Fairfield hosts training academy for public safety officers

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Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara teaches Critical Incident Management, a course that focused on school shootings and other destructive threats. Photo by Luigi DiMeglio/Managing Editor

Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara teaches Critical Incident Management, a course that focused on school shootings and other destructive threats. Photo by Luigi DiMeglio/Managing Editor

“If you’re wearing an article of clothing, specifically a shirt, that you do not want to be stained or otherwise ruined, do not wear it when you get [pepper] sprayed.”

One trainee broke the tension: “Is nude optional?”

Sgt. Robert Didato reciprocated: “Only if you take a groin shot.”

The ensuing laughter was just a small break from the serious drills done throughout Fairfield University DPS’s fifth annual Campus Public Safety Officer Training Academy. For one week in the summer, officer candidates from other colleges take part in training from campus’ finest and area police officials.

Classes covered topics that would apply to an officer’s everyday responsibilities like patrolling and interviewing suspects. Certain courses also offered certification for trainees.

The afternoon of July 27 was dedicated to a course for pepper spray certification. Trainees at the academy learned how to use the spray in raucous situations – sometimes dealing with up to seven brawlers in this course.

Erika Hodges-Baines, an officer-in-training from Wesley College in Dover, Del., felt the idea of being pepper sprayed brooding over her as she walked toward the training area set up near Lessing Field.

“I’m not excited at all,” she said. She’s been carrying pepper spray for 20 years but her previous job with the New York City Department of Corrections did not require her to be certified. Wesley College public safety does require certification.

The candidates were first given inert spray canisters to practice deployment tactics. Didato and officer Adam Kostuk split the candidates into teams and had some act out fights while others moved in for crowd dispersal.

Director of DPS Todd Pelazza said these exercises were to “get a feel for the spray itself,” and present “different situations you may encounter, whether you would or would not use it.”

When the candidates were sprayed with the real thing, they were instructed to then punch a person 20 times, strike with a baton 10 times, handcuff a person and then fire a fake pistol.

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An officer-in-training, after being pepper sprayed, continues with the obstacle course. Photo by Luigi DiMeglio/The Mirror

Pelazza remembered when he was sprayed for his certification. “It really just goes right into your sinuses and … all you could think about is: ‘I need to breathe. I need to breathe. I need to breathe,’ and every time you inhale it gets harder to breathe because … pepper.”

The academy as a whole was less painful, but still vital.

Fairfield Police Chief Gary MacNamara led one of the more intense classes: Critical Incident Management. The class focused on school shootings and other destructive threats. “I present a simple look at very complicated issues and crises happen around the country so there’s always renewed interest,” MacNamara said. “But my message is really pretty consistent because … it will ultimately occur again and again.

“We always have to be vigilant and alert. Having crisis happen is not a new phenomenon.” He cited the 1927 bombing of a school in Michigan where a worker for the school had planted dynamite in the building. The blast killed 38 students and 5 adults.

MacNamara has led similar courses on dealing with critical incidents for several years on campus. His two-hour presentation focused on looking out for abnormal behavior; he gave examples from events leading up to the tragedies at Virginia Tech, Columbine High School and others.

Pelazza said that the courses offered this summer were largely similar to ones of years past, but one completely new course this summer was Social Networking Investigations.  This subject was led by Sgt. Richard McKeon from Glastonbury, Conn.

Digital forensic investigation has risen with the popularity of social media like Facebook and Twitter; students can get in trouble for what they post on their free time. Three Fairfield students this past spring were referred to student conduct after planning an event on Facebook that encouraged illegal behavior.

“We’ve ironed out what we think is a pretty well rounded curriculum for public safety officers at any school around the country,” Pelazza said.

This year’s academy graduated a dozen officers whereas last year’s was a class of 30. Pelazza said, “I think it’s a reflection on the economy and some other schools. We used to have a big contingent from Quinnipiac, but they’ve hired so many people that they want to run their own academy, so they’ve done that.

This year’s trainees came from Milton Academy, Fairfield, Wesley College, Columbia University, Wesleyan University, Sacred Heart University and University of Hartford.

The academy took place from July 20 to 26 with tuition of $845 per trainee.

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