Tisbury asks you to release your inner cop
Driving down Beach Road toward Vineyard Haven at 2 am, the dark green Ford Explorer in front of me is weaving back and forth. I turn on my patrol car's flashing blue lights, and as the SUV slows to a stop, I pull in about 20 feet behind it.
I approach the stopped vehicle, walking in front of the patrol car, which I parked about three feet further out into the road, forming a "corridor" to protect me from traffic.
Using the light from the heavy black flashlight in my left hand, I realize with a sinking heart the odds are not in my favor: three of them, one of me.
The walk to the back of the Explorer seems like it takes forever. I shine the light in the rear compartment and reach down to give the tailgate a push, just in case it is unlocked and someone is waiting to spring. Then I start to breathe again.
Graduation night for the Tisbury Police Department's citizen police academy, class of 2005. From left, police chief Ted Saulnier, Peter Hefler, Denys Wortman, Janet Hefler, Cynthia Riggs, Barbara Linton, and Bill Mill.
Approaching the driver 's window, adrenaline kicks my heart rate up as I remember words from my training: There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop.
Before I reach the driver's window to ask for his registration and identification, three doors fly open and three men jump out.
As the driver moves towards me, I start backing up, catching sight of the other two men moving quickly around from the other side. They are unarmed but fire a barrage of questions at me: What time is the next boat? When is high tide? How do we get to Edgartown?
Distracted by their casual-sounding patter, I realize too late that they have surrounded me.
My mind shouts, "Do something," while I stand frozen in indecision. Eyes wide, I manage to croak out one word: Help!
Ted Saulnier, Tisbury's chief of police, quickly moves out of the shadows and comes to my rescue. Taking me by the elbow, he instructs me in a low voice to start walking backwards, all the while assuring the three men in a friendly, soothing voice that we will get some information for them from the patrol car.
Tension broken, I join in laughter with the three "menacing" men, who are really police officers, along with the chief and my fellow civilian "officers" in Tisbury's citizens police academy.
In reality, the patrol car and SUV are staged in the Park and Ride lot, where our class on Patrol Procedures gives the six of us a chance to be on the other side of the badge, uttering those dreaded words, "License and registration, please." Although some of the scenarios we enacted seemed bizarre, Chief Saulnier emphasized that each one really happened to a Tisbury police officer.
The citizens police academy ran for six weeks from Jan. 11 to Feb. 15 on Wednesday nights at the Tisbury police station in Vineyard Haven. This was the second year for the program, offered free of charge and funded through a community policing grant.
Chief Saulnier and several Tisbury police officers collaborated in teaching the two-hour classes, each according to his specialty. Topics included juvenile justice by Officer Frank Williams, criminal investigation by Detective Mark Santon, motor vehicle law by Officer Dan Hanavan and firearm safety by Officer Tim Stobie.
Chief Saulnier provided an overview on all the topics, as well as a wealth of legal information gained from his dual experience as a lawyer after passing the bar exam in 1992.
Delayed by a traffic accident on his way to our first class, Chief Saulnier said his late arrival should serve as an example for our first lesson in police work: anything can happen at any time. Throughout our classes, he reminded us that Martha's Vineyard has the same crimes as anywhere else. The difference is in the volume.
Class members included Cynthia Riggs, a mystery novelist, Bill Mill, a retired journalist whose three children work in law enforcement, Denys Wortman, MVTV president, Barbara Linton, a folktale writer, and Pete Hefler, a retired transit manager (and Times reporter support staff).
The small class size and informal setting offered us the opportunity to ask plenty of questions. Summoning up my courage one night, I finally asked a roomful of police officers something everyone wonders but is afraid to ask: Is it an urban legend you have a quota for the number of traffic tickets you write? They answered in unison with an emphatic "yes."
Eager to quiz Chief Saulnier on the latest crime scene investigation technology, there was a collective sigh as he told us, "Whenever you mention C.S.I., the answer is, 'No, we don't.'"
However, he and the other officers did not disappoint us, regaling us with anecdotes that rivaled any of television's fictional police shows. I know I will never look at another grilled cheese sandwich without seeing it as a possible weapon in an assault and battery case.
Chief Saulnier topped them all with the tale of his most startling traffic stop. After pulling over a woman for speeding and driving erratically, he said there were two questions he had to ask: "Why were you speeding? And why are you naked?" She explained that she had just finished her waitress shift and was trying to change out of her uniform - while driving - so she could make it in time for "last call" at a nearby bar. Chief Saulnier caught her in mid-change.
The academy ended last week with a graduation ceremony, complete with certificates from Chief Saulnier. Although we only walked a few steps in our police officers' shoes, I left our classes with an appreciation of how big they are to fill.