On Tuesday, December 4, I finally graduated from the Portland Police Bureau's 11-week Citizen Police Academy. That being said, you're under arrest—come with me.
Just kidding. While I can't actually arrest you, I am now encouraged to disseminate my knowledge of police work all over town. And that's exactly what I plan to do: disseminate all over you. See? I really am thinking like a cop ["Pervocop 3," News, Nov 8].
Since I started covering the police bureau beat for the Mercury, it's safe to say I've made a few enemies on the force. In the last year, I've written 24 news stories one could broadly describe (if one were so inclined) as "anti cop." By contrast, I've written three stories in this same year that could be said to have a "pro-police slant." As one of this week's letters to the editor put it, "It might be difficult [for the police bureau] to fill an application roster with high-caliber talent eager to endure the rigorous training necessary..." ["Where Are the Cops?" News, Nov 29], "...only to find themselves viciously denigrated in the eyes of the public by 'progressive' rags like the Portland Mercury, that consistently vilify and demonize the local police at every opportunity." [See Letters, pg. 3, to read the rest.]
Fine, then. It was time to walk a mile in an officer's shoes. Citizen Police Academy, here I come.
"How many drugs have you done, and how often?"
I've taken ecstasy twice. Okay, thrice. But I think the second time it was Paracetamol. I've never taken cocaine (despite the lies I may have told you), although I did take acid once with an Australian boxer who insisted we drive around London in a taxi—I thought the meter was a roulette wheel, and hallucinated baby Moses in his basket swinging from a tree, somewhere in South Kensington. Apart from that, I've smoked less than 10 spliffs in my 28 years, and stopped drinking for good in July on my doctor's advice.
It's much easier telling Mercury readers this kind of information than confessing it to the police—though I suspect both parties will judge me for it. I'm no Hunter S. Thompson—but I'm not your classic motorcycle cop, either.
I wrestled with the background forms for a few days—former Portland Tribune crime reporter Jacob Quinn Sanders advised me on Blogtown [blogtown.portlandmercury.com] to evade the background process by sitting in on the sessions as a reporter. But I felt if the police bureau didn't want me as a citizen—well, then I didn't want them, either. And I wanted to be honest.
So the Portland Police Bureau now has my home address and the names and addresses of everyone I've lived with for the past 10 years... even that super-dodgy couple I roomed with while in college in Brighton, England—a notorious drug town. The police background department knows what my coworkers think of me (somehow I still passed), and yes, they even spoke to my "mummy." All this, for an 11-week citizens' course! And the real background checks are tougher... it's no wonder so few officers make the cut.
TAZE ME, BRO!!!
The first thing I wanted was to be Tazered... Tazed(?)... whatever. Having written plenty of stories about Tazer incidents, I thought having 500,000 volts passed across my sternum would provide a valuable insight into how a suspect actually feels. Sadly, the police bureau has a policy against Tazering private citizens for demonstration purposes—a quick Google search for "Tazer demonstration injury" digs up the reasons why: Spinal fracture, anyone?
So I asked if they'd pepper spray me instead.* Again I was turned down. What a bunch of killjoys.
Next came the "defensive tactics" class—which teaches officers how to control suspects who are resisting arrest. This can range from an officer's mere presence to shooting you in "center mass" (the chest area). Assisting my fellow academy students was an extremely expensive simulator called the Prism machine.
Prism is essentially a more realistic version of the computer game Doom—except you're facing a life-size screen with a laser gun in your hand (and criminal suspects replace the radioactive mutants). Different scenarios play out, and you have to decide how to take control of a given situation. Some of us got shot, some of us survived. What can I say—it wasn't pretty. But it did change my perception of what it's like for a cop to walk into every call, virtually blind to the dangers lurking within.
We also watched countless videos of officers getting shot during traffic stops and house calls. Jaded though I may be, it's impossible not to be affected while watching something like that.
Then, it was down to the Central Precinct's rifle range in the basement, housing guns seized from criminals over the years. I learned all about "less-lethal" ammunition, and then was taught to shoot the bureau's standard issue Glock 9mm, with ACTUAL, REAL, NO BULLSHIT BULLETS. While putting a loaded weapon into the hand of someone such as myself would normally be considered wildly ill advised, as it turned out, I was a crack shot. My target "group" was tight—every single bullet nailing my paper criminal squarely in his brain and lungs.
"Our boy from across the pond did alright," said mildly surprised firearms officer Tracy Chamberlin. Clearly this particular cop-denigrating progressive rag writer was more of a badass than the officer had expected. Some of you "letter to the editor" writers might want to keep that in mind.
One of the bureau's two (yes, only two) vice officers, Laura Wiley, explained she was a little short-handed right now. She'd just gotten back from Phoenix, where they have three shifts of six vice officers working around the clock. Seattle, apparently, has 10 officers—despite having only three "lingerie" shops within its city limits (compared to Portland's 50).
It's no secret the Portland Police Bureau is understaffed, but the entire academy class was struck by the lack of attention given to vice here.
Officer Travis Law (Ha! GET IT??) of the drugs division told the class what it's like ("not fun") to be accidentally stabbed with a heroin addict's needle—back in the days before preventative HIV medication was bulletproof. He reminisced about going to the emergency room to take what's called "the cocktail"—which by its very name implied several horse-sized pills and, I would hope, a few tranquilizers.
Officer Law then showed us his drug suitcase—full of more seized contraband than I've ever seen in one place... including Brighton. My favorite was the bong labeled "bong" neatly on white paper (and in crisp 12-point Courier).
Soon after, we received some very disheartening news: Our police car driving class had been cancelled. The bureau, it turns out, has been forced to rent driving facilities from the airport, and they had been turned away. Apparently some selfish people wanted to land their planes.
To be honest, all of the bureau's training facilities are appalling—its other shooting range, rented from the Canby Rod and Gun Club, is currently under a foot and a half of water, and the entire bureau only has two (count 'em, TWO) classrooms in which to train all its incoming officers.
"We're trying our best to make it work," says Lieutenant Rod Lucich, who is coordinating the bureau's plan to build a $97 million new regional training facility near Scappoose Airport, hopefully breaking ground within a year. "But you can't get blood out of a turnip." (To my eyes, that "turnip" is former Police Chief/current Mayor Tom Potter, who recently cut the police training budget while leaving his expensive and baffling "visionPDX" project untouched.)
EMPTYING YOUR CUP
Occasionally, I find it stressful being a "journalist." For reasons not totally unfounded, many people are deeply distrustful of the media—and not just the subjects of our stories, but those we're trying to advocate for. This is something else I have in common with Portland's police, who seem to experience daily hatred and distrust in magnified form, almost everywhere. Add to that the risk of occasionally being shot at, lousy training facilities, and a city government that doesn't exactly prioritize funding for your bureau, and you've got zero fun on your hands.
When Officer Bob Pippen described what it's like to have your lights and siren blaring, speeding to a call, ("heart beating out of your chest, dry mouth...") I had to pop a Xanax. Pippen said officers have to learn to "empty their cup" (metaphorically) when they get home, but I couldn't help feeling that must be difficult—I have a hard enough time preparing the wife's Bolognese in the evenings without having to process shooting someone in the chest while on the job. I simply can't imagine how that must feel.
I'll admit it: Having mixed with cops for 11 weeks, I was starting to see things through their eyes. However, it was still difficult to maintain composure during my day job when I needed to ask legitimate questions about the conduct of certain officers. I don't understand, for example, why police sniper Leo Besner is still working for the police bureau—even after the city paid out $500,000 in November to settle a case where he was alleged to have shot a man in the back while the victim was on the phone with a hostage negotiator ["Damage Control," News, Nov 15].
I still want to know in detail what happened to James Chasse before he died in police custody ["The Chasse Files," Feature, Nov 15]. After well over a year, why hasn't the bureau's internal affairs investigation into his death been completed?
Nevertheless, before I wrote this piece, I called Copwatch's Dan Handelman last week to get his perspective on my recent graduation from citizen cop school. Copwatch is a nonprofit organization promoting police accountability, and Handelman challenged me last year when I blogged about riding along with the downtown Street Crimes Unit ["Matt Davis: Undercover," Blogtown, Dec 4, 2006]. He said I'd gone soft on the bureau. Fair enough: At the time I wrote that I "respected" the officers involved—because I did. And still do.
"Obviously, it's a natural tendency, once you get immersed in something, to start seeing things from their perspective," Handelman said. "And I think that's what happened when you hung out with [the cops].
"But what you've got to look at is, what's the institutional purpose of the police?" he continued. "When you get caught up in the story of how tough it is to be a police officer, you lose sight of the broader question of what we ask police officers to do in our society."
For Handelman, that's about the politics of protecting those in power from those without it.
"You don't see the police raiding an inside-trader's office and Tazering them, do you?" he asked.
Handelman has never gone through Citizen Police Academy—"When they set up an academy where the police can try living like a homeless person, I'll do it," he says.
Handelman had some good points, and I'm glad I spoke with him. But I've got to be honest: Having been through the course, I would go so far as to consider actually applying to be a cop—if only the job involved a little more writing, general slander, baseless denigration, and innuendo. My core skills, if you will.
You can't divorce the idea of policing from its everyday reality and the people involved in doing it, just as you can't say "all heart surgeons are quacks" based on one botched angioplasty.
If we in liberal Portland are to continue lambasting the cops at every opportunity, the least we can do is try understanding their perspective. Otherwise we're not so liberal after all—rather, we're modeling the very closed-minded attitude we claim to resent in "all cops."
"The police are the public and the public are the police," said Sir Robert Peel, when he started London's Metropolitan Police in 1829. "The police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on any citizen in the interest of community welfare."
This makes it four "pro-cop" stories, this year. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm itching to mark my 25th notch in the "anti" column—the dissemination's over with, for now.
*Would YOU like to make his dream come true and pepper spray cop reporter Matt Davis in the face? There's still time to win this great prize in the Mercury's Online Charity Auction!