Thursday, July 23, 2015

Cop For a Day (Part One)

Twice a year, the Santa Cruz Police Department offers a ten-week course for members of the community, called the Citizen Police Academy. Figuring this would be a great way to get some insights for future mystery novels—not to mention being interesting in its own right—I decided to sign up for the most recent session.

Officer Joe Hernandez of the SCPD’s Community Service section ran our class, which consisted of guest speakers, field trips, and demos (including class participation!).

I learn how to conduct a high risk search of a building
(Photo: Deborah Elston)

As explained on the Citizen Police Academy website,

[the course] is an example of the philosophy of “community engagement and transparency,” that Police Chief Kevin Vogel has set for the department and our city. “In order to be successful a strong sense of unity and shared purpose must exist between your police and our community. I challenge the community to help us create a city where our actions, policies and voices are united toward a goal of public safety and community improvement.”

Police Dogs

At one of our first sessions, we got to meet the Department’s two dogs, Lobo (a German Shepherd) and Argus (a Dutch Shepherd). German Shepherds, we were told, are commonly used as police dogs because they have an “on/off switch”—working or not working—whereas other breeds are always working.

The SCPD “canines,” as the officers always refer to the dogs, are trained in tracking, apprehension/capture, and sniffing out narcotics.

Argus takes down a well-padded “bad guy”

With regard to tracking, unlike with bloodhounds—who can differentiate between the smells of different individuals—the SCPD dogs are trained to sniff out human sweat that is produced under stress: Someone on the run will release not only more sweat, but also sweat of a different quality than that produced by someone who’s simply been, say, working out at the gym. The scent of sweat is strongest in the feet and hands, so the dogs can track a fleeing suspect through the smell left by his or her shoes.

As an example of this amazing ability, Lobo’s handler gave a knife to a guy in the class, who held it in his hands for a couple of minutes. The guy was then instructed to place the knife in the bushes (out of sight of the dog). When released and commanded to find the knife, Lobo sniffed around the area and almost immediately located the hidden weapon. “He went for the freshest scent around—the sweat on the knife,” the officer told us.

911 Center/Dispatch

Next week’s class was a field trip to the Santa Cruz 911 Call Center, aka Dispatch. The Center currently employs 36 dispatchers, nine of whom are on the floor at any given time. They sit at consuls with myriad screens, each one displaying different maps, incident lists, live camera-feeds, and other information.

intense as the job is, the dispatchers do have a lovely view
(the Center is in Delaveaga Park)

When we arrived, it was a little after six p.m. on April 20th (i.e., 4/20, the pot smokers’ national holiday), and the County Dispatch Center was finally settling down after an intense afternoon providing assistance to the overloaded UCSC Dispatch (the University is annually host to one of the largest 4/20 events in the world).

As we watched the dispatchers at work, they talked to us between calls, explaining what they were doing—fielding calls, determining what action (if any) was needed, contacting and dispatching personnel, logging calls and incidents. If you are good at holding twenty different things in your head at once, listening to a call while reviewing incoming information on a completely separate matter, and keeping your cool under times of extreme stress, perhaps you should consider a career in dispatch. I mean, these folks are amazing.

“What was your weirdest call?” I asked one of the dispatchers. He thought a moment and then laughed. “Well, I’ve had a few odd ones, but I’d say the weirdest had to be the guy who called to report counterfeit sex toys.”

The most important piece of information I learned that evening is that 911 is not just for emergency calls. When you call 911, you’re calling a dispatcher. But if you call the non-emergency phone number for the SCPD, you’re also calling a dispatcher—the same person who would answer if you dialed 911.

We asked them, “But what if I call for something mundane and there’s a true emergency going on? Wouldn’t my call just keep others from being able to get through?”

“No,” we were told. “You should always feel free to call 911, as there are plenty of dispatchers on hand at all times. And if there ever were such a problem, we’d simply tell you so, and you could call back a little later.”

So the lesson is, if you ever need assistance—be it a cop, to report a broken sewer pipe, or even a loose dog running on the freeway—you should call 911, and they will communicate the need to the relevant person.

If you’re interested in seeing Dispatch in action for yourself, they do “sit-alongs.” (Info is on their website; click on Public Edu, then on Tours).

Street Drugs

This was the night we’d all been waiting for—the chance to hold a pound of heroin, and to see what $25,000 worth of cocaine looks like.

It is indeed a lot of coke (we had to wear
gloves while handling the drugs).
(Photo: Deborah Elston)

After passing around bags of coke, heroin, meth, and ecstasy that had been seized by the Department, the narcotics officer told us about the dilation test they use on suspected drug users’ eyes, and showed us the card that illustrates pupil size for use in the field. (Interestingly, the test doesn’t work so well on blue-eyed people, as their eyes are more sensitive than those with dark eyes.)

He also told us that though the SCPD never promises anything, people caught dealing commonly snitch in the hope of getting less time (which they often do). And, he assured us, cops can keep such evidence from getting out. “I’ll lose the case before allowing anyone to be hurt,” he said.

Next post: SWAT team, prison/jail sentences, and high-risk chases.


  1. Unfortunately in New York, you have to be nominated by precinct to attend.

    1. Ah, bummer. The difference between a small town and a big city, I guess.