My job is to tell people about things. But sometimes, you just have to do it yourself.
As journalists, we say we’re in the news business. But I say we’re in the business of understanding. We ask people to help us understand our world so that we can help others understand it, too.
I first covered crime 15 years ago as a (very) young reporter in Milwaukee. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it certainly gave me more tenacity as a journalist.
The cops could be gruff. One lieutenant routinely made me wait at crime scenes for hours only to duck out through an alleyway and jump into her squad. There are rules and laws about getting information from the police, and sometimes they ignored them.
They also could be incredibly open and helpful. Most recognized that we, like they, were trying to best serve our community. We’re on the same side, we often reminded one another.
I eventually moved on, but I told myself that if I ever covered crime again, I’d try to bridge the information gap that sometimes exists between police and the media.
I’d make a point of trying to understand the police better.
A few months after returning to reporting after years as an editor, I got that chance.
I joined about 25 others in the Duluth Police Department’s Citizen Police Academy, a free class each spring that’s open to Duluth residents.
The class ran three hours each Wednesday night for 12 weeks. It wasn’t quite as in-depth as what new police recruits go through, with fewer legal and technical details, but the concepts were all there. Let’s call it the “CliffsNotes version.”
We spent one night learning about crime scene investigations. Another night, we learned from Lt. Bob Shene about how officers’ body cameras work and how the footage is invaluable but not infallible. We spent a night at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center learning about traffic stops. Participants could sign up for ridealongs later this summer.
The training sometimes pulled us seemingly in opposite directions. One week we practiced de-escalation techniques with Sgt. Joel Olejnicak, while another week he and other presenters had us out at the department’s gun range learning how to shoot.
Sometimes the nights were on the lighter side — for instance, watching the bond between officer Marc Johnson and his K-9 partner, Oakley, as they ran through training exercises.
Other nights were more difficult — for instance, listening to investigators Jeanine Pauly and Shanda Braun talk about their work on child solicitation cases and other online crimes against children.
It’s an interesting time for a class like this. We’ve been through Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge. Close to home, we’ve lost Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Justine Ruszczyk, to name just a few.
We’re in a moment where the cultural zeitgeist has police in this country under a microscope, and real questions are — justifiably — being asked about their actions.
But I’m not here to tell you to support or oppose the police, to trust them or doubt them. Instead, please try to take every chance to learn as much as you can. A citizen police academy is just one of many opportunities.
I’d also like to take a moment to recognize that I’m a white, college-educated woman with a degree of privilege in our society, that my interactions with police as a citizen generally have been positive and that I carry my own life experiences as I write this column.
When all is said and done, I suppose journalists really are in the education business. If I convince even one of you to enroll next year and learn something new, then I’m doing my job.
So, I’d like to leave you by sharing five new things I learned in class. There’s a lot more, but you’ll have to go learn for yourself.
1. Duluth police responded to more than 100,000 calls for service last year. Of those, only about 300 — three-tenths of 1 percent — involved any use of force.
“Use of force” in this case refers to anything from an officer simply putting his or her hands on someone all the way up to lethal force, Police Chief Mike Tusken told me recently. Duluth police did not use deadly force in 2018.
2. Duluth police make between 18,000 and 22,000 traffic stops a year, but they only write about 3,000 tickets a year. So your chances of getting a traffic ticket are only about 1-in-6 at best.
“We take every individual situation, we listen to people and make a determination whether we're going to write a ticket or not,” Tusken said. “A lot of times, it’s just education and warnings.”
3. Homeowner’s insurance doesn’t necessarily protect you from being sued if you shoot and injure a would-be burglar in your home, even if it’s in self-defense and even if you have a gun permit. Insurance companies do, however, sell standalone self-defense policies.
4. Unlike states with laws crafted to handle cases of teen “sexting,” Minnesota and Wisconsin punish sexting between minors under child pornography statutes.
It’s happened at least once in Minnesota. A 14-year-old Faribault girl faced a felony charge for distributing child porn after she sent a boy an explicit photo of herself on Snapchat. (The case against her was later dismissed.)
5. Duluth police officers record between 250 and 400 body camera videos each day. The department stores more than 75,000 videos on Evidence.com — about 24,000 gigabytes of data, or about 5,100 DVDs.
Stick with me here: Evidence.com itself, which hosts body camera videos from dozens of agencies, has 6 acres of physical storage for about 40 petabytes of videos. For scale, that’s about 12 times as large as Netflix’s entire library, or about 8.5 million DVDs of data.
I admit I was tickled to hear that neither Tusken nor Olejnicak knew that last bit of trivia. It’s always fun to teach the teachers.
Now, if we could only get a few of them downtown for some “News Tribune Academy” sessions. Our press badges aren’t as shiny as yours, but we take the responsibilities they carry just as seriously.
Adelie Bergstrom covers crime and courts, higher education and women's and LGBT issues for the News Tribune. Reach her at (218) 720-4154 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more
The Duluth Police Department will hold its next Citizen Police Academy in March 2020 at the St. Louis County Public Safety Building on Arlington Avenue. To apply, contact Investigator Mike Peterson at 218-730-5664.
The Superior Police Department also has its own academy for Superior residents. Call the department at 715-395-7450 to learn more.