For K-9 squad, a badge and a bond

March 31st, 2015 by Jeff Widmer
For K-9 squad, a badge and a bond

It’s bite-training night at the Sarasota Police Department and Bronson looks ready.

The German shepherd remains in constant motion. In the dimly lighted garage beneath the department’s headquarters, Bronson sweeps the base of four storage units and finally paws at one. He will drill this over and over, this and other search and rescue tasks, for more than 480 hours of training. But tonight, he’s after a big, sweaty suspect who’s hiding inside.

Officer Nelson and Bronson

Officer Nelson and Bronson (Sheila Jellison photo)

The suspect is no ordinary person. It’s Sgt. Michael McHale, head of the SPD’s K-9 unit, the guy who bought Bronson from his European breeder, someone Bronson should know on sight. The dog acts as if he doesn’t, tearing into McHale’s padded sleeve as the sergeant comes out of the unit, yelling and spinning away from the animal. Bronson grabs the sleeve and hold until his handler, Officer Jake Nelson, allows a release.

It is night five of the SPD’s Citizens Academy and McHale is explaining that officers only send the dogs if a suspect repeatedly disobeys police commands. “This isn’t the 1960s. We don’t use dogs for crowd control.”

The dogs are domesticated. “You have such a bond with these animals. They are really a partner. The dog lives at home with us. At work he’s all business. When he walks through that door at home, he’s the family pet.”

They also are used to promote goodwill. “In our program, I want my dogs to be social,” McHale says. “We go to nursing homes and senior centers and elementary schools. Three-quarters of the job is showing the public that they are not attack dogs.”

Sgt. McHale and Officer Nelson (Sheila Jellison photo)

Sgt. McHale and Officer Nelson (Sheila Jellison photo)

After the arrest
Once a suspect has been apprehended and charged, the job of law enforcement shifts to the state attorney’s office, the Florida equivalent of the office of the district attorney or commonwealth attorney. In the 12th judicial district, which encompasses Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, those cases go to Ed Brodsky and his team of 75 prosecutors.

A board certified criminal trial attorney 23 years in the state attorney’s office, Brodsky says his office handles 45,000 misdemeanor and felony cases a year. In Sarasota County in 2014, that workload resulted in 131 felony jury trails, 83 misdemeanor trials and 53 juvenile bench trials.

The nature of the work also led to the development of specialized prosecutors. The office now has units for violent crimes, white collar crimes and animal abuse. Those three join the existing child sex crimes unit.

Brodsky says that while he enjoys prosecuting the bad guys, he likes aiding the good guys even more. “There’s nothing more exciting than helping victims and bringing justice to them.”

Next: the use of force simulator.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Bronson goes after Sgt. McHale while Officer Nelson controls the fight

Bronson goes after Sgt. McHale while Officer Nelson controls the fight

 

Beyond the gun at Sarasota PD

March 25th, 2015 by Jeff Widmer
Beyond the gun at Sarasota PD

Detective Dwayne Shellhammer holds up a ballistic shield and vest and talks about the training and judgment needed to serve on the Sarasota Police Department’s SWAT team. He lists the other equipment used by team members, the less-lethal stun grenades, CS (tear) gas and sponge bullets. Only near the end of his presentation does he pick up an M4 assault rifle, one of the few deadly weapons in the team’s arsenal.

Make no mistake, SPD officers adhere to what they call the Priority of Life Model: protect the victims, hostages, bystanders and police first. Suspects come last, and if it takes an assault to serve a warrant on a felon with guns, the SWAT team is ready. But all of that militaristic equipment is designed to defend the public, not assail it.

“What about the militarization of the police—how do you feel about that?” Shellhammer asked residents attending the SPD’s Citizen’s Academy. One woman said it made her a little afraid. Others wanted the police to have the same weapons and training as the assailants. Or better.

“The key,” said SPD training Officer Jeff Dunn, who helped to organize the course, “is having the training to know when to use these tools.”

Det. Dwayne Shellhammer helps Zulay Gallagher into a ballistic vest

Detective Dwayne Shellhammer helps Zulay Gallagher into a ballistic vest

That ethic applies to the department’s Underwater Search & Recovery Team as well. The Dive Team uses boats, lift bags, sonar, dry suits and metal detectors to raise derelict boats and find weapons and bodies. But the mission isn’t about the tools.

“Why do we need all this equipment? Underwater is a deadly environment,” Officer Trip Schwenk said. “The equipment keeps us safe and enables us to find what we’re looking for.”

Beyond that, the Dive Team’s work can help people cope with tragedy. “It’s finding the victim quickly and getting them back to their family that’s important,” Schwenk said. “I love catching crooks, but if I have somebody’s that’s hurting and we can give them closure, I get more satisfaction out of that.”

On the fourth night of SPD’s Citizen Academy, Shellhammer, Schwenk and Dunn did more than list the equipment and training need to do their jobs. They demonstrated the issues police officers face and the strategy and restraint needed to resolve them.

Or as Shellhammer put it, “We’re not a bunch of guys running around with guns.”

Next: The roles of the state attorney and the K-9 squad.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Officer Trip Schwenk demonstrates a full-face AGA dive mask.

Officer Trip Schwenk demonstrates a full-face AGA dive mask.

 

In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

March 18th, 2015 by Jeff Widmer
In Sarasota, train for the worst, hope for the best

Sgt. Daniel Weinsberg trains by watching footage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Sgt. Bryan Graham practices by building bombs with Play-Doh instead of C-4. Officer Tammy Featherstone role plays a scenario where she’s talking to a suicidal veteran with traumatic brain injury.

When they aren’t training, they’re confronting protesters, removing explosive devices and rescuing hostages, always dealing with a high level of danger, to the public and themselves. They accept the risks and seem to enjoy their work.

Just another day at the office for three specialized units of the Sarasota Police Department—Emergency Response, Explosive Materials and Crisis Negotiation. The three team leaders brought their equipment and expertise to the Citizen’s Academy in the third of a series of 12 classes that give civilians a glimpse of life behind the badge.

First up, Sgt. Weinsberg, team leader for the the department’s contingent on the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Response Team. The ERT deploys during times of emergency or crisis when there is a high probability of criminal or civil unrest. Think hurricanes, riots and, yes, weapons of mass destruction. It consists of three teams from the sheriff’s office and one from the city, 10 officers per team.

Viewers who watched protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle will remember cordons of police with body armor called turtle gear wading into the crowds. “That’s what we don’t do,” Weinsberg said. The ERU doesn’t even suit up if it isn’t necessary to preserving life because that image alone can trigger a backlash.

Many of the drills involve learning how to not to respond when provoked. “As one of our training sergeants said, ‘You don’t want to be on TV.’”

As leader of the Explosive Materials Unit (EMU), or bomb squad, Sgt. Graham and team have a different but equally perilous situation to defuse. They use a host of equipment, from protective suits that weigh 90 lbs. to the Remotec ANDROS F6A robot. It has a telescoping camera, a claw to position an X-ray device and the ability to climb stairs.

The team’s primary job is to remove the bomb to a remote location and detonate it, often with a charge of highly pressurized water. No Danger UXB guesswork about which wires to cut first. But in the end, someone has to get close to the explosive device . . . if only to pick up the pieces for FBI analysis.

Officer Tammy Featherstone, a member of the Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU), deals with another kind of danger—threats to the lives of hostages and potential suicide victims. The CNU deploys two negotiators to every incident. The first talks to the suspect, the second takes notes and feeds that information to intelligence officers.

Her goal is a peaceful end to the situation. “We want to bring everyone home.”

Next: SWAT and the dive team.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department's Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On the screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

Sgt. Bryan Graham and the equipment used by the Sarasota Police Department’s Explosive Materials Unit. The robot used to remove ordinance sits on the far right. On screen, an X-ray of a victim-activated bomb.

 

‘There is no such thing as a victimless crime’

March 11th, 2015 by Jeff Widmer
'There is no such thing as a victimless crime'

Demetri Konstantopoulos stands before the screen and narrates a list of Florida police officers killed in the line of duty in the last few years. One slide shows a pair of faces, one fresh, one veteran. One officer leaves behind a pregnant wife, another a wife and three children. The slides continue for a long time.

On this, the second night of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy, Konstantopoulos has a tough lesson to present. He shows a video of a driver opening fire on Ohio police with an automatic weapon after a routine stop for a moving violation. He plays audio of an incident on Martin Luther King Boulevard when crowds and gunfire threaten Sarasota officers trying to rescue a man with arterial bleeding.

Konstantopoulos, a sergeant in the Bureau of Criminal Investigation assigned to the Street Crimes Unit, wants us to remember several things. Police work is dangerous. No call is routine. All crime has consequence. “There is no such thing as a victimless crime.”

That theme carries through the presentation by Jude Castro, the victim advocate coordinator for the department, who tends to the needs of people suffering the aftermath of crime.

“The victim advocate speaks up for people who can’t,” Castro says before outlining the major services she provides, including crisis intervention, death notification and bereavement support. She also helps victims file restraining orders and accompanies them to medical, legal and judicial proceedings.

If you think her job is any less stressful than that of sworn officers, consider that one of her most recent duties was to notify the family of a man who jumped from the Ringling Bridge.

Back to Konstantopoulos. After explaining when officers need a warrant to search a house, vehicle or person, the sergeant introduces the concept of consensual contact. It’s when a person agrees to a search and there is no evidence of coercion—a fine line to walk in even the best of circumstances.

To demonstrate, Officer Dominic Harris and Dick Smothers, a Sarasota resident and one half of the Smothers Brothers comedy team, create a scenario where Harris plays a drug dealer hanging on the street and Smothers an officer who does not have probable cause to search Harris but wants him to consent to a pat-down.

After about five seconds of street patois Harris says, “Man, you hassling me ’cause I’m black?” Things go sideways, fast. Officer Jeff Dunn, who organized this year’s academy, steps in to show how police would handle the request. He obtains consent . . . and finds a handgun.

Police work is dangerous. No encounter is routine. Crime makes victims of everyone.

It’s a tough lesson.

Next week: emergency response, explosive materials and crisis negotiations.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Officer Dominic Harris, left, and Dick Smothers role play a street encounter

Officer Dominic Harris, left, and Dick Smothers role play a street encounter

Beyond the badge: citizens get inside look at department through Sarasota police academy

March 4th, 2015 by Jeff Widmer
Beyond the badge: citizens get inside look at department through Sarasota police academy

One of the first things Bernadette DiPino did when taking over as chief of the Sarasota Police Department was to ban her 161 officers from eating doughnuts while in uniform.

Members of the Sarasota Police Citizen’s Academy chuckled at her story but the chief has a serious purpose: she wants to counter stereotypes about officers as part of a larger campaign of community policing.

And that’s one of the reasons why 23 of us were admitted to the fourth offering of the academy, a boot camp for civilians who want to learn what it’s like to work as a police officer. The 12-week program will cover everything from search and seizure to criminalistics to firearms.

After introducing her command staff—Acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and Patrol Operations Chief Kevin Stiff—and Training Officer Jeffrey Dunn, DiPino opened the academy with a recital of her background. As the granddaughter and daughter of police officers, she’s a blueblood and proud of it, starting her career in Baltimore County, working as a narcotics detective and serving as chief in Ocean City, MD before assuming the position of chief in Sarasota at the end of 2012.

She talked about the challenges of a job in a seasonal resort town as well as her mandate to officers to stay visible, strictly enforce the law and appear professional at all times. Which is what led to the ban on doughnuts. But she spent most of the time discussing her philosophy of community policing. Because police need cooperative citizens to prevent and solve crime, they need to build trust and relationships with the residents on their beat. Officers need to get out of their cars and go door-to-door if necessary to introduce themselves and provide help.

As an example of that outreach, DiPino offered a barbecue police held for residents of Newtown. She said the strategy has led to numerous arrests and, more importantly, safer neighborhoods.

It didn’t take long for Dunn as the academy’s chief organizer to transition from strategic to tactical. He introduced bicycle patrol Officer Jerry Pucci, who illustrated DiPino’s goal of standardizing police uniforms for greater visibility. He reviewed dress and patrol uniforms for summer and winter and ticked off the 20 pounds of equipment officers carry on their duty belts: gun (.40 caliber Glock 22), two magazines, handcuff case, Taser, radio and flashlight.

Pucci drew the biggest laugh of the night when he pointed to a short black cylinder on the back of his belt and announced, “This is my ASP.” For the record, ASP is a brand of telescoping baton police can use in close combat.

Despite the laughter, Pucci didn’t miss a beat, saying police didn’t have much cause to use the defensive weapon. “If something goes sideways, I’d rather use the Taser.”

Keep that in mind if you’re tempted to eat a doughnut.

Next week: how crime endangers both victims and police.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino

Pulp Fiction: On the Bayfront

November 21st, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Pulp Fiction: On the Bayfront

They skulked into my office like Dodger fans the day Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard ’round the world. Guy and his frail, both pulling faces. The mug must have lifted weights in his sleep. The dame had killer legs and a top that couldn’t contain her enthusiasm.

Neither could I.

“You Doyle?” muscles said, his voice tight as a dog collar.

I checked the black letters on the door. “Can Judy Garland sing?”

Popeye mouthed a cigarette. Tough baby.

“Take a load off,” I said, and we did the introductions. Dutch Malone worked the Navy Yard. Helga Nordmann worked on me. Her blue eyes could cut glass. Two kids squatting in a cold-water walkup in Bay Ridge. Out of money and out of luck.

Helga cracked her gum. “We got trouble.”

“So does Korea,” I said.

“Somebody’s trying to kill me.”

I smiled. “Now that’s a crime.”

Jeff Widmer

You can see this entry in the New York Times pulp fiction contest at this link.

The infectious prediction of thrillers

October 17th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?

The secret life of writers

October 14th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?

Keeping the novel above stall speed

September 24th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
Keeping the novel above stall speed

A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.

Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.

Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.

I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.

I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.

When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?

15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

September 10th, 2014 by Jeff Widmer
15 seconds of fame . . . in march time

John Philip Sousa III unfolded himself from the director’s chair on a grassy hill in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, and looked back to his childhood. “I paid no attention to it at all,” he said of the grand marches written by his famous grandfather. He went to work as a publisher and forgot about the legacy until he assumed the leadership of the Sousa Foundation.

A few decades ago I met Sousa’s grandson at a concert in his honor and wrote about the patriotic music. And then I forgot about it, too. Until I became a member of WRTI-FM, the classical and jazz station in Philadelphia, and started listening to Gregg Whiteside and the Sousalarm. Every weekday precisely at 7:15 a.m. Gregg plays a march by Sousa and others. If you send him an email he’ll induct you into the Sousalarm Club and mail you a certificate.

Man Behind the Gun sheet musicFor me, he played “The Man Behind the Gun,” a march Sousa wrote in 1899. (The title is more ominous than the music. Sousa wrote the march as part of a larger musical called “Chris and the Wonderful Lamp.”

The march, the certificate. . . . At first you feel a little embarrassed. Then you remember the good parts of childhood, the joy of listening to bright music on a dark morning, the pep bands and parades. And then there is the guilty pleasure of hearing your name on the radio, of succumbing to the subtle lure of public approval.

In a world of instant media, 15 minutes of fame has shrunk to 15 seconds. Still, a little brightness, no matter how short-lived, is reason to celebrate. So put on your marching shoes and step lively. The band’s about to play.