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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Citizens Police Academy, Weeks 2 & 3: COPS and killers

This week Im Michael Winslow.
  • This week I'm like Michael Winslow.
So, I've decided Citizens Police Academy is kinda like community college. Except instead of learning the basics of English composition, we look at horrifyingly sad pictures of people with fatal wounds. More on that later ...

Week 2 kicked off with a visit from Major Valerie Dalton, who oversees the department's Community Oriented Policing Section (aka COPS — they love acronyms). COPS — much like the academy itself — is intended to build relationships within the community and encourage civilians to keep an eye on their neighborhoods, because the police can't be around all the time (especially because most of them don't live in Atlanta proper). I WISH I could find the cheesedick video we watched about how citizens need to be vigilant because terrorists are always putting bombs everywhere. It was great.

Anyway, it served as a nice segue into a pitch for a new APD campaign called "See something, say something," which basically encourages people to call 911 whenever they see suspicious activity, as long as the caller's suspicion about someone's activity isn't based on the fact that they're not a white person. Seriously, a brochure for the campaign says, "Keep in mind that suspicion should be based on a person's actions and not on their appearance, race, nationality or sex." I have a hunch white people are going to have a hard time with this.

When I got a press release about the new campaign a few weeks ago, my first thought was, "Can an already overburdened 911 operation handle a slew additional calls about 'suspicious activities' that might not amount to anything?" Incidentally, our visit with Maj. Dalton was followed by a visit to Atlanta's 911 center.

The answer seems to be, "Probably."

Our community college class boarded what looked remarkably like a prison bus, and headed downtown to the city's 911 center. I've heard that the old center — which was located in City Hall East — was a dump, but the new digs are deluxe, like, straight-out-of-a-movie, control room deluxe.

Unfortunately, it's also understaffed.

When asked whether 911 could handle an increased call volume that might result from "See something, say something," Maj. Dalton said, "We're not concerned about being overwhelmed ... we want the calls," adding that calls are dispatched by type, meaning that more serious calls are given a higher priority. The supervisor who led the tour of the 911 facility echoed that sentiment, saying, "We're gonna be here for you [when you call]." But, she also mentioned that 911 is literally always hiring — there are TWENTY open positions currently — because the job is high-stress and turnover is high as a result. During our visit, there were at least a few points when all of the 911 operators were on the phone, and a queue of incoming calls built up (monitors on the wall illustrate when the phones are backed up).

According to Chief Turner, though, the average time it takes for calls to be answered at Atlanta's 911 center is below the national average.

911 fun facts!
— Starting salary for a 911 operator is around $33,000 a year
— If you want to report drug activity taking place INSIDE a home in your neighborhood, either call your Zone Precinct or the APD's Narcotics tip line. If you call 911, the operator just refer you to one of those locations, because there's nothing a beat officer can really do about it without a warrant.
— VOIP (internet phone service) can be "dangerous" because in lots of instances an incorrect address and telephone number appear on 911 operators' screens.

Fun tip!
— If you're the victim of a crime in which you see the suspect (armed robbery, etc.), pay attention to his/her shoes. They're likely to change or take clothes off after the commission of a crime, but they probably won't change their shoes.

Week 3, a presentation about crime scene investigation by Homicide Commander Lt. Paul Guerrucci, will probably prove to be the most interesting lesson of all, save for our ride along (I can't wait —- I'm doing the morning shift, 10 p.m.-6 a.m. in Zone 1).

He checked to make sure no one was too weak-stomached to look at graphic photos, and it's a good thing. Yeesh. We looked at pictures of two brothers who were found sitting in a parked car at a local apartment complex, as well as another guy who was shot inside a car in what appeared to be a drug deal gone wrong. He let us walk through what we thought happened, based on things like where the blood had spattered, where the bullet wounds were located, where casings had landed. It's shit everyone thinks they'll be good at because they all watch dumb cop shows on TV. I, for one, was not good at it. And I watch lots of dumb cop shows.

Tips on crime scene investigation!
— At a crime scene, officer safety is first priority. Second priority is rendering aid to anyone who might be injured. Third is securing the crime scene.
— Although physically rolling out police tape is easy, says Guerrucci jokingly, securing a crime scene is not at all easy.
— If you breach a crime scene (i.e. pass through the police tape) you could be subpoenaed for any resulting court cases.
— Never assume (makes an ass out of u and me — hee haw) your work is done. Guerrucci recalls an officer "clearing" a crime scene where a child had been murdered, only to discover later that there was another unresponsive baby in a laundry basket in a bedroom.

Homicide not-so-fun fact
— There have been 54 homicides in Atlanta so far this year

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