Walking in a cop’s shoes in Basalt Citizens Police Academy
Officer Curt Donaldson of the Basalt Police Department told a rapt audience Saturday he has every intention of living to a ripe old age. As soon as the words left his mouth, he demonstrated how he and other officers approach a vehicle in a precautionary and quasi-militaristic manner during a traffic stop, even in a relatively peaceful place like the Roaring Fork Valley.
“You don’t know any of these people,” Donaldson said. “You don’t know if they have guns. You don’t know if they have knives.”
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he told one of three groups of nine people he would address during the day. “I have to show you these things.”
Donaldson was one of four officers demonstrating procedures during the Basalt Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy. This is the second annual event designed to bring the community and department closer together.
It comes at a time when police shootings of black men around the country have got law enforcement agencies under the microscope. The Basalt police force is taking an active stance is enhancing understanding rather than retreating into its squad room.
“My hope, our hope, is this gives you some insights,” said Sgt. Joe Gasper, who coordinated the academy.
Always on guard
Donaldson condensed about eight hours of training that police officers receive on approaching a stopped vehicle in a traffic stop down to about 60 minutes for the benefit of his citizen students.
He staged pulling over a vehicle outside of Basalt Middle School. He stopped about a car length behind a Jeep with half the width of his patrol car protruding into the traffic lane to provide protection from oncoming traffic.
Before exiting his car, he showed the audience how he will call into emergency dispatchers with his location, direction of travel and the make and license of the pulled over vehicle. The information is designed to leave a trail.
He approaches the stopped vehicle with his left hand on his pretend weapon. He firmly touches the back of the Jeep as his slowly walks by, establishing his print on the vehicle in case anything goes haywire. He glances in the back windows, stays close to the car and stops even with the back of the driver’s door so that the driver must twist to see him.
He demonstrates how he introduces himself, explains the reason for the stop and asks for the driver’s license and vehicle registration. He collects the information with his right hand because, as a lefty, he keeps his left hand available for his pistol.
He tells the driver to remain in the vehicle, then sort of sidesteps back to his car while keeping an eye on the driver. He repeats the cautious approach after running the driver’s license.
More often than not, Donaldson tells the audience, a second officer from Basalt or the sheriff’s departments of Pitkin County or Eagle counties will back up a Basalt officer making a traffic stop. It’s another precaution, particularly if the stopped car has multiple passengers.
After the demonstration, Donaldson had each student hop into his patrol vehicle and go through the procedure of a traffic stop. They laughed when the student botched something, like getting too square to the driver of the stopped vehicle and providing too much of a target. They applauded when a classmate aces the steps.
A little more than 50 percent of the 26 people enrolled in this year’s academy were Latino.
While one group worked on traffic stops with Donaldson, another group learned about assessing speeds and working with radar guns with Sgt. Gasper and Officer Ernie Mack. A third group got a taste from Officer Jason Hegberg of the extensive driver’s training that officers go through. All demonstrations were interactive.
Samuel Bernal, manager of Radio Tricolor Aspen, a Latino radio station, attended the academy to not only observe for himself, but translate for other Latinos. He also attended the academy last year.
Bernal, a Basalt resident, is part of a committee organized by Catholic Charities that meets every other month to talk about relations between immigrant communities and police in the valley. He thinks Basalt’s Citizens Police Academy is an effective way to reach out and help people understand what they do and why they do it.
Luis Salvidrez, a young man from Carbondale, said he’s wanted to be a police officer since he was 10 years old. He hasn’t been able to enlist in training classes because of his residency status even though he is in the country legally.
He said he watches a lot of police shows on television and interacts with law enforcement agencies when possible. He said he was looking forward to the driving session in the Citizens Police Academy.
Aracelly Terrazas, a Carbondale resident who enrolled in the academy after hearing about it on Tricolor Radio, said she found the traffic stop segment informative and reassuring.
“I liked learning about the public safety and how they protect themselves, and how difficult it is to do the work they do,” Terrazas with translation by Bernal said.
Terrazas said she is concerned about people drinking and driving. A friend of hers was responsible for a drunken-driving accident that claimed the lives of two other people, she said. She liked learning that police officers are looking for drunken drivers.
“After this, I feel more safe in my community,” she said.
Terrazas said she is interested in becoming a police officer to be even more active in serving her area. She said she was undeterred by hearing from Donaldson about the dangers.
“I’m a little afraid,” she said, “but with training it would be better.”
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