Third in a series
The call to the dispatcher was routine: 10-38, a vehicle stop.
Putting down the microphone and stepping out of the cruiser into the cold night air, Diane Wohlleb first looked up at the Crown Victoria stopped ahead of her, then turned her attention to her flashlight, which was flickering. In an instant, the seemingly routine event turned potentially deadly, as the driver of the stopped car lunged toward her, covering 20 feet of pavement in seconds.
"I didn't know what to expect at all," Wohlleb said later, admitting that the flashlight distracted her. "I didn't think it could be so dangerous."
Lucky for Wohlleb, the man chasing her was a police officer posing as a belligerent driver, and the scenario was nothing more than a staged exercise during the fourth week of Prince William County's Citizens Police Academy. The fear, however, was quite real.
"You never know what you're going to get when you stop a car or approach someone on the street," said Officer Chris Feather, an accident investigator with county police. "You have to be prepared for anything, and we try to be."
Feather, who spoke about the department's patrol services division, helped to lead what has so far been the most interactive session of the 12-part academy. After getting very basic instructions, residents were thrust into realistic patrol situations and were essentially left to fend for themselves, learning in the process that every situation has the potential to be life-threatening.
Wohlleb's run through a traffic stop was perhaps the most alarming example of how things can go wrong in a hurry, but other residents who played the role of police officer also were faced with examples of drivers with guns, drunken drivers and even just a hostile driver, all of whom put police officers in harm's way on a daily basis.
"This is life, and life throws you curves," Feather said.
He demonstrated how police officers routinely touch the trunk of the cars they approach so they can make sure no one is going to jump out of the trunk, and to leave their fingerprints on the car in case the driver attempts to harm the officer and get away.
Members of the academy were put into three other potentially hostile situations in which they assumed the role of police officers while real officers played suspects and victims.
In one scenario, a pair of officers approach a man who is believed to have robbed a convenience store the night before, and the officers are charged with learning his identity and making sure he is not armed. Seemingly an easy task, but several of the "officers" ended up "dead" after failing to find a hidden gun, which they missed by either being distracted or by getting too close to the suspects.
In another scene, Lt. Michael Cahill, who is in charge of patrol services, was having an argument with his "wife," prompting a domestic relations call to police. Upon arrival, Cahill was throwing objects across the room, screaming and falling on the floor.
The main instruction to officers: Keep the parties away from each other and make sure that the suspect doesn't have access to anything that could be used as a weapon. In one instance, Cahill picked up a fork from a kitchen table and "stabbed" both officers as they were trying to control the scene.
"One of the most difficult aspects of dealing with domestic calls is that you never know what is going on inside that house," said Officer Bill Anzenberger, who led residents through the scene. "In just a few moments, you have to decide who it is that is committing a crime, who is a danger and who is a victim, all while protecting yourself."
Wohlleb, of Occoquan, said that she wasn't thrilled about participating in the exercises, but that she really enjoyed watching them. She said she saw seemingly mundane police activities in a new light.
"You definitely appreciate what they're doing," she said. "It is not easy."
Staff writer Josh White is attending the Citizens Police Academy. His reports will appear every other week.