The Kern County Sheriff’s Office Community Academy is one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars I have experienced: For 13 weeks, close to 20 others and I learned about the laws of arrest, community policing, patrol procedures, gangs, drugs, jail operations, first aid, search and rescue, SWAT, K-9 unit deployment, and other important KCSO efforts.
It was enough to give us, as civilians, a better understanding of what our county’s law enforcement officers do. For several of my classmates who are considering careers in law enforcement, the Community Academy provided a good sampling of what their future jobs might hold — whether in the courts, jails or streets.
My reason for attending the academy, however, wasn’t linked to aspirations of becoming a sheriff’s deputy.
As a concerned citizen who believes that a healthy way to participate in our nation’s heated debate about law enforcement/community relations is to understand our officers better, I wanted to get to know a few of them and the demanding rules and conditions under which they work.
I discovered that, in some ways, they’re not so different from the rest of us: They begin each shift wanting to put in a good day’s work and go home to their families — hopefully in one piece — at quitting time.
In other ways, they are radically different: They are in much better shape than most of us, enjoy physical challenges, and a number of them even take on additional dangerous duties — on the SWAT team, for example — at the expense of time spent away from their loved ones or more relaxing and less dangerous activities.
They know a lot about the law, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: They are, after all, “law enforcement” officers. But when they discuss and quote legislation dealing with topics as diverse as drug busts, electronic monitoring or use of force during arrests, they sound as authoritative as attorneys — or even more so.
Some of the maxims they live by can shock at first.
Take one-upmanship in crime fighting, for instance: “We do not meet force with force,” said Senior Deputy Jason Colbert, one of our trainers who is also on the SWAT Crisis and Negotiation Team. “If you come at me with your fists, I’m going to come at you with a baton. If you come at me with a knife, I’m going to come at you with my firearm.”
But then you realize you might respond in a similar way if facing highly volatile, dangerous people or life-or-death situations on a regular basis.
As I got to witness during a nighttime ride-along that was part of the Community Academy, most of the calls to which officers respond involve interaction with people who are breaking the law or repeating an offense; causing danger or harm to themselves, their family or their neighbors; looking for trouble; or all of the above.
And yet, the law enforcement officers I came in contact with show compassion as readily as the next guy. “It’s normal to want to help people. It’s not normal to want to hurt or kill people,” Colbert said.
Despite disturbing images in social media of law enforcement officers running amok, I found most of the officers I met to be polite and efficient — most of all Deputy Steve Castillo, the coordinator of our training, who is quick to smile or crack a joke, addresses you as “sir” or “ma’am” until he gets to know you, and is prompt about returning phone calls and e-mails. At the end of the course I told him that, as a fellow Hispanic, he was my new hero and role model.
Some unforgettable moments for me include watching a video of a man who bleeds to death in less than two minutes following a bullet’s rupturing of his femoral artery; the investigation of a murder in Oildale that began with the kidnapping of a woman from a house near the academy (an otherwise random dwelling that now possesses a haunting quality for me every time I drive by it); and one of the stark recreation yards — all cement walls, chain link fencing and razor wire — at Lerdo Jail: a scene of loneliness and hopelessness amplified.
Crime doesn’t pay.
I am proud to be a graduate of the fourth class of the KCSO Community Academy. To find out when the next class might be, visit kernsheriff.org or call (661) 391-7500.
As a concerned citizen ... I wanted to get to know a few of them and the demanding rules and conditions under which they work. I discovered that, in some ways, they’re not so different from the rest of us.