It was only a simulation.
But the pressure was intense. Hostages had taken over a classroom. Scurrying children screamed about a man with a gun.
Retired photo equipment salesman Don Williams, a North Anaheim resident since 2003, spotted the armed man. Playing the role of police officer, Williams shot and killed him as soon as he saw his gun.
“It turns out I shot the wrong guy,” Williams recalls.
One of the hostages had wrestled the gun from the suspect before Williams got there. “The gun wasn’t even pointed at me,” he says.
He should’ve ordered the man to drop the weapon.
“The pressure was so intense, and the decision you had to make, you had a millisecond,” he said. “The experience was a real eye opener for me about the challenges of being police officer.”
The simulation is one of many highlights of the 14-week PACE Education program, which is designed to educate residents about how the Anaheim Police Department works.
The experience was so enriching that Williams now volunteers at least once a week for the police department.
He patrols for graffiti, joins police officers in doing arts and crafts with children in gang-ridden neighborhoods and ensures runners remain safe during events like the Disney Tinkerbell half-marathon.
“The course was a commitment, but I learned so much,” he said. “Everything the police department does – from working homicides to DUI checkpoints – it’s all about helping the community.”
The next edition of the program starts March 4. Classes run on Monday nights from 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
Officer Connie Najmulski said about 1,000 residents have graduated since the program began more than a decade ago – and dozens, like Williams, have become volunteers.
“I never met anybody who didn’t like the class,” she said. “Everybody rants and raves about it.”
She says every class is popular – and is taught by experienced officers who enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate what they do.
“It’s interactive and we provide a lot of information about working narcotics, gangs, homicides, forensics. We take them through the jail and the dispatch center. SWAT, helicopter and the K9 teams do demonstrations. We’ve also added a self-defense class, which has been really well received.”
During the DUI course, the instructor places goggles on volunteers that simulate drunkenness. Then they’ll give the volunteers field sobriety tests.
“People really struggle to balance on one foot,” she said. “It makes them feel like they are really affected by the alcohol.”
The use of force class, which includes the shooting simulator, also draws positive feedback.
“We talk about Tasers and all the levels of force we use,” she said. “And we discuss our use of force policy.”
Even the “dry stuff” such as internal affairs and polygraph testing is fascinating to participants because they learn how tough it is to become a police officer and the high levels of accountability, she says.
A Katella High graduate and 18-year Anaheim police officer, Najmulski facilitates the PACE class and oversees of the volunteer program.
“We share what our procedures are and why we do what we do,” she said. “People come away understanding that we’re not here to hide anything.”
West Anaheim resident Judy Benvenuto, 57, is one of those people.
She wanted to volunteer at the library in 2009 when she found the course on the city’s website.
At the time, she was a fledgling novelist and thought getting to know police work might be helpful for her stories.
She got more than she bargained for. She now spends more time volunteering at the police department – four days a week – than she does writing.
“I figured most police departments are the same; they go out there and get the bad guys. But it’s so much more than that,” she said.
The biggest revelation for her wasn’t the split-second, life-and-death decisions or exhaustive and extensive training.
It’s the humanity.
“I remember a homicide detective getting emotional talking about a child that was involved in a case,” she said. “He said he tries not to let things get to him because, if he did, he’d be a basket case. (Police officers) have to deal with some awful things. I also loved the officer who does the polygraph exams. He’ll ask the question: ‘Do you like little boys?’ Everybody backed off because they think of it in a (criminal) way. He gets people to think.”
In the past three years, Benvenuto has volunteered in many capacities, doing everything from patrolling the resort area to dressing up as McGruff the crime-fighting dog at school assemblies.
“It’s been such a wonderful experience. I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of people behind the uniform,” she said. “They are like everybody else. They have families. They laugh. They cry. Sometimes, they are put in horrible situations and they have to deal with it using their training.”
She said she wishes every Anaheim resident would go through the program, especially people who have a bias against police.
“To get it straight they need to come to a course like this,” she said. “They will learn very quickly and change their opinions. “
Here’s a list of dates topics:
- Chief John Welter’s introduction, a snapshot of the department’s history and a tour of the police facility
- Testing, hiring and working homicides
- Dispatch, patrol and the police academy
- Internal affairs and self-defense
- Crime task force, traffic and drunk driving
- Air support, SWAT team demonstration
- Use of force, shooting simulator
- Jail facility tour, forensics
- Narcotics, vice and the K-9 detail
- Special events, labor relations (class meets at Angel Stadium)
- Family and economic crimes (meet at the Anaheim Family Justice Center)
- The problem solving and community oriented policing models, gangs and criminal intelligence
- Introducing the role of Cops4Kids and Jr. Cadets in public safety; the volunteer program and crime analysis.
Are you interested in participating in the PACE class? Visit www.anaheim.net/police or call (714) 765-1987.
Filed under: PACE Education Program