I strolled into the vacant building as Community Service Officer Steve Flaherty briefed me on the situation. A witness called to report suspicious activity within, and the owners were out of town. I summoned what I thought was a reasonable amount of authority and announced myself, “Bonney Lake Police. I’m entering the building. If anyone is here, make yourself known now and come out with your hands up.”
It was day one of mock scenes at the Citizen’s Academy and for once, I was on the other side of law enforcement. Or at least I was pretending to be.
I spent 10 weeks attending twice-weekly classes with the Sumner and Bonney Lake Citizen’s Academy programs, in an effort to better understand the police departments I cover. I knew I would enjoy myself, but never did I imagine the fun learning opportunities I was about to experience.
I rounded the corner and a familiar face peered out at me from behind a wall. Officer Daron Wolschleger, dressed in jeans and a Seahawks sweatshirt, gave me his best “criminal” impersonation.
“What’s the problem officer?” He asked. “I’m not doing anything illegal, am I?”
I laughed. Apparently, role playing isn’t among my most highly-developed skills. The situation escalated as I gathered my composure. By the end of the exercise, Daron was arrested and my performance was critiqued.
The day included several other mock scenes. Participants were armed with training pistols that shot blanks. We were walked through each situation by an officer, testing our ability to determine when use of force was called for and our understanding of law enforcement.
Both Bonney Lake and Sumner programs were very similar, though each had its own approach and unique qualities. The courses provided interactive opportunities for citizens to obtain a taste of everything that goes into law enforcement – from traffic stops, to prosecution, to specialized task forces.
Class topics included criminal law; department operations; dispatch and reporting crimes; metro animal services; SWAT, bomb squad and K9 demonstrations; emergency vehicle operations; patrol procedures; live taser demonstration in which participants volunteered to experience a short but clearly agonizing shock; a driving under the influence wet lab in which two city employees of different size and stature consumed alcohol in a controlled setting and then performed standard field sobriety tests; firearms training; domestic violence; narcotics; and many others.
“It gives our citizens the opportunity to get to know their local police department and to understand the complexity of our organization. We have a chance to talk with people one on one as well as bringing neighbors together. I feel our Citizen’s Academy builds a strong community by having people know law enforcement is about partnerships,” Bonney Lake Police Chief Dana Powers said. “I love showing off our department because it is made up of individuals that work hard for our community. It also helps people understand that when a crime happens there is a lot of work that goes into a case to solve and prosecute it.”
Sumner’s course began with a presentation from the Tacoma-Pierce County Chaplaincy. It set the tone gently but firmly by making it clear to everyone that police work is intense, and the stories we were about to hear were real accounts. It’s not like a game of cops and robbers or a crime show with all the details neatly tied together and closure at the end of the episode.
Police and other emergency personnel are exposed to the murkiest corners of society and the role of chaplains is to help navigate them through that darkness. They provide spiritual and professional support during violent, and often deadly, incidents.
They arrive on scene when needed and sometimes, retired Chaplain Art Sphar said, that means waking up at 2 a.m. for a call. But it also means checking in on officers at the department after the event has concluded.
Each officer handles the emotional burden differently, he said. They lean on each other when needed and a healthy amount of detachment is typically present. But what they see and experience can cause mental turmoil that isn’t always easy to pull themselves through.
Support can be as simple as chatting over coffee, or as complex as assisting with investigations.
Washington State Patrol Troopers Cliff Pratt and Bill Henkel spoke to the Bonney Lake class about their roles as bomb technicians on the Interagency Bomb Squad – an explosives unit tasked with identifying and properly handling suspected explosives.
They rolled in with the bomb squad vehicle – a monster of a tank – and two robots which are utilized in order to reduce human exposure to danger, whenever possible. Class members were given an opportunity to don the bomb suit, approximately 90 pounds of protective gear.
Cliff said he entered the field because it is a family tradition. His great uncle was killed in the line of duty in 1945 and his father was a trooper as well. He enjoyed listening to the stories his dad told him of responding to vehicle collisions, bank robberies, shootings and even animals in distress. But growing up in law enforcement comes with personal sacrifice, he said. It was a sacrifice he was willing to make and now, he asks his family to do the same.
“I knew as a kid that holidays were never on the day they were supposed to be. If my dad was able to attend birthdays or baseball games, he was usually in uniform, on his way to or from work. That was all OK because we knew that our family’s sacrifices were for the greater good, to make our community a safe place for everyone,” he said. “That is even more so with my family now that I am a bomb technician. It is a specialized, highly trained discipline and there are very few of us doing the job. By the time I am called, it is because no one else wants to touch, or even be near, the potentially deadly situation. And that is exactly why we do it. When it happens we want to be there. We want to handle it, to make it better, to keep our family and our community safe,” he said.
Excitement from demonstrations by the bomb squad and SWAT team members and a trip to the Puyallup jail was easily predicted, but as Bonney Lake class president Karl Moore put it, “there were no boring classes.” Even topics that may seem routine, such as traffic patrol, had new light shed onto them.
“The lecture portions of the course were extremely thought provoking, and having hands on type activities weekly made the course a very exciting endeavor. Each of the presenters was an obvious expert in their field,” he said.
Nobody likes to see red and blue lights flashing in their rearview mirror and I am no exception. In fact, I’m convinced there exists a previously undiscovered law of physics: If a patrol officer is in the vicinity, they will pull me over.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a law-abiding citizen for all intents and purposes. I typically get stopped for silly things, such as a burned out headlight, or driving a measly five miles over the speed limit – OK maybe 10. It used to bother me. However, I now appreciate their intent with understanding and gratitude that I didn’t before.
I’m not a dangerous criminal but to a police officer, anyone could be. The law is designed to create a safer environment for us and as was proven to the class during mock scenes, situations unfold quickly. Officers must be prepared to play the role of enforcer, counselor, or even emergency medical aid, as they are often first on the scene while fire and rescue is en route.
When you see the speedometer go a little over the limit, they see a child that was hit by a speeding vehicle.
They enter each situation with the knowledge it could turn against them faster than it takes to unbuckle their seatbelt. They are outside in the elements, whether the sun is out or a storm is on the horizon, to protect and serve. Their mission is to ensure public safety and make it home to their own families at the end of the day.
For all they know, the next person they come across could be a significant danger to society. Stranger things have happened, and while we are sitting comfortably at the table with our family, or yelling maniacally as we watch a football game with friends, they are the ones who shield us from all of it.
“You know, we don’t like it either,” Steve told me. “We get pulled over sometimes too. In fact, we’re just like you. We are moms and dads. We have families, hobbies and lives outside the police department. We go to baseball games. We’re not out to make anyone miserable, which is why I encourage anybody to attend the Citizen’s Academy, whether it be here or in another city. It’s difficult to understand where we are coming from until you see it firsthand. This is an opportunity for us to connect to the community and build relationships.”
I find it nearly impossible to condense 10 weeks of instruction into a short synopsis. I recommend anyone who is interested to sign up for their own experience next year. Karl reminded me of a fact that I now realize I took for granted at the time: The friends I made and the lessons I learned were unique opportunities that will be remembered for many years.
“We started as a team and ended as a team. Overall the class interacted well, and many friendships developed. The instructors were outstanding. They were extremely knowledgeable and bonded well with the students,” he said.
The Citizen’s Academy is a free program offered yearly to citizens in Bonney Lake and every other year in Sumner.