In Chester County, residents see the world through a cop's eyes
Three departments join forces in a Citizens' Police Academy, hoping that civilians learn how police see shoot/don't shoot scenarios, crime-scene investigations, and other police work.
Police Officer Steve Dintino, 61, handed a Glock .40-caliber pistol, modified for training in a virtual simulator, to first-time shooter Nancy Griffith and told her that slow, steady pressure on the trigger was the key.
Dintino said to remember that when the virtual bad guy jumped up firing at her from a row of seats in a movie theater he was terrorizing, "Your most important shot is your first one because it might be the only one you get."
Griffith is one of nine people in the first-ever Citizens' Police Academy presented by the East Pikeland Township, West Vincent Township, and Spring City Borough police departments to help residents view police work through a cop's eyes.
Meeting from 6 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday nights through Jan. 17 at the Chester County Technical College High School Brandywine Campus in Downingtown, Citizens' Police Academy officers cover everything from use of force and SWAT tactics to vehicle stops, constitutional rights, and crime-scene investigations.
Griffith and her fellow students spent a recent "shoot/don't shoot" session firing their carbon dioxide-powered Glocks and rifles at a series of violent bad guys in scenarios projected on a wall. They had fractions of a second to decide when to use deadly force to stop shooting rampages in a theater, a church, an office, a warehouse, and a public park.
Dintino, an East Pikeland Township officer who spent the first 33 of his 37 law-enforcement years with the Tredyffrin Police Department, has the military demeanor of a career cop who commanded Southeastern Pennsylvania anti-terrorism SWAT teams in Philadelphia and its four neighboring counties.
But he also has the patience to bring inexperienced civilians into a police officer's mindset.
"How many rounds do I shoot?" Griffith asked. "Do I go boop, boop, boop, boop?" She made the sounds she's heard in movies. Dintino reminded her to focus on that first shot.
Officer Daniel Corbo, 37, from the East Pikeland Police Department, who organized the citizens academy with his police chief, Susette Wilson, reinforced Dintino's instruction.
"You're responsible for every bullet that comes out of your gun," he said. "If you miss and hit a kid, you're responsible for that."
"Do you try to shoot at the foot or the hand?" Griffith asked, before the scenario began.
"No," Dintino said, "you go for the biggest part of the body, which is the chest area. Ready?"
Griffith braced herself as the video took her down the theater's corridors amid the sounds of gunshots. When the bad guy emerged and immediately fired at her, she got off two shots, both high.
"He got me," she said dejectedly.
Dintino replayed the scene, this time accompanying Griffith in the scenario as her partner.
When the bad guy emerged, Griffith and Dintino both fired, killing him immediately. They examined where the shots had landed.
"Was that you?" Griffith asked, eyeing the fatal hits.
"Yes," Dintino said. "That's why officers help one another."
Griffith, who works in a private girls' high school office, said she signed up for the free academy because she wants to better understand the jobs of two nephews who are police officers. "One's in Lancaster County and one's in Philly," she said. "The one in Philly works in Kensington. When he told me he always patrols by himself, I said, 'You're patrolling in Kensington by yourself?' "
Her civilians' academy classmates included Jane Heemer, a registered nurse working at Kennett Square High School, who said, "As a supporter of our police I wanted to have a better understanding of what they face when they go to work to protect us, so that when I come into contact with someone who doesn't have respect for the police department, I can respond with firsthand knowledge and not mere opinion."
Corbo said that's the goal of the citizens' academy. "Me and my chief wanted to do something to put our faces out in the community that wasn't writing tickets and arresting people," he said. "There's an epidemic in the country right now of bad publicity for police officers. We're so secretive when we do investigations, which is necessary because we don't want to ruin the investigations, but people think we're being clandestine. Assumptions are made. Things are blown out of proportion. This whole course is set up so you can see through the eyes of the police officer."
Dintino said citizens experience what new police trainees feel when first faced with the violent, frightening shoot/don't shoot scenarios, which require split-second, life-or-death decisions.
"When you're involved in a shooting, things happen to you subconsciously," he told the academy students. "The pituitary gland floods your body with chemicals. You see real well, but you may lose peripheral vision. It seems like everything is in slow motion even though it's not in slow motion.
"We have two hemispheres in our brain," he said. "One side is the emotional side. The other side is the rational side. They compete. As a police officer, you want to keep that rational side of the brain firing so you can make rational decisions and think through the situation even though it's very tense."
Corbo said even a seemingly routine call can turn life-threatening quickly. "Whether you're going to answer a call about a barking dog or you're responding to shots fired, you have to be alert," he told the class. "All the time."
As a bridge of understanding between cops and the civilians they serve, citizens' police academies have sprung up in departments throughout Philadelphia's four collar counties.
At the Radnor Police Department, which will conduct its fourth citizens' police academy beginning in March for nine weeks, Deputy Superintendent Christopher Flanagan said, "The academy is important because, unfortunately, it's very easy to get a negative portrayal of police departments right now."
In Radnor, he said, "we felt we needed to get people into the police department and give them hands-on scenarios" from the simplest locked-out-of-auto call to a possible officer-involved shooting.
Flanagan said the citizens wear police-style gear while they address simulated domestic and "agitated person" emergencies "where they must use only verbal techniques to calm the person down." Citizens also drive a police vehicle and make a car stop in the dark ("the suspense takes them to another level"), and collect blood, hair, and other evidence at a simulated crime-scene investigation, then work with real detectives to solve it.
The value of the citizens' academy, Flanagan said, is that "individuals have to perform at a police officer's level. Some of the role-playing we do blows their minds. You can watch cop shows, but when you're actually doing it, it's a real eye-opener."