is a series of small adjustments, Captain Hall says. We are always trying to make the jail more secure, to make the inmates more secure, and ourselves more secure.
I am struck by how professional and courteous the staff members are to the inmates. This is by design. The treatment the inmates receive, whether they are here overnight or for the limit of one year, seems fair and professional. Which, Hall says, adds positively to security.
The scenes from prison movies where guards toss an inmates cell and leave their belongings thrown around would never happen here. Captain Halls demeanor is that of a gruff but determined father in charge of a big family of neer-do-wells, innocents, bad seeds, and people who made one wrong decision too many. No mention is made of the suicide two weeks prior, though I cant help but feel empathy for this jail dad.
After the tour, Captain Hall takes us through a tunnel under the jail that leads to the Governmental Center and leaves us in the hands of Dispatch. There on the third floor in a dark room are the knights of 9-11. Women work here too, but tonight there are only men on duty. For us, they make an exception and turn on the light. Usually, the room is dark and the computer screens are bright.
Each 9-11 operator watches five monitors and wears a telephone headset. There is a monitor for ambulance and fire, one for cell phones and one for landlines. There is a monitor to run license plates and to communicate with Munson Medical Center and with the TCPD as well as the Sheriffs Office.
An emergency call comes in, as if on cue. A panicked woman is narrating a fight between her husband and her daughter. There is blood, she says. The dispatcher has dealt with this family before. In a calm moment, tell them that when I worked as a bartender, I had regulars and I ask if they have regulars, too. It turns out that they do.
We call them frequent flyers, one of the dispatchers tells me. But our motto is, Just because youre a frequent flyer, doesnt mean you dont get a seat on the plane. All calls, whether theyre from a familiar name and address or from someone who has never used the 9-1-1 service before, are given equal attention.
Week Three Community Policing
This is definitely not the glamour part of police work, but this program is part of the reason Traverse City is still a pretty safe place to live. TC is divided into five sectors and each sector has its own dedicated officer who maintains an office in one of the neighborhood schools and is intimately familiar with the community where they work. These are the officers who deal with barking dogs, talk to Neighborhood Watch groups, visit school classrooms and work diligently on crime prevention. Theyll even give your business a security inspection if you call the TCPD and make an appointment.
Administrative Sergeant Michael Ayling, whose office is inside Central High School, heads up this unit. Hes lived in Traverse City since he was a teenager and even graduated from the same high school he now polices.
When I get home, I happily inform my three sons, two of which attend Central, of this fact. Ever since I signed up for the Academy, the boys have been snidely calling me Mommy Power Ranger, referring to the melodramatic cartoon crime-fighters of their youth. Now that they know Ive met the cop who works in their school, they dont call me that any more.
Week Four Detective Bureau
Between four and five detectives investigate crimes in Traverse City, including computer crimes, sex crimes, property crimes, armed robbery crimes, drug crimes, homicide, and financial crimes. The official cop term for people found guilty of such serious offenses is knucklehead. As in, Knuckleheads usually want a quick something for nothing. Our job is to make sure
they dont get it, and take it away when they do.
The hip crime of the moment identity theft is reported on average once a week in TC. One slick way these knuckleheads steal your credit card information without even taking your actual card is with something called a skimmer. Skimmers are available on eBay, are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and when swiped across the metallic strip on your credit card, can store all your data. Your data can then be downloaded into a computer, printed onto a blank credit card, also available on eBay, by a specialized printer, available on eBay.
So, you go out to dinner in Michigan, whip out your credit card to pay for the enchilada platter and draft beer you just had, and 24 hours later someone could be on vacation in Cancun on your dime.
The heinous crime of the moment is kiddie porn. Scumbags sorry, knucklehead is just too mild a word here find their victims on the Internet but also use it to buy, sell, and trade photographs and videos. According to Detective Kevin Gay (who is officer Mary Jane Gays husband), says the Internet can be used to apprehend these criminals, too. He discussed a recent case where a kiddie porn ring was broken up in New Jersey by the FBI and tips were sent to law enforcement agencies around the country based on the credit card numbers used to purchase illegal pornography over the Internet. When Detective Gay and some officers went to the address in Traverse City they received from the FBI, they found enough computer evidence to make an arrest.
Week Five Emergency Response Team
Traverse City doesnt have a SWAT team. Traverse City is part of the Northern Michigan Mutual Aid Emergency Response Team (ERT) formed in 1997 and that now numbers 23 participating counties. ERT is different than SWAT because members train (156 hours/year) to respond to all types of large-scale emergencies -- riots, natural disasters, etc. and not just to criminal incidents, though theyre proficient in these, too.
Leading this team is Mr. Grand Traverse. Im not kidding. Sergeant Stephen Drzewiecki is the tactical commander of the ERT and the 1990 winner of the local bodybuilding contest. He also won Mr. Michigan the following year. Eighteen years later, hes still pretty buff. I have to think that all those muscles come in handy when suiting up for an ERT call.
Between the bulletproof vests, the extra plates the vests contain, the shields, the battering rams, the night vision goggles, not to mention the weapons if its a situation that calls for them, the gear alone has to weigh 80 pounds. I put some of it on and couldnt even walk. It has taken five weeks, but Im beginning to believe that I couldnt make it in the TCPD. I broke a nail shouldering the (unloaded) M-16.
Week Six Narcotics
Say No to drugs or say Howdy to TNT. The Traverse Narcotics Team works with area Sheriffs offices and police departments on undercover narcotics investigations.
Anything you can get in Detroit, you can get here, said an officer who asked that his name not be written down in my Diary. Said officer is a former special agent with the DEA and a former Michigan State Trooper. He passed around his personal photo album, which for most people would contain snapshots of a Disney World vacation and family reunions, but for this guy showed helicopters, camouflage, jungles and cocaine piled up like sandbags.
You do not want to hear the words, Turn and face the Bay! yelled in your ear, so please, consider putting down that doobie, crack pipe, needle, pill, blotter acid, line, or hash oil brownie. Week Seven Accident Investigation
OK Diary, true confession time. I missed class this week. My two older sons play string instruments in the Central High School orchestra and
they had a concert on this night. I
missed the session on Accident Investigation in order to attend their performance. It occurs to me that this is yet another indication that I wouldnt make a good cop.
Week Eight Crime Scene Procedure
We have been warned by officer Gay that this session will be disturbing. She is right, it is. Retired Sergeant Detective Michael Imhoff with his traveling slide show of violent death is our speaker for the evening. He details the forensic investigation of two murder cases he worked on, one in Traverse City where the murderer was arrested and convicted and is serving a life sentence in Jackson, and one in Grand Traverse County where the case is still open. Both victims were women, both were nude, and both were brutalized beyond understanding.
Sergeant Imhoff used the training he received from the FBI in Quantico and as a Navy photographer in both these cases. He dimmed the lights and started the slide show. Even after looking at dozens of crime scene photographs from the Michigan State Police for the true crime book I just completed, Sergeant Imhoffs images were difficult to look at. Though he graduated from art school in Detroit before he went into the service and before he became a cop, these photos were pure science.
You have to get past the brutality and look at the crime scene as something unique thats never going to happen again, Sergeant Imhoff said. From the time you walk in until the time you leave, youre looking for things that are incongruous.
Killing people feels incongruous to me, but Sergeant Imhoff means things about the crime scene that are out of place and inconsistent. The skills he and the others have learned seem incongruent for a small town police department but we are lucky to have them.
Week Nine Patrol Cars and Firearms
Who wants to go first? asks Emergency Vehicle Operations Instructor Kurt Bazner. Why is everyone looking at me? We are in the parking lot of the Road Commission off Hammond Road, a driving course has been set up with orange cones, and we are actually going to get to drive a police car. Too &^%$ cool. I am here with my small group of fellow students a FedEx driver, a cop wannabe, two members of the Tribe, and a former MP who served in Vietnam, and they all look at me when Officer Bazner opens the door of his cruiser. Oh sure, sacrifice the writer.
I slide behind the wheel and it feels good. Surrounded by $18,000 worth of perp-busting add-ons, I feel like Im ready for a high-speed chase right this minute and I havent even touched the gas yet. Officer Bazner is not the warm-fuzzy type of cop he is the clenched jaw, chin out, shoulders back, excellent posture type of cop, but I feel ready for whatever task he throws at me.
Put your hands in a 9-3 position and dont lock your thumbs or youll break your wrists. Oh. Right.
I drive the cruiser through the serpentine course forward and backward, step on the gas through the break left or break right section and only tip over one cone. One.
Officer Bazner remains silent behind his Ray-Bans for the entire exercise but gives me a quick nod and says, Not bad, when I exit the vehicle. I vow to mimic officer Bazners posture from this point forward and walk tall from the cruiser. The cop wannabe goes next and takes down a whole row of cones. One gets stuck under the cruiser and he has to get out and crawl on his belly in front of officer Bazner to retrieve it. Bummer, dude.
He redeems himself though with the gun. We get to shoot Firearms Instructor Paul Elluls .45 Glock loaded with training rounds. A few people miss the target completely and hit the wood backing. One woman has a hard time pulling the trigger. All three of my rounds hit the target, but all three of the cop wannabes hit in a tightly spaced triangle on the targets neck.
Week Ten Graduation
In a private room at the Elks Club, after a dinner of fried chicken and redskin potatoes, TC Police Chief Michael Warren is thanking all of us for participating in the Academy. This is not just a schmooze speech; I can tell he really means it. Only nine police departments out of more than 400 in Michigan offer the chance for common citizens like me to get this kind of close-up look at their local cops. After learning, in the past ten weeks, that the chief and his two captains, five sergeants,
five detectives and twenty officers protect me and my kids from knuckleheads bent on stealing my TV and my credit card and my identity, as well as their innocence, I kind of feel like Im the one that should be thanking him. In 2007 the TCPD responded to 20,177 calls. 3,531 of those were criminal calls. Thats almost ten criminal calls a day.
At the close of the evening, the TCPDs Honor Guard assembles in formation at the front of the room. They are all wearing dress blues and white gloves. Officer Kevin Gay and Mary Jane Gay are there and so is Officer Bazner and others. We say the pledge of allegiance and Officer Mary Jane Gay, who has been our one constant throughout the Academy, gets choked up. God bless my little Girl Scout-itching legs, I do too.
Mardi Links book on the 1968 Good Hart murders is being published this summer.