School Days

School Days
Photo By Celesta Danger

Our class met on Tuesdays from 5:30-9:30pm at the downtown police headquarters on Eighth Street. We'd generally hear two presentations per week from speakers representing various departments within APD. Topics covered everything from use-of-force to forensic science to the bomb squad. Some highlights:

Recruitment & Training: White-collar pastel blues

Austin Police Academy instructor Sgt. Fred Fletcher was wiry and energetic with dark eyes and high cheekbones. He spoke really fast and walked around the room so that he could look straight at you when he said things like, "The badge belongs to the community; it's just on loan to [us]." He and APD recruiter Henry Moreno explained that while recruiting in Austin is easy – as of the last contract period in 2005, APD officers are arguably the highest-paid in the state and among the highest-paid in the region – becoming a cop here is anything but. We have one of the top academies in the Southwest, with one of the longest training periods – up to 8½ months of eight-hour days, each followed by working out and studying to pass exams that leave little room for error. The professionalization of policing and the academic rigors that come with it are relatively new phenomena, said Fletcher, brought on like so many things by 1960s-era demands for change. Policing used to be considered blue-collar, he said, but those days are long gone. Other notable unpleasantries of law-enforcement training: a background check with a finance review ("If you've got a police officer in debt up to here," said Moreno, "what's he gonna be tempted to do?"), an 800-word psychology exam, a vocabulary-and-reading comprehension test that "people with master's [degrees] have failed," a polygraph test, and an oral board so intimidating they had to paint the room "pastel blue." And somewhere in there you get Tased in the back and pepper-sprayed in the face.

The District Representative Program: One step forward

"How many of you know your district rep?" asked Sgt. Gina Curtis, our first speaker for week three. One person raised her hand, and it wasn't me. I'd never even heard of a district rep, which is too bad because they're awfully handy. There are nine districts in Austin, with a DR assigned to each one, and what he or she does is help people with problems they can't resolve themselves – like squabbles between neighbors (chronic false house alarms, parking disputes) or larger issues such as too much neighborhood traffic or crime (DRs can get speed limits changed and start Neighborhood Watch programs). Your district rep is your go-to person for just about any neighborhood nuisance, which is especially helpful if the problem requires coordinating with other city departments like waste disposal or the fire marshal. Just remember: Before you go tattling on your neighbors' barking dog, you should really try talking to them, because that's the first thing your DR is going to suggest. (To find your district rep, visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/police/drcity.htm.)

Financial Crimes: Two steps back

Until this class, I was happily coasting along thinking that victims of identity theft were pop-up-clicking grandparents. Then Financial Crimes Detective Shane Lee came along and said, "I can guarantee: Everybody in this room will be or will know someone who's a victim of financial crime." Apparently Internet commerce and plastic money make us all easy targets no matter how savvy we are, and while financial crimes have shot up 200% in the last two years, resources devoted to solving them have not kept pace. In 2005, APD had four detectives to deal with 6,000 cases (though they're now up to five), which means that most financial crimes don't get dealt with at all. If someone applies for a credit card in your name or starts bouncing your checks, you probably won't get your good credit or your money back without doing the investigating yourself. To avoid this fate, which averages 600 hours of legwork, Lee recommended a preventative strategy: Check your accounts daily, and get a credit report three times a year. A classmate asked why APD doesn't hire more financial-crimes detectives; Lee responded, "What's more important: a homicide or someone who's got a forged check written on their account? The assets that we have have to go to that. If I lose $1,800, I'll get over that. If I lose my wife, I'll never get over that."

Gang Unit: APD's rock stars

Top three reasons why the gang unit is the coolest:

1) They taught us all about the different types of gangs (turf-oriented vs. gain-oriented; ethnic vs. hate vs. prison gangs); the symbols, colors, hand signs, tags, crimes, and drug preferences of each; and which ones are prevalent in Central Texas – one is actually called Tango Blast, which I love because it sounds so much more like a new flavor of Starburst than a gang.

2) Their slide show (grainy crime-scene photos from APD cases – a car with bullet holes in the windows, a pile of cash, a dead body – punctuated by tough-sounding title cards saying stuff like "Dead Is Dead") was set to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle."

3) They arrived late because they "had to arrest a few people on the way over."

Robbery: A victim is a victim

Robbery Detective Andy Perkel began the class with a question: "Has anyone in here ever been robbed?" I said yes: My car had been broken into two months earlier, and my cell phone had been stolen. As it turns out, I was not in fact "robbed" but "burgled" – which is great because it's not only more fun to say, but it means I wasn't attacked, as robbery's not a robbery unless it involves assault. In Austin, we have a much higher rate for solving robbery cases than the national average, but we still have serious problems, the main one being that robberies here are disproportionately victimizing Hispanics. Making them a target is the fact that undocumented immigrants – and therefore anyone who looks like they might be one – are assumed both to carry a lot of cash around (they don't use banks) and to be reticent about reporting crimes against them. APD has been a leader in initiating programs to counteract this trend. Their Banco Facile program – the first of its kind in the country – partners with area banks in allowing immigrants to use their Mexican IDs (matriculas) to deposit money into accounts. APD has also developed an Immigrant Protection Team designed to overcome cultural barriers that prevent immigrants from asking for help. IPT Community Liaison Manuel Renteria spoke to us so passionately about the program that tears came to his eyes. "I am the son of an illegal alien," he said. "I remember the fear that my dad had, a fear of systems." Under former Chief Stan Knee, he explained, APD changed its attitude toward immigrants. The conversation used to be: "'You were raped? What's your immigrant status? Illegal? You're deported.' The rape was never reported," said Renteria, "and the rapist was out there free." Now, a victim is a victim, no matter who they are.

Homicide: Like it sounds ... and smells

"I've never worked so hard in my entire career as in this unit," said Homicide Detective Lisa Morrill. "Your personal life suffers." Morrill was a petite woman with peachy skin tones and dark, curly hair. A 20-year APD veteran, she looked pretty and tough and tired all at the same time, and she said emotional things in the unceremonious, un-self-conscious way only managed by people completely absorbed in their work. Of the three years she's spent in homicide, she said, "You learn a lot about people's relationships, the most intimate things about them. You go into people's homes, look in their toilet bowls, their trash." She showed us a slide show: photos of decomposing bodies ("decomps"); a corpse of a teenager in a car, still seat-belted; a mangled body that had been run over by a train; the bloated, purplish-black bodies of a double suicide. "You're watching it on a slide," she said, "but there's nothing like smelling it. That smell just rapes your nose."

SWAT: America – fuck yeah!

Three SWAT officers equal three superhero jawlines; three sets of gleaming white teeth; three tight, black T-shirts with SWAT emblazoned across the chest; and an unknown quantity of canned energy drinks and sunglasses. Speakers from other APD units looked substantially less Army-commercial and a lot more Little League coach-ish, a contrast apparently explained by SWAT's weekly schedule, which includes training four days out of five. On call 24/7, SWAT officers drive city vehicles everywhere so that they can be off to the rescue at a moment's notice. To drink, they have to get off call; to go out to dinner with their families, they have to take separate cars. They wowed the class with video footage of real house raids, showing us how the team stands in formation, busts down the door, throws a "flash bang" inside to stun its occupants, and barrels into the house all in a matter of seconds. It was Anita who thought to ask: "Who's responsible for repairs?"

  • More of the Story

  • My Semester on the Beat

    Wherein our reporter pursues the bad guys, abhors Problem People, studies community policing, and earns a perfect attendance koozie in the APD's Citizen Police Academy

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