Thank God I Am Not a Cop, and Thank God For Those Who Are

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IN HONOR OF POLICE MEMORIAL DAY I REPOST THIS OLD COLUMN:

I was “killed” twice this fall – once by a “FATS” machine and once by a classmate. I am fortunate enough to live to discuss it because the “killings” occurred during my training as a member of the first graduating class of the Greenwich Citizens Police Academy.

The brainchild of Chief James Walters, the 39 hours of class were organized by the experienced Greenwich police instructor, Sgt. Jeff Moran, and taught by expert members of Greenwich’s Finest. And while I was fortunate enough to take the classes, all of us in Greenwich are fortunate to be served by one of the most dedicated, professional and highly trained and educated police forces in the area.

Being somewhat of a “professional student” (four degrees and several certificates) never have I seen teachers more enthusiastic than the police officers who taught our class. And I was struck by their deep knowledge-base. Our 39 hours was a mere sampler of the months of training required before a candidate becomes a police officer – training which continues regularly throughout the officer’s career until retirement – and in the case of many members of our unheralded “Special Police” beyond retirement from active duty.

The members of the Greenwich Citizens Police Academy were instructed in everything from the legalities of searches, seizures, and arrest (would, that my law school professors were so lucid) to the reality of illegal drugs in our town. The bold among our class were even subjected to polygraph testing. We rolled fingerprints on a new computerized system, and we dusted for fingerprints on a police car under the guidance of Detective William J. Weissauer, a man who appeared to love his job more than seems fair. We learned about crime scene investigation – and were dumbfounded to hear how few officers are assigned to this team.

We learned the theory and mechanics of solving computer crime from Detective Edward Zack, and the history of the parking situation in Greenwich and accident reconstruction (including advanced calculus) from Lt. Mark Kordick. We witnessed close up the actions of the canine unit — Officer John Thorme and his partner K-9 Shilo — one of a very few canine units in the area.

As a parent I was impressed and relieved to learn about our department’s expertise on Internet safety (Youth Officer Robert Williams), drug prevention (Sgt. Debora Vesciglio), and “SWAT” preparation for our high school and elsewhere in town (Lt. Rick Cochrane and Sgt. James Olencki). The members of the Greenwich “SWAT team” — or Special Response Unit, as it is officially known — volunteer for that duty, receive no extra pay, and are among the elite in terms of physical training and tactical knowledge. In this field too, Greenwich is one of the few police forces in the area with such expertise and equipment.

We saw the police dispatchers in action and learned how the night desk sergeant has the unenviable task of preparing the next day’s shift calendars, in longhand on a desk-size ledger pad. We each got to “ride along” for half a shift with a Patrol Supervisor, officers like Sgt. Joe Ryan, Sgt. Brian Briggs and Lt. Tom Keegan. Some of us who may have been on the receiving end of a traffic ticket got to see the other side of things.

Two of the most riveting classes were the ones which “killed” me. In one class, the students, two-by-two, “pulled over” a vehicle with suspects. The “pull over” took place in the Police garage, which serves double duty as an evidence locker room. The “suspects” were Greenwich Police Motor Officer Ron Carosella and some of our classmates. In my “pull over” one of my classmates blew me away with a shot gun, and, unlike real cops in Greenwich, I had the benefit of a partner on the scene. That class drove home, in very real terms, the life-and-death danger police in our town and around the world face every moment they are on duty. Even a simple traffic stop could cost an officer his or her life. In fact, one of the most gruesome things I have ever seen was shown to our class — an actual police video of a South Carolina State Trooper being killed in a routine traffic stop, even though he did everything by the book. It literally gave me nightmares.

In another class we were trained by Officer John Woodward (a chemical engineer – turned Police Officer) on a nifty piece of equipment called the Fire Arms Training Simulation machine, or “FATS” machine. This valuable (and expensive) training tool is a sophisticated computer, projection television and laser video game rolled into one. Students, equipped with special laser guns, are placed in real life scenarios before a life-sized video images and have to make nanosecond decisions on whether to shoot (and risk killing a innocent person) or not shoot (and risk getting shot). In the first scenario I did okay — discharging 15 shots and making three hits, to a real “bad guy”, the first shot wounding his arm with the gun. The second time I was not so lucky, as a second “bad guy” circled around and got me from the corner where I failed to look.

Thank God I am not a cop, and thank God for those who are!

One of the real ironies apparent in the course was the juxtaposition of the FATS machine with the shabby “used car dealership” surroundings which housed this state-of-the art equipment. The machine sits amid two or three Army-surplus metal desks in the middle of a cramped office in the Police Headquarters because that room is one of the few rooms in the building that has an appropriate temperature, and, unlike other places in the Police headquarters, does not require a bucket to catch leaks from the ceiling during rain storms. (I kid you not.)

But the few inadequacies we did see, do have ramifications for all citizens of Greenwich. Property values are reflective of many things – proximity to major employment, a fine school system, and low crime rate, key among them. Just as a mugger looks for an “easy mark” — the easiest person on the street to mug, so too do criminals in general target communities perceived as “easy marks” — weak, lax, or overwhelmed and overworked. Thus, the lion’s share of the credit for Greenwich’s low crime rate goes to the diligence and professionalism of our police force. However, the perception of Greenwich not being an easy mark is not permanent, if the Town does not continue to invest in its Police Force.

Am I bias, after 13 weeks of training? Sure I am — but I’d wager that anyone who takes the time to examine the facts about our police force would be as proud of them as I am.

By Frank P. Trotta, Jr., Greenwich Citizens Police Academy, Class of 2003

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