by Katy Kappele
A Latino man with short black hair walks into a classroom at Whatcom Community College and steals a purse. Actually, it might have been a Caucasian woman with long blond hair. Either way, it’s a particularly bold move, considering there’s an armed Whatcom County Sheriff’s deputy standing in front of a class full of students in her pea-green coverall. Oh, and it’s her purse.
Sergeant Beth Larson asks her students to write down everything they can remember about the person who stole her purse. After all, they’re eye-witnesses.
The class consensus is that somebody between the ages of 20 and 35, whether female or male, Caucasian or Latino, wearing either a black jacket with a sheepskin collar or a green army jacket, walked in and took some sort of a purse.
“You wanna look for this person?” asks Larson, laughing. “This describes pretty much everyone in this room!”
“I’m not making fun,” she assures her embarrassed students. “There is a point: it’s that eye-witnesses suck.”
The classes in Whatcom’s law enforcement degree are tailored to students who want to work in the field, so their teachers must be experts. All of them have worked in the field, and most are still working.
Larson teaches a class at Whatcom on interview and interrogation as well as pulling graveyard shifts from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. several nights a week for the sheriff’s office. She has to report in for duty after her evening class.
Besides Larson, there’s Don Almer, a Bellingham police officer and SWAT captain, who teaches Patrol Procedures.
“Law enforcement is about customer service,” says Almer. “If the customer asks for help, we give it to him. If he asks for an ass-whooping, he gets it.”
Between real-life tales of interviewing abused children to bring their attackers to justice and stories of SWAT call-outs, bodies, rapes, and other crimes, Larson and Almer try to lighten the mood with humor and demonstrations of things like K9 dogs and guest speakers from the bomb squad.
“The material is serious, yet it’s delivered so you can process it,” says Garret Gileno, 19. “I like the stories that Beth has to tell.”
Larson says that the most important thing she teaches is to not violate people’s rights, including lectures on the Miranda warning (you have the right to remain silent and the right to a lawyer), and demonstrations of the flaws in eye-witness testimony.
“I will set you up for success,” she says.
Almer, on the other hand, wants to keep prospective police officers alive on the streets, so he shows videos of how quickly the human body can turn and shoot. The human body can act in milliseconds, while it takes a full second to react.
He also teaches that everything to which he exposes his students will be stored in the brain for later reference, and he intends for that exposure to save lives. For instance, he has the sheriff’s department send out a K9 dog to do a demo, including sniffing for drugs in the classroom. Almer laughs and says that one time he said the dog was coming in and one of his students just stood up and left. This was the same student who spent a week of the course in jail on an unrelated drug charge.
Almer has also organized guest speakers from the bomb squad, who go through photo demos of their work, including the fact that they wear those “space suits” to have a body to bury. Not much stops a bomb when it goes off.
Almer has one more bit of sage advice, gleaned from years as a SWAT captain in situations where the hostages may end up dead and the police splattered with blood and brain matter: “No matter how bad it is, it WILL be worse with you bitching.”
The SWAT captain’s hard, matter-of-fact stories and the child interviewer’s gentle-yet-tough-as-nails personality are forging Whatcom’s students into knowledgeable police officers with a realistic sense of life outside the classroom and on the street.