a man standing next to a robot in a room

I shot two people a couple of weeks ago in Marathon. I also ticketed the city manager for speeding, toured the jail on Plantation Key and was one of a dozen people gathering around the county’s SWAT vehicle like it was an ice cream truck on a hot summer night.

Three groups — more than 50 people total, in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada — spent one night a week for two months in the ninth Citizen’s Police Academy, a behind-the-scenes look at how the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office works. The annual sessions cover most aspects of police work in the Keys, from training to traffic stops to disposal of explosive devices.

“When most people think ‘police,’ they think ‘tickets and donuts,’” said Sheriff Rick Ramsay. “We’re in the air medical business. We’re in 911 dispatch centers. We’re in jails. We’re in patrol divisions. We investigate every crime, homicide, narcotics. We have traffic motorcycle watchers, we have marine patrol units. We do SWAT, dive, field training. We have an extensive training division.”

Most of those are on display during the seven weekly sessions of the academy. Corrections officials; members of SWAT, dive, K-9 and bomb squads; crime scene investigators and more take their turn describing what they do. 

“I’ve always been deeply curious about how officers leave their homes each day, face life-threatening challenges on a regular basis, and still return to their families, leaving their duties and responsibilities behind,” said Jesús Parra, one of those attending the class in Marathon. 

The classes keep to a schedule, but an individual session might go longer or shorter than the allotted three hours. The specialty teams unit — SWAT, K9, bomb squad and dive team — went nearly four hours in Marathon. No one seemed to mind.

“We try to make it hands-on,” said Ramsay. “We want to make this fun, not boring.”

That worked for Parra, a real estate professional in Marathon.

“I was amazed at how interactive and fun each instructor made the classes every week,” he said. 

Most of the sessions begin in a meeting room, but it’s not just sitting and listening. You’ll see how much equipment is stored in a squad car. Go inside the jail. Take fingerprints.

Week three is when you will probably ‘shoot’ someone. As you play the role of an officer, a person trying to break into a building will raise a crowbar and charge at you. You may also encounter a couple camping, bickering in their tent. When you order them out of the tent, the man approaches you holding a pipe wrench aloft. (The first attacker was using the crowbar to jimmy a door; there is no explanation for a pipe wrench in a tent, but you don’t really have time to think about it – which is the point.) 

In both cases, the adviser who is talking you through the exercise explains that the weapons constitute deadly threats — a crowbar or a pipe wrench could kill you — and firing your weapon is an appropriate response. The handgun you’re holding is made to weigh and feel the same as the Glocks that the sheriff’s office uses, but it shoots soap at the assailants, who are covered in protective gear. (Also, the pipe wrench is made of rubber, but you don’t find that out till afterward.)

A later class shows how to search a building. After the instructors explain — and demonstrate — an approach when you don’t know where everyone is, it’s your turn. What do you do with the man who is hiding in this corner, whose hands you can’t see? Oh, and did you notice the leg protruding in the ceiling? You need to look everywhere

The class on traffic stops, led by Andrew Leird, takes on extra impact just a few days later on May 7, when he is injured on duty. He’s the second officer to be hurt on a traffic stop in a month; Julian Garcia was injured in a crash on April 9. Both were released from the hospital in mid-May, but both are still recuperating.

Each participant is expected to do a ride-along with an officer. On a Saturday afternoon, Sgt. Joshua Brady demonstrates how much information each officer has via a laptop — criminal history, driving and registration records, live maps showing where every officer is at any time. Automated license plate readers notify officers of stolen or wanted vehicles or those with lapsed registrations.

License-plate readers flag an oncoming vehicle whose registration has expired. Brady pulls the Marathon resident over. She tells Brady she had tried to make an insurance payment on her phone but that it had not gone through — and she was driving to a phone repair business when Brady stopped her. 

He can issue a ticket, or give her a verbal or written warning. Generally, he said, he will issue a written warning, because it creates a record, which can increase penalties for a subsequent violation.

“She can’t (say) that she didn’t get knowledge of that fact,” he said after delivering the warning.

If the class that features simulated weapons is fun, the final session on specialty units can rival it. You’ll hear from a member of the dive team, get a close look at the SWAT vehicle, meet the two K-9s and their handlers. And then there’s the bomb squad.

Sgt. Tom Hill leans on the squad’s robot as he talks, explaining the nature of the unit’s calls, the training involved and the range of material they find. 

“I like blowing stuff up,” he said. “It’s one of the perks of the job.”

He asks for a volunteer to try on the protective gear the squad members wear. Nayeli Olavarrieta happily says yes and Hill helps her into the gear — all 100 pounds of it. 

Many calls are to deal with old military explosives, because so much of the Keys has been connected to the military over the years.

“The most common dangerous thing we deal with is commercial-grade fireworks,” said Hill.

At the end of the academy, Olavarrieta and others said they appreciated the chance to get the behind-the-scenes education about the sheriff’s office.

“I joined Citizen’s Police Academy because I have always had an interest in becoming a police officer,” said Olavarrieta, who added that the experience made her more confident in MCSO’s operations. “I’m so thankful I got the opportunity to be a part of this year’s class and see how our sheriff’s department operates to ensure the safety of our community.”

Parra said, “I’m grateful to have met many of the brave men and women who keep our community safe. Thank you for your service!”

George Garrett and his wife took the class. As the longtime city manager of Marathon — and recent recipient of a “ticket” from yours truly — he already knows most of the officers who are involved in the classes. 

“I’m working with those guys all the time,” he said. “But, even then, I learned things during the class that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

That’s the goal, said the sheriff.

“We want to build this relationship with the citizens (so they) know us and see us as their friends,” said Ramsay. “If you don’t know us, you can’t like us, you can’t trust us and you can’t respect us.”

Photos by MIKE HOWIE/Keys Weekly

Mike Howie
Mike Howie has been the copy editor at Keys Weekly since January 2017. Before that, he spent 38 years as a reporter and editor for a daily newspaper in Illinois. He has been a teacher at the elementary, secondary and university levels. He can't swim.