At Turlock academy, no role-playing as in deadly Florida case

The Turlock Police Department will hold an 11-week Citizens Academy beginning Sept. 8.
The Turlock Police Department will hold an 11-week Citizens Academy beginning Sept. 8. Modesto Bee file

Nothing like the role-playing that left a 73-year-old woman dead in Florida on Tuesday night will occur at the upcoming Citizens Academy on law enforcement, Turlock police assured this week.

Citizens Academy is a free, 11-week program in which residents will visit the Police Department on Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. It begins Sept. 8.

Participants will learn about the different units within the department, such as investigation and patrol, said Michelle Backeroff of the Crime Prevention Unit. “They learn about the criminal justice system and crime prevention techniques and things to do prevent from becoming a victim,” she said. “The purpose is to build relationships with citizens and answer questions about law enforcement.”

Tuesday night at a citizens academy offered by the police department in Punta Gorda, Fla., attendee Mary Knowlton volunteered to role-play in a lethal force simulation intended to demonstrate how and when officers decide to fire their weapons.

Knowlton played the victim, while a Punta Gorda police officer played a “bad guy,” the Washington Post reported. The scenarios usually are acted out with either fake or empty weapons, but when the officer’s gun was fired, Knowlton was hit with live ammunition. She was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

The Turlock academy includes no such role-playing that involves attendees, Backeroff said. “The only role-playing, which we may or may not do, is with members of our Police Explorers Program.”

In that program, for 14- to 21-year-olds, members attend competitions with other Explorer posts. At the academy, Backeroff said, they may do one of the competition demonstrations – how to conduct a felony traffic stop. There’s nothing that could go wrong with the Explorer demonstration because the youth use only red, rubber replicas of guns.

In general, no loaded weapons are unholstered during academy classes, said Backeroff and Turlock Police Department spokesman Officer Steve Rodrigues.

On a separate day from the academy’s 11 Thursday nights, participants do have an opportunity to receive weapons-familiarization training, Backeroff said. That optional session is part classroom setting, where they will learn about safe handling of weapons, but also includes the opportunity to shoot at the gun range. “On range day, that’s all done under a controlled environment,” Rodrigues emphasized.

The academy will include more than 30 presentations. Some of the topics discussed are officer recruitment and training, crime scene investigation, police emergency communications (dispatch), crime prevention, narcotics enforcement and special weapons and tactics (SWAT).

In a post on the Turlock Police Department’s Facebook page, Mayor Gary Soiseth said, “Turlock has a long-standing history of these citizen academies as part of their Community Oriented Policing effort in our community. It is important to have citizen-police interaction and cooperation through an exchange of ideas and education and we encourage all members of the community to consider participating in this valuable program.”

Backeroff said the academy has been offered for 10 years or so. The department can accommodate 24 residents this session; about 10 have been approved and six are pending approval, leaving about eight remaining spots, she said. To participate in the academy, a person must be at least 18, live or work in Turlock and pass a criminal history background check.

Because of staffing, the Modesto Police Department no longer offers a citizens academy, said spokeswoman Heather Graves.

A shooting similar to this week’s Florida incident occurred in Modesto in early December, but with nonfatal consequences. A pastor with The House Modesto suffered a gunshot wound during a firearms safety class. During the course, the instructor was using a training gun, a rubber fake with no firing mechanism, Graves said. But as the class was ending, he removed that prop from his holster and replaced it with his real handgun.

About that time, a student asked the instructor to demonstrate what to do if attacked by someone armed with a knife. The pastor volunteered to portray the attacker in a role-playing exercise. “During the scenario, the instructor drew the firearm and it accidentally discharged,” Graves told The Bee at the time. The pastor recovered from the wound.

Anyone interested in attending the Turlock Citizens Academy should contact Backeroff at 209-656-3153 or at mbackeroff@turlock.ca.us. Registration deadline is Sept. 1.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

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