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Day by Day: Cop school was rare look behind the badge

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

I've been covering the Hudson Police Department for 10 years now and I like to think I know a little about how they operate. But I learned just how much I didn't know when I participated in the department's first Citizen Police Academy.

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There were seven, three-hour classes and a lot of what went on was fun, sometimes for the participants, sometimes for the officers watching us. I've never been fond of driving fast, especially backwards. And when I had to weave in and out of cones, I got downright car sick. I know people have thrown up in the back of a squad car but how often does the driver do it? And there's all that squawking stuff in there.

The truth is I have always been nervous around cops and I don't know why. It's not like I have a lot of experience being around them in adverse situations, but I have been known to go blocks out of my way just to get off the same street as a squad car. You'd think I had a trunk load of cocaine in my car. Maybe it is some leftover Catholic guilt or the uniforms and lights. I don't know, but things haven't improved with age or familiarity. And there is something to be said for a little healthy fear. Who knows? It may have kept me from a life of crime.

Back to school - we got to experience what it feels like to be impaired -- as in don't drink and drive (without the alcohol) -- and what to look for when searching a vehicle, a skill I can use regularly for everything from sunglasses to library books that disappear in the wasteland that is the interior of my car.

But it was the classes on investigations, crime scenes and the use of deadly force that really had the attention of the class. I've already written about retired FBI agent Dan Craft and his skill as an interrogator. Not since Sister St. Leo have I met anyone who has more tricks at getting the truth than Craft. You see, actors do it on television but hearing him describe what he does was more than a little chilling. The whole idea of the truth and nothing but makes me kind of nervous. Life was dull on the farm and I grew up wishing I could wrinkle my nose and change everything, just like Samantha did on "Bewitched." Instead, I just made up things and it kind of became a habit -- not a good admission in my current line of work. It should be noted, however, that what used to be lying has morphed into "embellishment or some slight exaggeration" as I've aged and applies only to me or my family personally. My mind isn't as quick as it used to be.

Back to Craft, none of my meager skills would last two minutes in a room with him. In fact, I would probably start making things up to confess so as not to disappoint. As my daughter would say, he is "crazy good at what he does," and knowing there are guys like that out there will definitely keep me on the straight and narrow.

The deadly force class took the thing to a whole other level. Retired St. Croix County deputy Tom Vande Berg tried to prepare us for the stress we'd feel when we had to decide whether to pull the trigger or not. I wasn't buying it. I mean, could it really be worse than all those heinous video games? How real could it be with a big slide projector screen and a fake gun?

Real enough to leave me with sweaty palms, weak knees and the certainty that I could never do what police officers do. The simulated situations we were presented with involved real people in settings that could easily be something a Hudson cop would encounter. The gun fired air pellets and a computer registered where they struck and how long it took me to pull the trigger. I'd never shot any kind of gun before and it was an awesome feeling but not in a good way.

The experience answered a lot of questions I've had over the years. Why can't the police just shoot to wound? Because more often than not the other guy with the weapon will just keep on coming. Things happen so fast that I now understand why so many shots are fired and why they don't always land where we think they should or will.

The bottom line for cops is simple: Stop the threat. But doing that is something else again. Cops answering calls have to be prepared for anything up to and including shooting their weapons. I just couldn't imagine what I would feel like headed to someone's address not knowing what was waiting for me.

Officer Bob Larson told me he spends his time on duty running the "what ifs." "What if this happens, what if that was to happen right now. It keeps your mind sharp and working on solutions." If it were me, I think it would be more like "what if I decided to change careers right this minute?" Avon calling.

We got the chance to try our hand at lifting fingerprints - not as easy as they make it look on TV. And DNA -- well it doesn't work in all cases and can take months to get results. Nobody seems to have all the equipment and goodies they do on the CSI programs, but the HPD is hoping to add a few things to their tool kit that will make evidence gathering of all types better and faster. As it stands, they do the best they can with what they have.

Chief Marty Jensen said the department plans on continuing the Citizen Police Academy with the next session tentatively scheduled for this fall. I recommend it for a lot of reasons - the best being that a dose of reality from people we know and trust beats Hollywood drama any day of the week.

For more information about the next Citizen Police Academy, call HPD at (715) 386-4771.

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