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Citizens test skills behind the badge

Feb. 25, 2013

I was locked in the back seat of a squad car as officers shouted orders through their radios. It was not the way I thought I'd be spending my Tuesday evening.

I was tagging along with the 2013 Citizens Academy, andwe were also learning more about the police force than I thought possible.

Citizens Academy is a joint effort among the Pewaukee Hartland, Delafield and Chenequa police departments. It's an eight-week program, free for the community; residents signed up to see what's behind the badge.

Classes are a mix of seminars, interactive demonstrations and real-life observations. Citizens learn about drunken driving offenses from driver recognition experts. They learn about identity theft and other computer crimes. They get behind the yellow tape to investigate a mock crime scene with crime-scene analysts. They even get to shake hands with critical incident team (CIT) responders and learn about the SWAT-style procedures in Waukesha County.

There's a military integrated laser operations (MILO) session that officers use for training in the use of deadly force. It's like an interactive video game where a scenario is created and they have to respond by assessing the situation, shouting commands, taking cover and firing weapons.

Last week, I attended an Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) in which the students drove police cars through serpentines and evasive maneuvers. Lt. Jay Iding of the Pewaukee Police Department and Deputy Police Chief Michael Bagin of the Hartland Police Department serve their municipalities, but they're also instructors at WCTC for new recruits.

Of course, everyone wants to flash the lights and announce the sirens at some point in the evening, but Citizens Academy is more than a joy ride.

"We do a lot of driving and a lot of hurrying. You're responding to a domestic, an armed robbery, an active shooter …" Bagin said.

Students learned that "due regard" is how officers and other emergency responders maintain responsibility for the safe operation of the vehicle. Just because there are sirens blaring and emergency lights flashing does not mean the emergency vehicle can ignore all traffic laws. While they are granted some exceptions for emergency circumstances, they must continuously assess the situation and take precautions, especially at traffic lights and stop signs, or else they too could face criminal charges.

"There's a lot of judgment in this business when an officer crashes. Was he using due regard?" Bagin explained.

Officers are on the road during most of their shift, and Bagin had a few words about officer safety and driving safety, overall. Space between drivers equals reactionary time. Awareness is a big factor, too."The No. 1 cause of accidents right now is people who aren't paying attention," he said. Officers have to be aware of the environment like any driver, but added distractions, like dispatch notifications and evasive maneuvers, add risks.

"The most important thing I learned from EVOC was how important it is to pay attention to your surroundings while driving. We learned a person has three-quarters of a second to react to something, and not paying attention could have serious consequences," said participant Gina Gresch. "I have a renewed sense of awareness when I'm in my vehicle."

Gresch, the city clerk/treasurer for the City of Delafield, said she signed up because she enjoys learning how other city departments function. It's also been on her bucket list for a while.

During the night, academy students took turns winding through a front serpentine course and doing evasive maneuvers. The serpentine uses cones that a driver has to weave around, left and right, at varying speeds.

Next, the maneuver scenario: Drivers are given only a second or so to determine which direction they need to go.

By putting civilians behind the wheel and through some police training, like the EVOC course, officers hope the public will get a better idea of what real police work is like.

"I didn't realize we would have as much hands-on training as we have, which is pretty awesome. Not only have these municipal PDs made this interesting and educational, they've made it fun. Each week keeps getting better and better and better. Every Tuesday night I go home thinking 'how are they going to top tonight?' And you know what? Somehow, they do," Gresch said.

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