By: Brian Winfield, CFO, Equality Florida Institute, Inc.
On October 14th, 2016 the Leadership Tampa Class of 2016 was treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the law enforcement infrastructure that forms an awe-inspiring safety net protecting those who live, work and visit the City of Tampa, as well as Hillsborough County and beyond. Before I share that experience, let me back up because our class had important homework to prepare for the day.
Prior to Law Enforcement Day, each member of the Class of LT’16 arranged a ride-a-long with either the Tampa Police Department (TPD), the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), or both. Each ride-a-long is an extraordinary eight to twelve-hour hands-on experience, sitting literally shoulder-to-shoulder with the men and women who protect our community day after day, year after year. And they often do it for decades before retiring at an average age of 47. While many of us envy the thought of retiring at such an early age, less envious is the fact that the average life expectancy for career law enforcement personnel (Officers, Deputies, Troopers) is 60 years.
I approached my ride-a-long experience with both excitement and trepidation, not knowing what to expect. I arrived at the District 3 office of the Tampa Police Department at 7:30PM and was greeted by Lieutenant Neal. He’s about to celebrate his 15-year anniversary with the department. I immediately related to his rookie-year experience as 2001 was also my first full year with Equality Florida. It was a difficult year for the Tampa Police Department as well as Tampa’s LGBT community. Lt. Neal and I recalled that summer and the enormous loss of Tampa Police Officer Lois Merrero who was killed in the line of duty. Her domestic partner and a fellow Tampa Police Officer, Mickey Mashburn, became a unifying figure between the department and our community. I still recall the moment Chief Holder presented Mickey with the flag that draped Lois’ coffin, and he did it in front of thousands of onlookers. Months later, the World Trade Center towers fell in the worst domestic attack on our nation and a new era in law enforcement was about to begin. What a year to be a rookie!
My ride-a-long with Tampa Police Officer Tagliani was enlightening though less eventful than that of some of my classmates. While not the least bit disappointing for me, “Tag” and his fellow patrol officers strongly encouraged me to sign-up again, but this time for a Friday or Saturday night. My experience was exactly what it was meant to be. The lack of unlawful activity on my particular night provided the opportunity to speak with and, in a small way, get to know the officers who patrol my neighborhood and surrounding areas each night. I got to hang with the Victor team of Sector F, District 3, and to see how the entire system of law enforcement hangs on a single crucial element – teamwork. Lastly, it did not escape my notice that many of the officers on night patrol are in their mid-twenties. We ask a lot of our patrol officers, beyond expecting them to run toward danger when everyone else is running away. There’s a certain constant stress of not knowing what is around the next corner, or what the next hour, the next traffic stop, the next call will bring. These folks are brave and I know it helps to know they have each other’s backs when the chips are down.
Moving ahead to Law Enforcement Day, it truly was a day of shock and awe. Our morning tour of the Orient Road Jail could easily have consumed an entire day. The place is enormous, as would be required when you consider that 55,000+ people are processed through its doors annually. We walked through two pods – one low security and one much higher. Many in my group, myself included, found the high security pod downright haunting. Inmates here spend 23 hours per day in their tiny steel and concrete cells. Even the area where they spend their one-hour out of the cell is still all concrete and steel, more reminiscent of a stairwell than a rec room.
After lunching with law enforcement personnel from both the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department, our class jumped back on the bus and we were shuttled a short distance to the TPD’s training center where we got to experience first-hand what it is like to pull someone over and have no idea about what you will encounter. We rode in police training vehicles as highly experienced drivers performed PIT maneuvers. What can best be described as a rollercoaster ride without rails, our ride began by accelerating to 45 miles per hour, backwards, spinning the vehicle around violently, tires screeching and then accelerating again.
The TPD and HCSO truly pulled out all the stops for LT’16, even putting on a SWAT team hostage demonstration, complete with officers rappelling from the roof and into open windows. Also on display was the special teams gear and machinery from bomb-dismantling robots to scuba gear, sharp-shooter rifles, riot gear, and on and on. As the title of this post makes clear, It was an absolutely awe-inspiring day. Now you may be asking yourself, “So where’s the “shock?” That my friend came in the form of being tased. Myself and two other brave souls in my group willingly subjected our bodies to some of the worst physical pain I’ve ever felt. Like the entire day, those 5 seconds won’t be soon forgotten.
On behalf of Leadership Tampa Class of 2016, I’d like to say “Thank You” to everyone who helped to create an amazing experience for us during Law Enforcement Day. More importantly, I want to thank all of the officers, deputies, troopers, corrections officers, etc. who are the backbone of the safety net protecting our community. Thank you for your service!