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Marie Nitke/FOCUS Citizen's Academy members Jerry Peterson and Josh Anderson prepare to spot Dave Harper during his tasing. Afterwards, Harper laughed and admitted, "That hurt!"

Citizen's Academy: A rare look 'behind the badge'

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"Don't worry, it only hurts a lot."

Those were the reassuring words of a grinning Lieutenant Barry Fitzgibbons, speaking last Wednesday night to a room full of nervously excited people who were about to get tased.

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The group of roughly 25 area residents was gathered at the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Department's Operations Center in Ottertail. It was their last night of Citizen's Academy, a two-hour-a-week, 8-week long class that gives the public a thorough peek into the world of law enforcement - and the taser demonstration was their last chance for a first-hand experience.

While about half the class sat this one out, several brave souls volunteered. What they were in for was just a taste of the full 5-second tasing that police would use in a real, threatening situation. Most in the class were tased for just a fraction of a second - but the painful jolt of electricity was still enough to make them shout out, get buggy-eyed, and, in one case, fall over backwards.

"That's got a bite to it!" laughed Josh Anderson of Henning after getting back onto his feet. "It felt like someone kicked my leg out from under me."

Other class members who dared to be tased had similar things to say, reporting a surprising amount of hurt from that seemingly small shock.

"It was like my leg just came out from under me," said Mary Peterson, who lives near Underwood and attended last week's class with her husband, Jerry. "Like it went numb."

Still, after that split second was over, those tased said they went back to feeling completely normal again - happy, healthy, and joking around with their fellow members of the Academy.

Fitzgibbons and Detective Dion Bredman, both of the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Department, have been leading the local program since 2008. They assured the participants at last week's class that the taser demonstration was safe. Two spotters helped ensure that those being tased would stay standing, or at least fall softly. They stood on a mat just in case.

Contrary to some media reports, Bredman said, taser guns are safer than other methods of restraint, reducing injuries and preventing the need for use of deadly force. 

Tasers use electricity to incapacitate a person, producing a temporary physiological effect. When the shock is cut off, the pain is gone - but the memory of it (or in some cases, the mere threat of it) is enough to keep disorderly people in line, without the use of other weapons that could cause serious physical damage, like nightsticks and firearms.

The whole point of the demo was simply to give the class a better understanding of what it means to be tased, and of what tasing does.

That's very similar to the point of the Academy itself, which is to give the public a better understanding of what it means to work in law enforcement and other emergency services, and of what those in that field really do.

"It's not like you see on TV," commented Dave Harper, a participant from New York Mills, adding that he has a whole new respect for the field after taking these classes.

Through memorable hands-on demonstrations and a variety of guest speakers, Academy members learn what goes on behind the scenes of 9-1-1 calls and other emergency situations. They've spoken to a member of the area dive team, met a judge, talked to crime scene technicians, toured the county dispatch center in Fergus Falls, and - oh yeah - got to "shoot the Sheriff."

In a demo of a felony hostage situation, explained Harper, class members played the 'good guys' while Lt. Fitzgibbons acted out the role of an armed person posing a threat to himself and others. It was up to the participants to judge whether and when the situation called for the use of deadly force. In Harper's case, the 'threatening individual' (Fitzgibbons) got too close, and the 'officer' (Harper) needed to act. Using an air soft gun, he shot Fitzgibbons six times.

While the exercise was a "fun" and "amazing" experience for Harper, he admitted that, "I wasn't ready for it (emotionally). I thought I was, but I wasn't. I wasn't sure I did the right thing... But Barry (Fitzgibbons) told me it was a good shoot."

Margie Thieschafer, who brought her husband and two daughters along to the last class to show them what the Academy was all about, was also a fan of the shooting simulator, calling it "an adrenaline rush." In addition to that, she said she liked the class for its honesty: "They let us ask them anything; they give us good, straight answers."

"It's all eye-opening," said Cheryl Maslow of Battle Lake, who has been taking the class with her husband, Don. "I've learned about a lot of things that I never heard about before and didn't have to worry about, because they (law enforcement and emergency services personnel) take care of it. It's nice to know they're there. They're very efficient. Much more than I realized."

All the participants said they learned a lot from the class. On the flip side, Bredman said the sheriff's department gets a lot out of it, as well, providing them an opportunity to communicate with the public in a positive and meaningful way. 

"I view this class as a partnership," he said to the Academy members. "A lot of what we do, we can't do without you guys. Whether it's calling in burglaries or other suspicious activity... now, hopefully you'll have a better understanding of who you'll be calling and how that all works."

"Without the support of the community, we couldn't do our job," said Sheriff Brian Schlueter, who spoke to the class as part of their graduation ceremony last week. "This is part of that partnership, a way to give people a peek into the process."

The Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office offers Citizen's Academy every spring. For more information, visit www.co.otter-tail.mn.us/sheriff/citizensacademy.php or call 218-998-8555.

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