Riding Along

A few weeks at the Citizens’ Police Academy helps us see law enforcement officers in a better, and more human, light.

By Mark D. Harris

I was about to leave for school when I heard the loudspeaker. Looking out my window on that winter morning, I saw a police cruiser, some uniformed officers, and one policeman speaking into a handset, telling me to come out of the house. I walked out my front door, oblivious to the fact that I had my hands in my pockets on this cold day. The officers instantly drew their guns and aimed at me, shouting for me to take my hands out of my coat. Startled, I complied. One of the men moved me to the car, put my hands against it, and searched me, saying that shots had been fired at my location. Later my younger brother came out of the house – he had been setting off fire crackers.

I have had a few other interactions with police in my life. Once a lady in a campus clothing store called the police on me because she thought that I lingered there too long and she found it threatening. More than once I have seen the dreaded flashing blue lights of a police cruiser in my rear-view mirror. Driving home at 0200 after a shift as a bus boy at a local restaurant, an officer stopped me. As I searched my glove box for my registration and proof of insurance, he saw a black object. The officer exclaimed “what’s that” as he drew his weapon. “A comb” I replied, and handed it to him.

Most people have similar stories. Police and security personnel of various types check our luggage at airports and our bags at other venues; a time consuming, embarrassing, and potentially tense experience. Law enforcement personnel linger at the periphery and sometimes the center of our lives, and we rarely interact with them in good situations. Guns, tasers, body armor, and bludgeons do not generally make people comfortable, and police are trained to take control of every situation they are in. Law enforcement officials escalate tense situations simply by showing up.

No one can say with certainty who will transition from a regular citizen to a serious lawbreaker, or from a malefactor to a law-follower, and when. Most citizens are law abiding most of the time – even hardened criminals – yet no one follows the laws of the land all of the time. Advocates for the police argue that the presence and work of officers make society stable.

  1. Police discourage bad behavior by reminding people of the law and penalties for breaking it. Which driver has not seen a cruiser and reflexively slowed down, even if they were not speeding?
  2. Police attempt to rescue us from mishaps (missing persons, search and rescue teams).
  3. Police encourage good behavior through community outreach (car seat classes, drug and alcohol education).
  4. Using personal experience, huge databases and complicated analytics, police predict where crimes will be, who is most likely to commit them, and try to intervene before the fact.
  5. Police investigate crimes, apprehend suspects, put them into the justice system, and deal with the criminals in the corrections system – from guarding them to taking them to medical appointments.

Experiences matter. The most common interaction many people have with police is through entertainment, from television to music to literature, even though shows, books, and songs invariably shade the truth. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen do many of the same things as police, and military members often feel a kindred spirit with their law enforcement brothers. Studying at Virginia Tech, my oldest two children, Anna and David, feel comfortable around people in uniform (cadets, police). Others don’t. Interpretation of experiences also matter. Other people in the stories above would have interpreted things differently than I did.

Relationships between citizens and the Law have never been great. We all have personnel iniquities that we enjoy, and the presence of the Law, embodied in people who make, interpret, and enforce the Law, annoys and frightens us. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews failed time and again to keep God’s law, and suffered greatly for it. Some people commit big and bold sins – kidnapping, rape, murder – and a few even enjoy them. Other people content themselves with little sins – pride, envy, and gluttony. Humans often perceive mistakes or even wise words as slights, reject personal responsibility for words and actions, and refuse to forgive.

Relationships between police, security, other law enforcement personnel and the general public have deteriorated in the past decade. Cell phone and body camera videos document police violence, and commentators safe in their easy chairs argue about whether the police response to a given incident was justified. The technology of death, from firearms to explosives, makes every police call a potentially fatal one for police, suspects, and bystanders alike. Cultural misunderstandings and mistrust add to the volatile mix.  Too often the media does not seek truth but instead amplifies stories, both true and false. Talking heads then broadcast their opinions to a populace hoping to be titillated, bored with complexity, and more interested in bad than in good.

Police departments all over the country try to bridge the gap between their officers and the people they serve. Some have open houses, most welcome volunteers, and some (like Shelby county, Tennessee) even allow citizens to become full fledged volunteer officers. As a medical student, I served for a few months on the San Bernardino County Sheriff Search and Rescue team, covering over 20,000 square miles, the largest county by area in the US.

The Citizens’ Police Academy

The police department in Beckley, West Virginia, offers the Citizens’ Police Academy, a ten-week course designed to help the citizens of Beckley and Raleigh County get to know their police officers and to understand them better. The Academy covers the following topics:

  1. Mission, organization, and officers (selection, training, etc.)
  2. Use of force, including a chance to use a force simulator, a “shoot or no shoot” machine.
  3. Detective bureau, including crime analysis, including a visit to a simulated crime scene house
  4. Domestic violence
  5. Highway safety, traffic enforcement, and field sobriety
  6. Canine units
  7. Drug investigations and enforcement
  8. Three-hour ride along in a police cruiser
  9. Tours of the Southern Regional Jail and the Emergency Operations Center
  10. Prosecution, probation, and parole
  11. The Courts

I have had the privilege of attending the 2018 Academy. Our class has over 15 students, mostly women, who come from all walks of life, from waitresses to hospital administrators. Classes are held in the police station and taught by the officers themselves, and by special guests. The class coordinator is Lt. Charles Ragland and the sponsor is the police chief, Lonnie Christian. I have included a few observations about the class below:

  1. I used a force simulator in the Army, and it illustrates how hard it can be to decide whether to shoot a potential criminal when you only have seconds to decide, and with limited information. On 12 January 1998, a 22-year-old Deputy, husband, and father of two, Kyle Dinkheller of Laurens County, Georgia, decided not to shoot. He was killed in a shootout with Vietnam veteran Andrew Brannan.
  2. The crime scene was a small, older house on the West Virginia Tech campus that the school uses for criminal justice training. The scenario was a drug sale gone bad, with a mannequin corpse in a bedroom at a desk with cocaine. The assailant had shot him in the head, ransacked the room, and fled down the stairs. We learned ballistics, fingerprints, crime photography, and how to find clues at the scene. Our group found the 9 mm brass and most of the other clues but did not check the trash can, a major oversight. The simulated victim knew the simulator perpetrator, whose name was written on a restaurant receipt.
  3. The German shepherds of the canine (K-9) unit were a high point. Fun and frightening at the same time, these well-trained and expensive animals had a powerful connection with their individual officer. One man said that he spends more time with his dog than with his wife and kids. Police dogs change the calculus of every encounter. Many times, a drunk, or even several of them, have challenged individual officers, or even a group of them. But these same drunks quiet down when confronted by a K-9. The same is true in domestic violence and other cases.
  4. Drugs and alcohol drive a huge amount of crime in the US and worldwide, and West Virginia is the epicenter of the US opioid epidemic. As a physician, I treat patients struggling with substance abuse, and as a health care administrator, I help to build systems to identify, treat, and prevent substance abuse in our veterans. The Beckley police work to solve the same problems.
  5. My three-hour ride along on 21 April revealed many of the obstacles that the police overcome every day. The officer had just returned after recovering from a major orthopedic injury when a suspect ran him over with a car. The cruiser was old and crammed with weapons, radios, computers, and other paraphernalia. Whenever the officer got out, his thick body armor or heavy belt, laden with a pistol, two magazines of ammunition, a taser, a radio, and other items, scrapped or clanked against the steering wheel or door. Police drive many hours per day, and so, like truckers, it is no wonder that a large number are overweight.
  6. We saw a car approaching us with a front headlight out, but couldn’t safely turn around and make it through the light in time to stop him. A young, female, African American driver ran a stop light, but since she was learning to drive, only got a warning. A young, white, male driver well-known to the Beckley force got arrested for another drug charge. One driver had a rear registration light out and received a fix-it ticket. We cruised through the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, but overall it was a relatively quiet night.
  7. The Southern Regional Jail breathed sadness and anger. We had to remove everything except shirt, pants, dresses, socks, and shoes just to enter. No keys, jewelry, jackets, or cell phones were allowed. Our class passed through gate after gate, of which no two could be open at the same time. Inmates looked at us as much as we looked at them. Some hooted, some scowled, some puzzled, and some seemed downcast. A few talked to friends and family through thick steel grating. Inmates had little space, as the jail housed twice the number of people that it was built for. Both women and men were there, but were carefully segregated. The medical infirmary had cells for those too sick to stay in their regular cell, but each had multiple patients. I thought of the inmates, how at age 5 or 7 no one would have thought that they would be in jail. Anyone who cared for them would have considered jail a great tragedy, if anyone cared for them. And yet 15 or 50 years later, here they were. For much of our tour, I prayed from the inmates, their jailers, and the many who would follow them.
  8. Prosecutor Kristen Keller pulled no punches in describing the courts and the legal system. It is slow, crowded, and by design, gives the benefit of the doubt to the accused. Most Americans have never experienced real tyranny of the kind that I saw when I worked with Iraqis who had been under Saddam Hussein. But protecting the people from the government, as much as protecting the government from the people and the people from each other, is a vital part of American democracy. Ms. Keller is no fragile flower and showed little tolerance for mollycoddling criminals, but she clearly wanted to do good. I had no idea that convicted criminals could appeal their sentences essentially forever.


I am more pro-law enforcement than many, despite the incidents noted above. The Beckley Citizens’ Police Academy has been more than worthwhile. It demonstrates a public service organization with solid training, adequate equipment, reasonable restrictions, good intentions, and sound results. The Beckley Police Department is comprised of people, regular people, with all of the strengths and weaknesses implicit in being human. My experiences with the Shelby County Sheriff and the San Bernardino County Sheriff Departments showed the same. While there will always be bad cops, like there are bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad truckers, bad nurses, bad secretaries, and bad apples in every bushel, these are the minority. A little reform, a little understanding, and a little forgiveness will go a long way in healing the rifts between the police and the people. But the most important work is to be done in the hearts and minds of all involved.

This is possible because police are just like the rest of us. In fact, they are us. After all, even police don’t like seeing flashing blue lights in their rear-view mirror.

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