Life through the lens of Spokane County Sheriff’s Training Center
If someone were to happen upon the unfortunate scene near the corner of Pines and Sprague where Deputy Fred Morford was wrestling on the ground with a female, pressing her face into the gravel and twisting her to compliance, they might be inclined to whip out a cell phone and begin recording the incident up until the moment the deputy put the “victim” in a semi-headlock. The “witness” might then post it online with the heading “cop beats woman for no reason” and the short clip would spread like wildfire, raising the ire of the masses as well as the negative perception of law enforcement.
All Deputy Morford was doing was his job and experiencing a little embarrassment. “She bamboozled me. I should have never left the driver’s side door open,” he admits. The back-story goes like this: It was a simple call; a shoplifter was being detained at a box store and Morford was prepared to just write a ticket. The alleged thief was polite enough even after meth was found in her purse and a ticket turned into an arrest. Though she didn’t have identification, she gave her name as he handcuffed her and placed her in the back seat of his car.
Driving down Sprague Avenue, the woman started to feel ill and asked if he would pull over so she could throw up. He did and, as he held the door open for her to lean out, she asked that he let her get out of the car. He did. “I thought it was the humane thing to do,” he says. As she began dry heaving, she turned towards him and did a fine job of pretending that she was seconds from projectile vomiting on him and, as he stepped back to avoid the mess, she made a beeline for the open driver’s door and jumped behind the wheel, her hands no longer cuffed. “She had slipped right out of them. I hadn’t noticed that she was very sweaty, slimy even,” he explains.
The engine revved and he dove on top of her as she struggled to understand how the gears worked. If she had figured out how to work the gears, she would have peeled out, potentially crushing him between the concrete wall and the car, but, lucky for him, she could not figure it out and he pulled her out onto the ground where they began wrestling. Fueled by drugs (or lack of) and a whole lot of crazy, she reached for his gun more than once and, because his hand microphone had come loose and gotten trapped under the woman, he could not call for help. He was alone. He eventually managed to get her into a semi-vascular neck restraint (VNR), roll her over, and call 99, the code for need assistance right now because someone is in danger of being injured.
Turned out, she had given a fake name and had several felony warrants out for her arrest and she had no intention of going to prison, whatever the cost. Morford could have been killed but his training prevented the worst, though they both sustained some scrapes and bruises. “I feel bad that I didn’t protect her well enough,” he says, adding that it was a good learning experience; he will never leave the driver’s side door open and he will take sweat into account the next time he cuffs someone.
It is the job of law enforcement to protect and serve, but it’s not easy and it requires thick skin; being berated with curse words (or potentially attacked) on a regular basis would be hard for anyone, but officers tend to see it for what it is. “People need to vent,” says Morford. “There’s a flip side to ‘do unto others’ which is don’t do unto others as they do unto you.”
Enforcing the law and bringing calm into chaos is not an easy job, and this assignment had me rethinking my own perception of law enforcement. Speaking with a friend just the other day about “cops,” she expressed fear, suggesting that something bad might happen if one were to pull her over on a deserted highway. My response was, “you watch too many Lifetime movies.”
In a 40,000 square-foot facility in Spokane Valley, men and women in law enforcement learn the ropes in many capacities. The concept of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Training Center began in 2005, in a small office at CenterPlace in Spokane Valley where Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich began planning for a training center as a training unit supervisor before being elected Sheriff in 2006. “We needed a place where law enforcement could train in order to better serve the public,” he says. He then moved the operation to a building on the campus of Spokane Community College until moving into the current location four years ago.
I decided that, to understand their roles and experiences, I had to dive in headfirst and attend some of their training. Before I did that, I reflected upon my personal responses to men and women in uniform. Firemen and women are a no-brainer, they’re there to save the day, but law enforcement is another story. I had to admit to myself that I have taken my foot off the gas and even thrown my cell phone on the passenger seat in mid-conversation upon spotting a police car. I have received three traffic tickets in my past and all three times I was inwardly angry at the gall of the deputy to stop me, a law-abiding citizen, while true criminals roam the streets.
Thinking about it now, I realize that I was breaking the law, however innocently. A car accident I witnessed was a good example of how being in a hurry doesn’t always end well. The driver was a little entitled, acting as if his or her destination was more important than anybody else’s. We were on the freeway and as I made my way to the off ramp just behind the aggressive driver, I realized he/she had no intention of remaining in line; the small car squeezed to the right and passed the waiting vehicles. Unaware of a sidewalk that began where the off ramp met Sullivan Street, he/she clipped it and flew across Sullivan. I did not stop, but I did think that maybe traffic tickets aren’t so bad; they probably do more than people even realize, like keeping us in check and reminding us to follow the rules of the road because we do sometimes act as if we own it. If that driver had been stopped by a deputy before the accident, no doubt he/she would have cursed the inconvenience without ever knowing the good it did.
Walking into the facility, my palms were a little sweaty. Besides the traffic tickets, the only experience I have had with officers has been remotely via the movies, the news and clips on YouTube or Facebook, and the things I remember the most have left me with an almost unconscious fear of those who have sworn to uphold the law. The media has almost convinced me that the law doesn’t apply to them.
The first forum I sat in on was a three-day presentation called “Police, the Media, and Positive Public Perception” or “Media Relations for Public Safety.” The first thing I noticed was a box of donuts on a table. “How appropriate,” I thought as I was led to a seat in the back of the large classroom.
The presenter, Judy Pal, currently serves as Chief of Staff for the Baltimore Police Department in Maryland, which, she admits, has a reputation of being understaffed, underpaid, gritty and corrupt, but reputation is simply another word for perception. Abraham Lincoln put it like this: Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. Pal puts it like this, “What we do matters. What people perceive we do matters more.”
I sat in on the first hour of the presentation where I learned about those in attendance. There were about 30 of them and they included a female detective, patrol deputies, a major crimes sergeant and a woman from the Department of Emergency Management who breeds seahorses as a hobby. One attendee shared the fact that his now wife did not want to date him after finding out he was a cop. I suddenly understood; I was a sucker for sensationalized stories, news reports and video clips of “cops gone bad” that rarely shared the back story or even facts, and my fear of the law was not merited. Certainly corruption exists, but on a much smaller scale than we actually perceive. “Scaring the heck out of people makes for good television,” Pal explains, “and all it takes is a couple of bad apples.”
Later that day, I took a tour of the training facility. There are conference rooms, classrooms, offices and storage on the main floor. An adjacent vacant three-story building is theirs to use free of rent, and serves as a place to train on a larger scale including scenario training or concealed compartment training where they actually bring cars into the building. On the second floor of the main facility are the traffic unit and marine patrol offices, and the FATS (Firearms training simulator) room. The remaining part of the second floor looks like a huge gym with mats on the floor, free standing and hanging punching bags, and freestanding short walls with holes in them for dogs to learn some tricks.
I was sent home with packets of information with numbers that made it clear that the economic impact of the Regional Training program conducted by the Spokane County Sheriff’s office is huge. Local participants save on travel, lodging and sometimes tuition, and out-of-town participants from as far away as Hong Kong, Guam and Israel bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to area hotels and restaurants. Over 100 training opportunities took place at the facility last year, not including on-going in-service instruction. The highest attendance was at a four-day presentation given by the Northwest Gang Investigator Association. Behind closed doors, they train to better understand culprits and to protect and serve their community.
A few days later, with a better understanding and a desire to change the public’s perceptions of cops, I walked into my second training opportunity, in the “gym.” With a little more confidence, and donning workout wear and combat boots just in case I had to kick, this is where I met Morford who, along with a dozen others, was participating in a quarterly in-service defensive tactics class where they refresh their skills to remain effective. After the class, participants are evaluated and, if they don’t perform to standard, they are not allowed to perform these moves on the street. On the day I visited, they were perfecting the VNR and a variation called XVNR.
Master Instructor Sergeant Richard Gere introduced himself and told me to remove my boots, necklace and dangling earrings. I panicked for a second and wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into as I followed his instructions. It was all men at this particular class and I felt a little out of place, but the feeling passed as Gere and a few other instructors began leading us in the proper way to grip your hands, which is actually stronger if you don’t wrap your thumbs.
It went from that to a dance of grip, step back and go down on one knee and, if the “perpetrator” is too large to pull down by force alone, you use your foot to buckle his knee and take him down gently, gracefully and always aware of head and body placement to avoid injury of both parties.
First, we did the moves solo, and then with a partner. The moves lead up to a tight VNR where arms, head and body placement all play an intricate roll in getting someone to comply. Hold the pose long enough and they go out, like a light, giving the officers enough time to get the cuffs on. I performed it on a couple guys and I wasn’t bad. One even tapped my arm as a cue to “please stop.” Feeling tough, I suggested they choke me out so I could experience what the bad guys have experienced. Obliging, Gere wrapped his arms around my neck, pressing tightly and evenly on my carotid arteries. After some grunts and unattractive facial expressions, I was out in a matter of seconds and came to just as fast; a little discombobulated but unscathed.
Four days later, I visited Citizen’s Academy, an eight-week program for the general public that occurs twice a year at the training center. Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Officer Travis Pendell designed the program as an opportunity to raise awareness about officer involved shootings and other aspects of the job.
Again, there were donuts on a table, as well as fresh fruit. There were 30 attendees, ranging from senior citizens to 30-somethings. Curious and concerned men and women, and some volunteers, were are allowed a glimpse into the workings of law enforcement through personal stories, mock scenarios and tips on how to prevent crime.
Pendell, who leads the program with comedy and heartfelt opinions of meth use, has been a crime prevention officer for the last eight years. Before that, he spent time on patrol. “The worst part of that was going back to the same victim time and time again,” he says. “The best part was when I able to keep someone safe or make a difference.”
It is the job of law enforcement to keep others safe, and many, if not all, are motivated by the desire to make a difference. Bad apples exist, but we should not be forming our opinions based on their behavior. Time and time again, while speaking with deputies, I heard their disappointment of the perception of those they have been sworn to protect. Their thoughts include: “I am a human being,” “I feel so normal and drama free at the end of my shift,” “after I retire, I may publish a book called All the Things I Wish I Could Have Said,” “please introduce me as Mark, not Mark the cop,” “no, we are not fueled by testosterone,” “don’t judge a book by its cover,” and “try walking in our shoes” which includes dealing with road ragers and meth heads in various stages of agitation and entitlement, and enforcing the laws created by the people we elect.
Their suggestions are to look out for your neighbors, protect yourselves, call if you see something that’s out of place and feel free to like the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, the City of Spokane Police Department and the Spokane Valley Police Department on Facebook.
My suggestion is to thank them even as they write you a traffic ticket and no, they are not writing it to meet a quota, they are doing their job; keeping us safe even if that is sometimes from ourselves.