The cold steel pressed into my shoulder kicked back like a semi-truck on the other end of a fishing line. The target’s neck was blown away and there was only a little slice keeping his head on. After that, Cpl. Shane Cason of the Clearwater Police Department patiently took the shotgun out of my hand and motioned for the next person in line. This “Dirty Harry” moment was the scene of Class of ’18 Criminal Justice Day at Clearwater Police Department’s shiny new, state-of-the-art firing range.
The class was able to see members of CPD’s elite SWAT unit train for several scenarios, from sniper fire to crowd calming non-lethal tactics like rubber bullets, and my favorite, tasers.
Deputy Chief Eric Gandy greeted the class and ran us through certain hypotheticals that police officers may face every day. In a split second, the decision you make can have impacts so far down the line you could never consider them, he said. Officers have to make those types of decisions every day.
This reminded me of my recent ride along with a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy. We did the overnight shift and the most excitement we saw was a brawl between a few senior citizens at On Top Of The World. One person went to the hospital. A 68-year-old woman from Chicago went to jail. The deputy I rode with said that even these cut and dry situations can end up getting out of hand quickly. Part of his job, he said, is constantly thinking several steps ahead in every situation, no matter how banal it may seem. He said experience and training have equipped him in this process.
Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department is definitely equipped to fight crime in our community. That was easy to tell at the Sheriff’s Aviation Office where the class of ’18 was treated to lunch by the office of Sheriff Bob Galtieri. There, we saw the full arsenal of helicopters, some of us seeing others walking headfirst into them, response vehicles and other special operations equipment. We were also able to finally see what a big deal a couple of our classmates Captain Tim Pupke and Lieutenant Steve Wagner are. They were greeted with several bro hugs and twice as much deference. At times, it felt like the deputies doing the presentation were starstruck by the mere presence of Pupke and Wagner.
Some of the more interesting pieces were the DUI Unit, an unmarked cruiser with some serious muscle. There, a sheriff’s deputy passed out goggles that simulated drunkenness. We watched as several classmates struggled to put one foot in front of the other. A few of us, okay just me, were seen doing a little moonwalk number as classmates stared on in disbelief. The secret was just keeping your eyes closed.
The MAIT, or Major Accident Investigation Team, and their gear were quite a sight as was the Dive Team/Search and Recovery crew. Hearing from the people that are out there every day putting their own lives in danger to keep the county running smoothly and safely was inspiring.
We found plenty more inspiration on our final stop of the day. The Pinellas County Justice Center, beaming and towering over everything near it on 49th Street, was extremely enlightening. As we fidgeted with our pockets and security coming in, we mixed with many people that were there for something likely less fun than a Leadership Pinellas program day.
Bob Dillinger, Public Defender for Pinellas and Pasco Counties told us that the majority of criminal cases in our county will be handled by his office. Instead of paying for a lawyer, many people rely on the free services his office provides.
State Attorney for Pinellas Bernie McCabe, who has been in that position since 1992, walked our class through the ins and outs of our local criminal justice system and explained why individuals like us play such an important role in things like serving on juries.
We had an opportunity to see the power a jury wields during a mock trial where the class of ’18 member Eric Seidel was acquitted by a jury comprised of his peers of all charges as it pertained to an alleged arson.
But the seriousness of the institution was made crystal clear to us by our very own class of ’18 member Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue Chief Scott Young who informed us that just down the hall, another classmate of ’18 Major Jeff Young of Tarpon Springs Police Department was sitting in on jury selection for the sentencing phase of convicted cop killer Marco Parilla. Parilla was convicted of killing Tarpon Springs Police Officer Charles Kondek in 2014 and the case has been on the minds of many residents in this community.
As a group of us walked down to show support for Major Young, we realized we wouldn’t be let in. By the faces of the people outside the courtroom, you could see this was a lot more than just an exercise. Later, a jury would be picked and a verdict would come down. It was a decision not everyone could agree with. That seems to be a theme in the world of criminal justice.