By Gerhard Schneibel
Some local residents are learning firsthand what it means to be a cop.
The 28 participants in Sandy Springs’ Citizens Police Academy met for the first time Jan. 12 and will continue to meet on Monday nights through the end of March.
Allen Christian is taking the class because he wants to learn more about the police and “what they actually do, what their daily activities are to keep our community safe.”
“I had no idea how involved, how much of their life is really involved with what they do each day,” Christian said. “I have more respect for them knowing what they do. This made me more aware of my daily actions and my surroundings as well.”
Academy classes include instruction about narcotics, crime scene and gang investigations, crime analysis, canine procedures, and SWAT team responses. The optional hands-on element consists of a police ride-along, live-fire training, a Taser demonstration and a tour of the Doraville Jail.
During an opening-night welcome, Lt. Steve Rose said that when a dangerous situation emerges, “it’s going to happen a lot quicker than you thought.”
One challenge the Police Department faces is that most alarm-system calls are false, he said.
“You answer 15 or 20 alarms a week, and you get complacent,” Rose said. “Alarm calls are very dangerous. You don’t know who’s on the other end, and the person on the other end might not know who you are.”
Canine Officer Michael DeWald demonstrated his Belgian Malinois, Amos, Jan. 26. Amos and Officer Sean Hanse’s Malinois, Romy, are the department’s two dogs, but DeWald said he hopes Sandy Springs eventually has as many as six dogs so at least one can be on the street at any given time.
Amos is trained to sniff out drugs and track down suspects. He makes his presence known during traffic stops of suspected drug dealers because there is no Fourth Amendment right against his walking around a vehicle to sniff for drugs.
If Amos detects something, the traffic stop becomes an “instant criminal investigation,” DeWald said.
Amos doesn’t track based on smell like a bloodhound. He tracks based on the “most recent ground disturbance,” and officers have to be careful not to disturb a search area so he doesn’t “track right back to a police car.”
When he catches someone, Amos doesn’t immediately dig his teeth into the suspect’s left shoulder, as he’s trained to do. Instead, he corners the person and barks, letting officers know his location.
“The dog is trained not to engage a still-standing man. We train to detain,” DeWald said. “Just the mere presence of him showing up at a scene will de-escalate a situation.”
Detective Benjie Cain and Specialized Officer Joe Simone work narcotics cases. When they spoke to the class Jan. 26, they had just come from making an arrest and confiscating $20,000 worth of methamphetamine. The drugs will be incinerated in a Georgia Power plant.
Part of their job is to work with informants to set up drug busts, something made difficult by “doper time.”
Drug dealers “have no concept of time. Time doesn’t mean anything to them. It’s an approximate suggestion,” Cain said. “It drives us absolutely crazy because we’re on a fixed schedule.”
A deal set for 2 p.m. might be delayed for hours while the dealers play video games and get high. Meanwhile, the detectives are thinking, “Who’s going to pick the kids up?” Cain said.
Catching drug dealers requires, in part, paying attention to financial irregularities.
Drug dealers don’t often put their money in bank accounts, Cain said. “It draws attention and they know it. So they spend it.”
Simone said a lot of drug dealers come to Sandy Springs because they know Fulton County’s jails are overcrowded, which motivates the courts to be lenient.
“It’s really just a cat-and-mouse game,” he said.
A person arrested on drug charges often stays jailed for only a few days before getting probation or a dismissed case, Simone said.
In some cases, known drug dealers spend more time in Irwin County’s jail for misdemeanors committed in Sandy Springs than they ever do for drug charges, Simone said. Those misdemeanor sentences range from 30 to 90 days.
Cain said Sandy Springs’ police do everything they can to build airtight cases because “when it’s your case and your search warrant, you have to find something because you’ve got all these resources to bear. But if you don’t find anything … you don’t.”
One method police use to get a search warrant is a “pickoff.” They wait outside the residence of a suspected drug dealer for a customer they can follow in traffic. Once the customer commits any minor traffic infraction, police stop the car and use Amos or Romy to find the drugs. They then get the customer to sign an affidavit acknowledging the drug deal took place and use that affidavit to obtain a search warrant.
“Knock-and-talks” sometimes result in consensual searches. “Whisper stops” are traffic stops done to get visual identification of suspects without letting them know they are suspected.
“I’m out there on the street every day, and that’s the way I am,” Cain said. “I’ve been that way my entire career.”
Michael Prolman, a participant in the class, said he founded a company that developed the computerized weapons importation tracking system for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“I’ve got a bird’s eye view of weapons movement inside the United States, so I was interested in a more nuts-and-bolts view of what happens on the ground in an individual city,” he said. “It is a lot of information. … I guess the main thing is being a police officer is way more complicated than I thought it was. I have learned more of an appreciation of it.”