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Bridgeport Police Academy trainings give cadets ‘closest thing to real life’ on the streets

September 18, 2016

The smoke of the shots is real, as are the sounds of gunfire that goes pop, pop, pop, exploding in all directions across this third-story classroom of the Bridgeport Police Academy.Before graduation on Monday, the officer recruits of class 37 take part in one of the last academy exercises meant to prepare them to patrol the streets.Waiting outside the building for her turn, recruit Margaret Farkas doesn’t know the scenario, loosely based on a 2009 Portland shooting a man entered a cafe and killed four officers as they worked on laptops before a shift.“This is my first time ever doing this,” Farkas says. “I’m a little nervous.“Back upstairs on the sidelines of the classroom, Sgt. Sean Lynch has taken a day away from patrol.“Range is hot,” he says, as the recruit playing armed officer—the one really under pressure—is led to the room with a towel over their head.Everyone wears gloves and a protective head covering looking like a fencing mask, except with a broad plastic visor and a black breathing apparatus instead of a wire mesh. The blue training pistols carry interchangeable clips and soft rubber rounds of ammunition.They’re also wearing jock cups over their pants.But it’s not time to laugh at the outfits. The towel comes off and the first thing the recruit sees is a waiter, asking for an order.“I’ll have a cheeseburger,” the recruit says, trying to figure out which of the many entrances and people in the room might be a threat, or if there even is one.And then pop pop pop—a shooter played by another officer enters from behind the recruit and pellets the waiter, who falls to the floor.Despite the pressure, adrenaline, and heat, it’s one of the more fun exercises after months of training, maybe on par with the high-speed driving course.There was the day that each recruit was electrocuted with a stun gun, or the day they went home puffy-eyed from a dose of pepper spray whose burn didn’t go away for about two days.Everyone has had their most challenging day.“For me it was the water safety,” Farika says, laughing at recalling how uncomfortable the pool tests were for her.Farika is good at a lot of things, like martial arts and advanced first aid. But swimming is not her strong suit.Treading in water for 12 minutes was hard. So was diving to the bottom of the pool and bringing up a heavy brick.But she did it, “regardless of like, I choked up a little water,” she says.That literal brick was just one in a longer figurative road.She found a key mentor (“she’s like a mother to me—since my mom passed; she’s a Bridgeport cop”), studied a lot, and balanced EMT and CNA training with security guard jobs that bolstered her resume.Thirty other recruits officially graduate Monday, each with their own story.It’s a diverse class, with nine women and a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds.Flags on a poster inside the academy allude to their immigrant heritage—Jamaica for one, Vietnam for another and Brazil and Hungry for Farkas.In three separate runs of the “simunitions” shooting drill, the recruits make what Lynch later identifies as the correct decision. They open fire on the shooter.“Engage. Engage. Engage,” says Lynch, to a recruit who fumbles for their stun gun instead of returning fire with the pistol.Tasers might work in some situations, but this isn’t one of them. Lynch’s voice is omnipresent, a cross between a god, a dispatcher, and a coach.“Do you need backup? What do you need?” Lynch asks, prompting the recruit to request a medic from an imaginary dispatcher.Even after it’s over, their heart rate is up and they’re sweating. None of them can remember how many shots they’ve fired.Lynch explains to recruits that despite being based on a real shooting scenario, this kind of clear-cut use of force is exceedingly rare.“If you were just a hammer and every problem were a nail, this would be easy,” Lynch explains to the recruit who went for the stun gun. Police work, he says, is about problem solving.In another scenario later in the day, the recruits will practice not using lethal force.Farkas hopes that the mistakes made here won’t happen in the real world.“It’s the closest thing to real life and I feel like whatever flaws you commit here it would benefit you because you won’t do it on the road,” she says.Before they head out on the road for the next phase of their career, they’ll savor the milestone.“We’re just very happy to be graduating. Everyone is doing their own little thing... a lot of people just want to be with their families.“Print readers can view a video of the training at this web address: http://bit.ly/2cxOPz4.cattanasio@ctpost.com / @viacedar