Our city’s police hosts what they call a Citizen’s Academy a few times per year. The class meets for three hours once per week for a total of ten weeks. It’s a big commitment, and I let that be my excuse to pass up the opportunity for a few years. This time around was different. I already knew our community outreach officer because she co-taught the self defense classes last summer. Because of that positive experience, I was determined not to let the opportunity to take the Citizen’s Academy course pass me by again.
Why am I interested? What is the motivation behind my determination to finally make the commitment? I had to have an answer to type into the registration forms. I do have a good answer that is absolutely true. What I think I know about the police comes from novels, movies, and the news media. I want to learn firsthand what police work is all about. This is an easy thing for me to say when asked. But I have deeper reasons that are not so easy to articulate.
In Karate, I play with the concepts of violence. A quick Google search yielded a definition that fits what I’m trying to express: behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. At my level (currently i-kyu), when I’m sparring I’m trying to outwit my opponent and sneak a carefully controlled punch or kick past his or her guard. For kata (forms) I am expected to be able to physically and verbally express my interpretation of every single movement of every single kata I’ve memorized. This means that with every movement I visualize what my opponent is doing and exactly what I am doing to him. Even the most basic kata are to be performed with the proper mindset. I spend quite a bit of time “meditating” on violence by practicing kata, but this isn’t the same as putting myself in danger as part of my job.
By attending the Citizen’s Academy, I hope to get a glimpse of what it’s like to go to work knowing there’s a high probability one will find oneself in a bad situation. I play with concepts as a hobby. Violence is a reality for the police. Do I have a clear picture of what that’s like? Well, no. Of course not. I’m not a veteran police officer, and it’s not likely I ever will be. But after the ten weeks are over, I should have a little better understanding of those who deal with violence as part of their profession.
The first class we listened to a lecture on the job application process for those who want to join the force and then we took a tour of the station. I was stunned at the extensive process that every candidate has to go through. Folks, my toughest job interview was an absolute picnic in comparison. My biggest takeaway from touring the station is how much physical support police work requires – computers, tools, charging stations, a sally port for the detention area, rooms for cleaning equipment, secure lockers for evidence gathered at the scene of a crime, and even a small gym. Granted, police do more than just deal with violent situations – a LOT more, and yes, a good bit of the physical space and tangible stuff reflected that. But it was very hard to ignore the spaces and objects devoted to violence. This got quite “real” to me three days later when I signed waivers and put on a Kevlar vest.
I arrived at the police station early. The instructor of the Citizens Academy had advised me on how to dress. I had checked the weather forecast before I left and scrounged for something that I wouldn’t roast in and something loose enough to accommodate the bullet-proof vest I’d be wearing. I’d heard Kevlar doesn’t exactly breathe. I saw how bulky the vests are when we toured the station three days prior. The best I could do was a man’s undershirt to wear under the vest. Over the vest I wore an old, raggedy shirt (formerly my husband’s) that I wear for yard work. I looked like something the cat had dragged in.
While I waited, I sat on the lobby bench contemplating the glass case which contains mementos of an officer killed in the line of duty. The worst I’ve ever experienced in karate was – well, it’s a toss up between the broken foot when I was a teenager and the soft tissue damage to my intercostals that hurt for several months. I go home to my family after karate class.
My new officer friend took me back to fill out some paperwork while he found a bulletproof vest that more or less fit me. Less because, as the office assistant pointed out, I’m smaller than the average police officer – male or female. A bar of metal runs down the spine of the vest – that takes some getting used to when you’re sitting down. But the discomfort is better than a bullet to the spine. I don’t train for bullets in Karate. This is a whole realm of violence that I do not truly comprehend – I have a vague idea of its magnitude and gravity.
Something I do understand is how that vest would help or hinder me in a hand-to-hand fight. I resisted the urge to run into the gym to try some karate while wearing the vest. I didn’t even ask – I knew I was expected to stay in the cruiser no. matter. what. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was eager for action. Besides, my host had to get out on patrol.
The officer and I went out to the cruiser and he showed me the features of the vehicle. We hopped in and drove off.
Three days prior to this adventure, the instructor of the Citizens Academy asked, “You’re not likely to see much on a Saturday morning. Are you sure you want this time slot?” I was sure. For one thing, I’m super busy and that time slot was optimal. For another, I wanted to talk more than I wanted to see a cop catch a baddie. Sure I saw stuff. Routine traffic stops. A drunk taken away in an ambulance. But mostly we talked. Perfect. During the four hour patrol our conversation wandered, interrupted frequently by something the officer needed to do. The topic of conversation changed accordingly. The officer I rode with frequently had things he wanted me to learn and would often ask questions that made me think. And yes, I did ask questions related to violence. I know techniques, I know principles and concepts, but I don’t know reality.
In cop movies we see a lot of foot chases, vehicle chases, and shootouts. There’s more to police work than that. A lot more. Reality is that the police do a lot to try and prevent violence. The officer I rode with sometimes just says “Hi” and chats a bit with known troublemakers so that not every interaction is confrontational. Sure he knows where the hot spots for trouble are and where he’s likely to find stolen vehicles. But more importantly he knows human nature, including himself. Some of that is on-the-job experience and some of it is training.
I could relate just a little bit to a few aspects of this officer’s extensive and comprehensive training. I’ve been pushed to my limits mentally and physically. Frequently I have to master myself and my emotions. I can see where new officers would be prone to certain mistakes. But there’s more for an officer to master. Firearm proficiency, driving at high speed, fighting hand to hand, first aid, writing clear reports – that’s just the surface. There’s extensive training in how to handle a wide range of human behavior. In particular I envied the training my host received in de-escalation. The ultimate goal is to build the community.
It’s strange to think about violence (“behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something“) being a part of building a community. But it is and always will be.
Sitting alone in the cruiser, watching my new friend, praying for his safety – that was reality. I wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest just for fun. At any time, fertilizer could have hit the rotating cooling device. Unless the vehicle caught fire, I was to remain in the cruiser at all times. I came up with a strategy. I knew where the door lock button was. I knew I could duck down and the side panels of the vehicle would offer a good bit of protection. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t scared. But I do admit this was unfamiliar territory for me. I’m savvy enough to know that being pushed outside one’s comfort zone means learning and growth.
So what’s the bottom line here? I admit that one of the questions I asked myself on the way home was, “How do I stack up compared to a police officer – am I as badass as all that?” Uhhh… No. A friend of mine advises, “Don’t compare – someone will get hurt.” I admit that I kinda hurt myself just a little bit with feelings of inferiority as I was driving home. Training envy, maybe? But then I realized something. That police officer and I are an apple and an orange. We both invest heavily into our respective communities, but in different ways. I need to remember how many kohai (people who are lower in rank than oneself) have responded positively to my help in class. Karate is empowering and I take pride in building that into people’s lives.