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Viewpoint: Citizen academy gets off to arresting start

It’s not often that most residents of a community interact with law enforcement, let alone get invited to tinker around with expensive police-issued equipment. But for the next eight weeks, I’ll join 22 other people who live, work or own a business in Cottage Grove to learn the ins and outs of the city’s Public Safety Department as part of the annual Citizens Academy.

Organized by police Sgt. Gwen Martin, the academy educates the everyday resident about the law enforcement sector — police, fire and EMS — by offering a crash course in public safety.

Tip No. 1: Do not ask about the Taser. Doing so automatically puts an invisible bullseye on your back to volunteer for the “demonstration” at the end of the academy. (I’m not keen on being tased, regardless if it has been called a “rite of passage,” or that most all of the female participants have endured the pain. We’ll revisit that as the weeks go on.) 

Week one of the academy, last week, was reminiscent of syllabus day in school. We received our eight-week itinerary, went over the goals of both the academy and the Public Safety Department as a whole, and even caught a few scenes from “Super Troopers” and “Superbad.” While much of the information relating to budget, statistics and law enforcement model was familiar, a tour of the Public Safety Department, which shares its space with City Hall, provided more insight into what it takes to protect a city of 35,000.

The Cottage Grove Police Department is comprised of 40 sworn officers, including a handful of sergeants. Public Safety Director/Police Chief Craig Woolery leads the entire department. Police Capt. Greg Rinzel oversees all patrol duties and police Capt. Pete Koerner handles all administrative duties. (He’s often the one who provides the Bulletin with information about a bad crash, a DWI case or the occasional vehicle fire that followed a four-mile pursuit which ended in the wrong lane of traffic, for example.)

While the upper level of the public safety building is comprised of offices, cubicles, locker rooms and more offices, a tour of the lower level is when most everyone started to really pay attention. An area not typically seen by the public — unless you’ve been arrested or are awaiting transport to either detox or the Washington County jail — the waiting room and holding cells come in a variety of options.

Door No. 1 opens to a small cell, capable of holding a couple of people comfortably, several more if police are short on space. There are several of those cells. Door No. 2, referred to as the party room, can be used for a large number of people who had an unruly evening. And Door No. 3, which has limited views, is set aside for juveniles. State law dictates that juveniles cannot be in sight of adults while in holding cells so the juvenile cells face a different direction.

Out in the garage, a couple of on-duty officers returning from a call highlighted some key features in their vehicles. Did you know that the back seats of the new squads are now plastic? The black Ford Explorers turned high-tech policing machines have brought all the comforts of a jail cell to actually provide more comfort. In fact, it could be dubbed the Delta Airlines of police cars. The hard plastic backseat gives the unlucky arrested passenger more legroom, believe it or not. And in case arrestees can’t hold their liquor, or other liquids for that matter, the plastic seats provide for easy cleanup with a quick blast from a hose.

And the Explorer is fast. Ecoboost technology supercharges the squad and can kick it into gear well over 100 mph.

With all of our questions about horsepower, ramming capabilities and emergency lights, it’s no surprise the first night of the academy went long. To be fair, Sgt. Martin did warn us: “We might get out on time, but we will never get out early.”

Reporter Emily Buss is participating in the eight-week Citizens Academy, hosted by the Cottage Grove Public Safety Department. Follow her reports weekly in the Bulletin.