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Citizens Police Academy: Protect yourself

I’ll do the big CPA write-up on Sunday, but for now, here are a few takeaways from tonight’s presentation by the Captain of the Major Crimes Division for reducing your risk of being a victim. All of these are common sense, yet many people ignore the simple things they can do to protect themselves.

  • Lock your car. Really? I have to tell you that? Apparently. In your driveway, at the mall, at the gas station when you run in to pay…
  • Corollary to locking your car. Don’t leave the keys in the ignition. Ever. If you’re going to warm up the engine on a cold morning, do it while you’re in the car. Or skip it and deal with the cold. You’ll save gas and the environment too.
  • Don’t leave valuables in your car, especially not in plain sight. The number one property crime in Fairfax County is stolen GPS units. At Christmas, don’t put your shopping bags in your car and go back in for more gifts.
  • Be aware. Don’t talk on your cell phone while walking to your car. Pay attention to who and what are around you. And avoid parking lots at night, especially if you’re alone.
  • Never wire money. No, you didn’t win a lottery that requires a fee to collect. If your sister needs money for an emergency, talk to her in person before you send anything. Better yet, deposit it to her bank account instead, if you can. Didn’t know your nephew was out of the country, but now he’s stranded in a foreign country and needs cash? I have a bridge to sell you too.
  • If an attacker wants your purse/wallet, let him have it. Money and ID are not worth your life.
  • Keep the doors to your home locked, and if you have an alarm, use it.

Be safe!

Citizens Police Academy-week 4: TASERs, probable cause, IA

The TASER X26 (

This week’s CPA class was about TASERs, reasonable suspicion, probable cause, use of force, and Internal Affairs. Apparently TASER stands for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, after a children’s book character from the early 20th century. The inventor was a fan. The big takeaway from the presentation was that TASERs—or ECDs, for electronic conductive devices—are safe.

They may pump you full of voltage, but if you know anything about electricity, you know it’s the amps that kill you. And ECDs put out very few amps. The shock confuses the electrical signals in your muscles, causing them to contract. Since they’re all contracting at once (those between the two barbs of the ECD), the muscles lock up and the person can’t move.

We watched a video where two medium-sized cops were trying to arrest a 350-pound man, Mike, who looked like a WWE wrestler. Mike’s hands were almost twice as big as the officers’. No way could they go hands-on with this guy and win. So when he repeatedly refused to put his hands behind his back, even after they warned him what would happen, they had a third officer “tase” him.

Mike locked up and the two officers lowered him to the ground onto his stomach. The ECD discharges for five seconds, after which Mike was back to his old belligerent self. Another warning, another shot of voltage, and finally the big guy got the idea.

Mike later said, “I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed, but damn, that hurt.” But he was able to walk away, maybe a little wiser, maybe not.

After the TASER presentation, we learned about reasonable suspicion, probable cause, and use of force. Here are my takeaways:

  • If an officer stops you because they suspect you are up to no good, they must be able to articulate for the magistrate the thought process behind it. The supreme court has ruled that it must be reasonable, not that the officer has to be correct.
  • The key is to be able to prevent crime, not to have to wait until it takes place before stopping someone.
  • They can frisk you if it’s reasonable to expect that you might have a weapon, either based on previous experience with this type of person (e.g. drug dealers), or because they see a sign of it (e.g. bulge on hip).
  • They can search anything within lunging distance of the suspect—like a backpack or under the seat of your car—if they suspect a weapon might be there also.
  • How much force the officer uses is entirely up to the suspect. Resist and get tased. Fight back and get mace or a nightstick. Pull any kind of deadly (including a knife) or incapacitating weapon (like another officer’s TASER), and expect to be shot. In the chest.
  • Officers don’t shoot to wound or slow down. They always shoot to kill.

Again, they must be able to articulate why they escalated to a certain level of force, but it just has to be reasonable under the circumstances that faced the officer in the half of a second they had to make the call.

We ended the night with a presentation by Internal Affairs. In Fairfax County, it’s an involuntary rotation of about two years, offered to those officers who’ve distinguished themselves in their service. It’s not a coveted assignment, but it’s almost a requirement for them to move up in the chain of command.

IA’s purpose is not just to catch officers in the wrong. It’s also to protect them from false allegations. IA investigates every citizen complaint, every police cruiser accident (even opening the door into a pole or tree), every use of force, as well as charges of corruption, lying, and so on. For smaller incidents (e.g. the car door meets pole), the investigation/punishment is handled at the station level and merely tracked by IA.

If criminal charges are involved, they do a separate investigation, and usually wait until the criminal charges are resolved. IA investigations are only for purposes of determining which type of action the department should take, and do not get involved with criminal proceedings.

If an officer is under investigation for something serious, IA will take his badge, credentials, and service weapon, and put him on administrative leave with pay until the matter is resolved.

If a police officer is involved in a shooting, he gives up the weapon and talks to IA, the Criminal Investigations Bureau (to be covered in a later week), and a psychologist. If it’s determined that the shooting was probably a “good” one, the officer will be put on administrative duty and given a replacement firearm for his safety (unless he seems too shaken up or mentally unprepared to handle a weapon).

The Chief of Police has the final say on all punitive action within the department.

We got to ask lots of questions, and I could share so much more, but I'm sure you're sick of me by now. 🙂

Sorry this is a day late. I got caught up organizing my expenses for the accountant. Yuck!

Citizens Police Academy-week 3: domestic violence & station tour

The detective had me in tears within the first ten minutes of Thursday night’s CPA class. We listened to five minutes of a 911 call from a 15-year-old girl whose drunken father was beating her mom.

No hysterics or tears for this girl. She'd been through this before.

She gave her name, address, and phone number, and calmly relayed the situation to the dispatcher (whose ability to stay composed also impressed me). When asked if she could get her little brother (age 11) and sister (age eight) away from the room where her mom and dad were, the girl said, “No. My dad will kill me.”

Not like “Dude, my parents are so gonna kill me when they find out I lost my phone.” No, she meant it literally.

Later, when the father fled the house in his car, the dispatcher asked what he drove and the teen relayed his make, model and license plate number without hesitation. How many of you know your license plate number?

How many of you could recite it under that kind of stress?

While the dad was still there, we could hear the youngest girl screaming for her mom as she watched Daddy kick Mommy in the head. And later after Dad left, Mom repeatedly moaned in pain and the little girl kept crying and screeching. “Mah-um!”

Those cries were the most heart-wrenching sound I’ve ever heard.

They were my undoing.

After listening to the call and discussing it, we learned about domestic violence laws in Virginia. You probably don’t want the details, but the most important thing is that the penalties increase for each offense, unlike standard assault or battery charges. The third offense is a felony.

The officer and detective also discussed the inherent difficulties in dealing with DV calls.

  • Deciding who’s telling the truth when both parties have injuries.
  • Dealing with battered spouses (about 20% of the abused are men) who don’t want to testify or press charges, either out of fear of their attacker, or fear of the loss of income and shelter.
  • Culture and language barriers.

After a break, we switched gears and discussed how the police station is organized and the different units within, including the bicycle cops. The police officer joked about cops and doughnuts and handed out Krispie Kreme. Yum! Then we toured the jail in-processing center.

This is where they take people after arresting them and bringing them before the magistrate who makes sure the arrest was “good”. The Mt. Vernon station has its own magistrate and jail because the main county jail is pretty far away.

The MorphoTrak PrinTrak LiveScan 4000 (

The sheriff’s department runs the jail, so they gave us an overview of the process when they get a new inmate.

Body cavity search for drug and weapons offenders. In order to prevent suicide, no shoelaces allowed. No underwire bras.

They take the prisoner’s photo and fingerprints (digitally via a MorphoTrak PrintTrak LiveScan scanner) and enter the charge into the system. The data is fed to the FBI database which returns a report on the detainee within five to ten minutes.

We ended the night with a close-up look at a police cruiser and the chance to ask questions of the police officers and sheriff’s deputies who are all really nice when you’re on the right side of the law. 😉

It was an exhausting night, but the most interesting yet.


Because the classes run so late, I'm going to move my CPA blog posts to Sundays. I need my sleep!

Citizens Police Academy-week 2: traffic division & dispatch

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Today I got my green (okay, well blue and gray) on with the Fairfax County Police during week two of Citizens Police Academy. This week the focus was on the Traffic Division and Dispatch.

You’d think sitting in a classroom for three hours listening to lectures would be boring. Far from it! We had great speakers today.

First up was the commander of Investigations, which includes Helicopter, Special Ops (SWAT), Traffic, Major Crimes, Organized Crime, and Victim Services. She’s the lady in charge of the units with all of the toys. We’ll get to visit some of the other units later, but today’s first focus was on Traffic.

Traffic encompasses a whole host of units I’d never even thought about, including…

  • Motor Squad: motorcycle cops—more on them in a second
  • Motor Carrier Safety: inspect commercial vehicles for safety
    • This unit takes about 1500 trucks off the Fairfax County roads every year due to unsafe conditions.
    • Unlike patrol cars, they can stop any truck for any reason to inspect.
  • Crash Reconstruction Unit: investigates fatal and life-threatening crashes.
  • Traffic Safety: mostly education programs on seat belts, child safety seats, and stings to catch businesses selling alcohol to those under 21, or to people buying alcohol for them

A motor officer (motorcycle officer) came next. He gave us the lowdown about life on the bike. And if the weather is too scary for a bike (black ice, snow) they go undercover in unmarked, ordinary cars like mustangs, trucks, and so on. The difference between a patrol officer (who falls under a completely different division) and a motor officer is that a patrol officer's main focus is responding to calls. Traffic stops are something they do when they have down time.

A motor officer’s sole focus is traffic violations. They only respond to calls in extreme cases where patrol needs all the hands it can get. Also, unlike patrol, motor officers aren’t assigned to a district station.* They can go anywhere in the county, and are on the clock as soon as they cross into the county. (Or leave their driveway if they live here.)

The way our super-friendly officer described it, their job is not to decide if what you did was okay under the circumstances (say speeding to get to the hospital). Their job is to get you to a court where the judge can decide if you deserve leniency. So pretty much regardless of your sob story, you’ll likely get a ticket.

But, mainly, he’s looking for people acting out of the norm. Changing lanes constantly, tailgating, weaving. In our county, they use LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging—lasers) rather than RADAR. It’s point and shoot and picks up only the car in the viewfinder. Much harder to fight in court.

The wall of traffic monitors in dispatch. Sorry for the glare on these, we couldnt go down to the floor.

The center of the large dispatch floor.

Finally, we got a brief overview from the assistant supervisor of the dispatch unit. In our county there is one central dispatch center for all emergency and non-emergency calls, as well as the department of transportation. They have a huge room with traffic screens on the wall showing different stretches of freeway. From here, VDOT can program the traffic signs with warnings of accidents and slowdowns.

The #1 thing you need to give to the 911 operator is your location. The other #1 thing you need to know is not to call 911 unless it’s really an emergency. Life and death, people. Or limb or vision, but you get the idea…

*Obviously, all of this applies specifically to Fairfax County and may be different where you live.

Citizens Police Academy-week 1: intro & academy tour

Want to know more about your local police department? Ever wondered if a cop’s job is really like it is on TV? Interested in opportunities for law enforcement careers? See if your city/county has a citizens police academy.

Police departments offer the CPA as a way to keep in touch with the local community, foster good relationships, build public trust, and enhance civilians’ understanding of police operations and challenges.

I was lucky enough to be accepted to Fairfax County’s 20th CPA group, and had my first class tonight. The Chief of Police talked about department workforce statistics, his biggest crime concerns, and some of the challenges the department faces in finances and recruiting.

After a quick break, we got a tour of the Criminal Justice Academy where all recruits train. In addition to classrooms, a well-equipped gym, and a martial arts training area, the academy has a small “city street” with mock ups of various businesses for the trainees to practice responding to situations in different environments. There are also mock house/apartment interiors, a third-grade classroom, and an auto parts store.

One of the academy instructors, a master police officer, went over the application requirements, what types of standards and testing the recruits go through, the rank structure, how the department is organized (both physically and the org chart), where the money comes from, and some statistics on crime and officer deaths.

We also got an interesting overview of the department’s history. My favorite part was the newspaper clipping of the county’s first female police officer (1946). She worked as a dispatcher, and the caption under her photo read “First pretty cop”. It wasn’t until the 1950s that women served as detectives, and women didn’t go on patrol until the 1970s!

Both nationwide and in Fairfax County, female officers make up about 12% of the police force. I was surprised. That’s even lower than the military (with the exception of the Marines: ~6%). The good news in my county is that there are a fair number of women in supervisory and command positions, so maybe that visibility will help with future recruitment.

Tonight was just the overview and it was fascinating. Future classes look to be even more interesting, and at some point, I should be able to do a ride-along. I can’t wait to share the experiences with you!