NORWALK, Conn. A green bolt shimmered in the mouth of a Taser held high in the hand of Lt. Brian Cunningham on Monday night at Norwalk Police headquarters. Taser barbs passed from hand to hand. An expandable steel baton impressed civilians, who thought it heavy and capable of inflicting much damage.
The second class of the 10-week Police Academy focused on training techniques before moving into weaponry and nonlethal force, a natural segue from the talk of the physical training new recruits go through in Meriden. They discussed the process of applying to become an officer and the requirements.
The class was supposed to see the police firing range, just down the hall from the second-floor classroom, but instructors ran out of time because of the many questions.
"What's the single most item that knocks people out" of consideration for a job? one man asked.
"The polygraph test," Cunningham said.
"So if I smoked pot in high school I should fess up?" asked another student, a senior citizen like most of the 29 civilians in the room. The answer was yes.
Other requirements for would-be police officers include passing the Cooper Institute physical performance standard. In response to a question, Cunningham said the Norwalk Police Department is authorized for 182 officers but has never reached that level. Currently, the department's funding is for 176 officers.
When the department advertised for new officers last year, nearly 400 people took the written test, Cunningham said, the most ever. All passed the physical exam first the department used to offer the written exam before winnowing out candidates not up to the task physically. The department has since hired six officers, according to its Facebook page, three of whom were transfers from other departments.
After graduating from the Police Academy and going through at least 10 weeks of in-field training, new officers who pass their final evaluation are permitted to go on solo patrol. They must complete 60 hours of additional training every three years to retain their certification.
Disturbances are the top call police respond to, according to Officer Corey Vento. As he spoke, Officer Carleton Giles handed out modern-day batons. The steel version of what had been a nightstick comes in three segments, which fold together to make a compact unit that can hang off an officer's tool belt. "You can carry it on your belt at all times instead of leaving it in the car," Cunningham said.
"It's not just a goon stick," Vento said. "People actually get trained how to use this appropriately. ... It's not just, 'OK, here you are, go outside and play with it.' There's a little bit more to it than that. We spend many, many hours getting these things right."
Giles handed out an empty oleoresin capsicum (O.C.) container commonly known as pepper spray. But the officers agreed the weapon isn't used much anymore. The Taser, a "super, super effective tool," according to Vento, is generally preferred. "It's probably the closest thing we have ever seen to a magic bullet, or that we will ever see," he said.
Taser is a brand name for an electronic shock weapon, and they are carried by nearly every Norwalk police officer. The Taser is powered by two 3-volt batteries delivering a 50,000-watt charge and cannot electrocute anyone, despite what some Hollywood movies have shown, officers said.
"Every once in a while you read a story in the paper about a Taser being used with no effect," a student said. "How does that happen?"
"A lot of times it's how the Taser was used," Cunningham said. "They didn't get good contact with the probes, they might have been too close, didn't get the right spread, didn't affect the right muscle groups. It shoots two probes out, two darts, and if one of them doesn't get contact good it's not going to have the same effect."
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