Jul 28, 2014
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The Real COPS: A Look Behind the Scenes at the Santa Cruz Citizens Police Academy

This civilian academy is a way to peel back the curtains and see what cops really do and why. This is Part One of a series.


For something so exotic, so prized and so expensive, a kilo of cocaine looks pretty ordinary.

Hardened, white and chunky in its plastic bag, it resembles nothing more glamorous than powdered laundry detergent that got a bit wet and clingy.

However, on the streets of Santa Cruz this bag would sell for $20,000 and up. In San Francisco, you could add another $5,000 to the value.

It was passed around an unusual class Tuesday night in which members of the community were trained by police officers about what it means to be a cop.

"I don't want to see any of this leave the room," said Bill Azua, a burly narcotics cop who has been busting people for selling drugs for a decade and a half.

It didn't appear to have crossed anyone's mind, but was our teacher, Sgt. Mike Harms, standing unusually close to the door? I guess you can't be too careful.

This was Day Two of my 10 weeks of training with the Santa Cruz Police Department's citizens academy. And I have to say, it's starting off as a blast. It's not only informative, but it's a lot of fun to interact with both cops and the 30 or so students from all over the community who are taking the class.

They include a realtor, some teachers, an officer with the Red Cross, a principal, a school enforcement officer, an Air Force reservist, a neighborhood watch advocate and for making the best sandwich in Santa Cruz.

Many are here for the same reasons, it sounds like when we introduce ourselves. They want to know what police do and how to help keep themselves and their families safe. They range in age from healthy teens to folks who are...well, let's say they are too old to do the obstacle course.

But there's a real feeling of community. Most of them are Santa Cruz natives or people who love the city and want to see what they can do to help.

The course includes shooting guns, driving police cars and being attacked by police dogs, all hands-on ways to see an officer's life.

"Transparency is important to me as police chief," said Kevin Vogel, who has held that job for a little more than a year. "I don't want people driving by like it's Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and no one knows what goes on inside. This is not my police department. It's yours and it belongs to the community."

Other departments, including San Jose Police, have had similar programs, but dropped them in the recent budget crunch. Vogel has fought to keep his and gotten some economic benefit from it as a recruiting ground.

Most of the 24 volunteers who help around the police department started here. They do mundane jobs so that sworn officers can do the more skilled one.

Two of the three Santa Cruz officers hired over the past two weeks – a woman in her 30s and a man in his 20s – started at the civilian academy, then volunteered, and now have made the big leap into active duty after they finish training at the real police academy.

"I don't want anyone leaving with any unanswered questions," Vogel told the class.

They have plenty.

They ask motorcycle officer Jeff Auldridge if he's ever gotten a ticket and fought it. (Yes, he's gotten one. No, he didn't fight it because he knew he was wrong.)

They ask how they can talk a cop out of giving them a ticket. (If the officer is in all brown, forget it, he says, referring to the CHP. That's all they have to do is write tickets. If the officer is in brown and green (as in the Sheriff's Department) they may let you go if they have to get to a bigger crime. If he's in blue (SCPD), it could go either way.)

They ask him if he rides his motorcycle in the rain. He doesn't, much. Not because it's dangerous to ride, but hard to write a ticket when its wet.

They even ask if enforcing traffic gave him his grey hair. He tells them it's hereditary.

There is no sacred ground here and few secrets.

Among the more serious lessons he gives is one on using radar to stop speeders. Officers have to use tuning forks for five minutes before and after each session with the radar gun to tune it up and make sure it is reading accurately.

They also must pass a test where they estimate the speed a car is traveling without the gun. They have to develop the skill to be as effective in estimating the speed as the machine is.

It's a lot of labor. Same with narcotics enforcement.

Officer Azua explains that he spent a month working up to confiscating that large bag of cocaine. His best research tool was a dealer's cell phone. From the texts on it, he cracked the drug codes that told him where dealers of small packages of drugs were getting supplied.

"It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience," he says. "These people don't like to advertise where they are."

Azua passed around blue Ecstacy tablets with dolphins imprinted on them and a baggie of brown methamphetamine.

"Why do you think drug dealers like to visit Santa Cruz?" he asked."It's UCSC. Those kids have money and they like to party on the weekends."

Azua says one of his most fertile grounds for busting drug dealers is in a place you'd never expect it: malls and shopping centers. Places where people congregate and can blend in with a crowd. After he became a drug officer, he never looked at a mall the same way.

That prompted many to think about their own kids.

"How do I tell my students that this isn't so glamorous and it's not an easy way to make a lot of money?" asked a teacher.

"You just have to make sure they do the right thing all the time," said Azua, who was brought up around the once drug-infested Beach Flats and spent five years there cleaning it up.

Azua said he vigilantly monitors his own teenaged daughter, looking at her cell phone texts, checking out her eyes for signs of dilated pupils or inflamed whites, and even going through her trash can.

"A kid will remember to hide a pipe or drugs, but they will throw away the foil wrappers the drugs came in. You can find them."

He also has her in sports and goes to her games and practices and stays close with her that way, thinking that by keeping her involved in healthy things, she won't be tempted by the darker ones around her.

Someone asks if some neighborhoods in Santa Cruz are worse than others for drugs.

"No, they are everywhere," he says. "There may be different drugs in different neighborhoods, but they are all over."

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