This has been a month of intense self-reflection for police officers in Laguna Beach.
The police are under a microscope — and rightly so — after a local couple were shot and killed April 22 while allegedly brandishing a gun at the Montage Resort & Spa. It is too awful to imagine for the families of the victims — and the police officers who fired at them.
The facts of the tragedy are still somewhat vague, and the answers won’t come out soon. The district attorney is investigating and we won’t see a public report for many months.
As an editor and reporter who happens to be covering the “cops beat” for the local paper, it is absorbing to watch these events unfold.
Making it even more riveting for me is the fact that, four days before this tragic event, I was part of the 15th graduating class of the Laguna Beach Citizen Police Academy.
I had just gotten a three-month up-close-and-personal view of police work — invaluable for my line of work and illuminating as I look back on many of the crime stories I have followed over a 20-year career as a community newspaper reporter.
Our class of 22 had a wide variety of people and ages, from retirees interested in volunteering with the department to young men contemplating law enforcement careers. There was one elected official, Laura Parisi, the City Treasurer, and the spouse of another — Andy Anderson, City Clerk Martha Anderson’s husband.
There were several city employees, one of whom is now on the road to becoming a police dispatcher and starting a new career path.
The class is the brainchild of Sgt. Darin Lenyi, one of the senior officers who proposed it for the department years ago when he was working on a master’s degree. Over the years, the class has served as a recruiting tool for volunteers, and a first step for those interested in a law enforcement career.
The effort that Lenyi and the other officers put into this class is extraordinary. We were all made to feel very welcome by volunteer Officer Ross Fallah, who was our “host with the most” every week, making sure we had snacks and excellent meals to keep us going in the three-hour class.
Officers and reporters
At the first meeting, we were asked why we decided to join the class. I said I had covered a variety of crime stories over the years and hoped to be able to see police work from the other side.
I was not disappointed, and I know I will never write another crime story the same way again.
I’ve often thought that reporters and police officers have similar jobs. We go out into the world, see what’s there, and take action, or not.
Police are hunting for “bad guys,” or people in trouble who need help. Reporters are hunting for stories — frequently about bad guys or people in trouble.
Reporters need a “nose for news;" police must have a “nose for crime.” It amounts to just about the same thing.
And most police, like most reporters, also want to contribute some good to the world.
Like reporters, certain police officers are good at certain things. One officer on the Laguna Beach police force is great at spotting drunken drivers; another has a talent for scoping out drug activity. Each brings his or her own special abilities to the job.
‘Thin blue line’
Most of us encounter police officers when we’re in trouble or trouble has found us. We’re in need of help, or we’ve run a red light or pushed too hard on the gas pedal — or worse.
We’re on the opposite side of that “thin blue line” that separates regular folks from those who have the legal authority to detain and arrest, or pull out a gun.
If you’ve ever been pulled over by an officer, you know that feeling of anxiety, of moist hands and perspiring forehead, of wondering what will happen next as that person with a gun on their hip approaches cautiously. Guess what? That’s exactly what is going on in the officer’s mind, as well.
There aren’t too many times in a civilian’s life when we can see the world through an officer’s eyes.
Being a reporter, of course I loved hearing the officers’ “war stories” — their biggest and hairiest drug busts; worst accidents (too graphic to share in a family newspaper); the most tragic incidents they had to respond to, and just plain interesting stuff.
During the class, we were encouraged to “ride along” with an officer on patrol, and that was probably the most eye-opening part of the class for most of us.
On my six-hour ride-along with Officer Darin Germaine, I accompanied the officer as he:
Nothing big, just routine “keeping the peace” in a small but lively beach town. The fictional TV town of Mayberry, and its small but interesting problems, springs to mind.
The first thing that struck me about how Germaine did his job was that the police have instant access to a lot of information about civilians.
In a moment, they can run our license plates and find out if the car was reported stolen, who owns it, whether that person has ever had a traffic ticket or a felony arrest — or anything in between — where that person lives, and more.
Germaine joked that “Big Brother” was, indeed, watching — meaning himself.
Another thing that struck me is the fact that police officers have a great degree of latitude and judgment in deciding who to ticket, detain, arrest, or just let go. And a lot of the time it’s the attitude and appearance of the “subject” that determines what happens.
A cooperative attitude instead of belligerence can mean the difference between going on your way or having to write a big check to cover a ticket.
Of course we’ve all heard stories of lucky souls who “talk their way out of a ticket.” And it happens.
One woman he stopped got lucky: she had a child in the back seat and made a sympathetic appearance as Germaine questioned her about her long-expired license plate, which she said was in the process of being registered in her name. He let her go with a warning.
Then, upon returning to his vehicle and reading the information the computer spat out, he discovered that she had a criminal record. Had he known beforehand that she had that kind of background, she might have been given more than a warning, I thought.
One of the subjects dear to police officers’ hearts is that of “officer safety.” This doesn’t mean making sure their seat belts are fastened or their guns are not cocked, and, in fact, sometimes Germaine forgot to fasten his seatbelt until we were well under way.
Officers are human, and they make mistakes and little transgressions like the rest of us. Officer safety refers to the small but vital things police do to avoid getting hurt by us civilians — like approaching a vehicle from a certain angle, not allowing their gun to be within reach of a detainee, and being able to react with deadly force when necessary to save the officer’s life or that of other civilians.
Yes, police shoot to kill; but that’s not what they call it. They call it “stopping the threat.”
For a civilian within striking range of an officer’s baton or gun, it is important to be non-threatening, we learned.
The officers discussed how us civilians should respond when being stopped or questioned by police. Keep hands in view; be polite; do as the officer tells you. That’s not only for officer safety — it’s for civilian safety.
One of my favorite classes was the weapons class with Sgt. Eric Lee, a watch commander on the night shift — 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Lee reiterated that he tells his officers to make sure everything they do can be “justified.”
“I want to be able to go home at the end of the shift,” Lee said. “I don’t want to make my wife a widow.”
It must be tough to go to work and know there’s a strong possibility you might not make it home at the end of the day.
One of the most amazing experiences for me in this class was our trip to the firing range. I had never fired a gun before, so I wasn’t about to miss out on the opportunity.
We were taken by paddy wagon to a remote canyon location that is accessible only via a precipitous road that felt from the inside of the uncomfortable van like we were climbing and descending a slow roller-coaster. Good thing we were all securely fastened in with extra-strong prisoner seatbelts!
Fallah thoughtfully brought along thermoses of hot coffee and other treats, and it felt a bit like camping out.
As a chilly night grew upon us, we were given a demonstration of all the police weapons in common use in Laguna Beach.
One thing we learned was that Laguna officers have had assault weapons for years, unlike many larger departments, but they are infrequently used.
The department also has a German submachine gun from World War II that was handed over by a resident who had it in the garage for years. The weapon still works!
Our two weapons experts fired a shotgun, a 9mm handgun and a Taser dart gun into targets with human forms.
Then it was our turn to put on earmuffs and try our hand at target shooting.
I watched as other classmates were put through the paces. With a training officer at our sides, we were individually instructed in how to hold the 9mm Beretta and then allowed to take nine shots at the target.
Everybody hit the target that night, and a lot of people hit the bull’s eye — the center of the body, where a bullet would do the most damage.
When my turn came, I listened carefully to the instructor, took my stance, and fired. I didn’t realize the gun would throw fire from its muzzle, as well as kicking back. I gasped and realized my heart was pounding as if I had just sprinted a quarter-mile.
The first shot was high. The instructor told me to shoot a little lower, into the center.
I lowered the gun and tried to keep it steady. I shot eight more times.
Amazingly, all eight shots were in the dead center of the target; some of the bullets went through the same hole.
I’m not saying I could ever do it again — but I did it once.
That night, I began to see why people are attracted to police work, despite the dangers and the difficulty of dealing with people doing illegal things or who have been horribly injured in traffic accidents — a lot of the time, it’s fun.
We all had a great souvenir from that night — our targets with bullet holes in them.
I wanted to put mine up in the office, but one of my reporters called it “disturbing,” so I took it home.
We didn’t know for sure who had the best score until Chief Mike Sellers made an appearance at a subsequent class and presented another class member and myself with a very treasured item: a sharpshooter’s pin.
Chief Sellers — a “cop’s cop” and just about the biggest and toughest looking officer in Laguna Beach — started calling me “Dead-eye Dick.”
This taught me another thing: police have a sense of humor and fun.