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Military veterans in the Plano Police Department

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“Some people say it’s dangerous. We say it’s exciting.” This is how Officer Mike Bogacki of the Plano Police Department describes a technique for landing on top of buildings by sliding unharnessed down a 40-foot rope suspended from a helicopter. Officer Bogacki introduced this Special Operations exercise, known as Fast Rope Insertion, to the Plano S.W.A.T. team by drawing on his prior experience in the U. S. Army 75th Ranger Regiment. Fast roping enables officers responding to a threat to access the rooftop of any building, including the burgeoning number of new high-rises in Plano, within seconds. It’s faster than the alternative, which is scaling the outside of the building.

The application of military knowledge to the evolving protection needs of our local citizens is just one benefit of the presence of veterans within the ranks of the Plano Police Department. About 25 percent of Plano’s sworn officers are former service members. As a career choice after separation from the military, security services are a natural fit for many veterans.

Chief of Police Gregory Rushin is a veteran of the Air National Guard. “We think the military is a great training ground for people in law enforcement,” he says. “It gives them a lot of advantages. In Plano, we require a four-year college degree for police recruits, but we do give two years’ credit for three years of military experience. That’s our way of recognizing that there is a valuable learning factor in military service. Veterans fit in really well to the organization.”

Assistant Chief of Police Brad Fortune, a former transportation logistics specialist with the U.S. Marine Corps, also welcomes recruits with a military background. “They have a mission-focus that’s essential to good policing,” Assistant Chief Fortune says. “They’re also usually much more experienced in handling weapons than our college recruits.”

Fortune underscores another advantage veterans bring to community policing: “The military provides them life experiences and structure that folks who went straight from high school to college to law enforcement have not experienced. In the military, you are forced to get along with many diverse people, which is directly applicable to the environment that police officers have to be in. Our officers need to go into the community and be able to communicate with folks who are completely different from them. And to be equal in the application of the law.”R

Detective Keith Ellis of Plano CID Vehicle Crimes Unit concurs. In the U. S. Army, Detective Ellis was a maintenance specialist. He was activated for Operation Desert Storm for nine months, where, he jokes, he was a “combat power generator repairman.”

In Ellis’s view, “We work with all kinds of people, all cultures. In the military there’s people from all over the world, and right here in Plano there’s people from all over the world. Even our coworkers are from everywhere. All genders, all races. We all just work together as a unit.”

Assistant Chief Fortune explains further. “If you have someone who has a little bit more life experience talking to the community, which is made up of people from different walks of life and cultures, then that person’s more able to adapt and learn how to be out here on the street. When things get a little heated or challenging they have the ability to calm themselves, de-escalate things, and communicate on a human level.”

The power of being able to collaborate effectively across the community is exemplified by the success of the police task force assembled in the 1990s to combat the scourge of heroin use among Plano teens. As overdoses and deaths seemed to spiral out of control in the otherwise upwardly mobile population, Sergeant A. D. Paul, currently of the Plano Police School Resource Division and a former U. S. Air Force security specialist, brought his experience to bear on the crisis. Working hand-in-glove with every sector of the community was a cornerstone of Sergeant Paul’s approach.

“We addressed the problem aggressively, and I give credit to the citizens for helping to solve it,” he says. Community education and encouraging parents to talk to their kids were key tactics in the strategy. Undercover work, stings, rounding up dealers and shutting down sources—in other words, solid police work—were also part of the effort. “We put a lot of people in prison,” Sergeant Paul recalls with satisfaction.

There was no clear-cut answer to the heroin crisis when Sergeant Paul stepped up. It seemed like a unique problem in a city like Plano. In this case, the ability to think laterally—which is instilled in police training—came to the fore.

“There’s no discretion at all in the military, it’s all black and white. You follow every single rule and there’s no leniency for anything,” Sergeant Christer Matthews says. Matthews works in the Crimes Against Persons (CAPERS) Division. He was formerly a U. S. Air Force Lieutenant serving in the combined Security Forces, which encompassed security police and law enforcement specialists. He remembers that when he separated from the military and joined the police, he was still very rigid in his approach to the job.

Officer Bogacki expands on the qualities veterans need to develop in their police training. “Out here in policing, things are changing constantly during an incident. You need discretion, you need to develop a little bit more of a personality instead of being a robot. You can’t just do what the sergeant said, you have to decide the best actions in the circumstance. You have to use initiative.”

Sergeant Paul agrees. “Having that emotional intelligence and the ability to think outside the box, and to realize especially during a dynamic or tactical situation that there are different options, that’s where the police training helped me a lot. Plano’s always had the ability to train our people to apply the law, to apply the codes, procedure and policy, but they also give you latitude. So you can use innovation and creativity to get to where you need to go—to get a confession or to help a victim or to work a crash or whatever happened. S.W.A.T. always has to adapt; it rarely goes as expected.”

“Pretty much never,” Bogacki laughs.

The core values these veterans acquired in the military stay with them. “You enter the military very young, full of narcissism,” Paul says. “But the military instills in you that there’s something bigger than yourself—national security and our missions. Coming into the police department, that piece is easy. Whatever the mission statement of the police department is, that’s what we do.”

Detective Ellis puts it this way: “Our police work is paramilitary. We get discipline in the military that a regular citizen wouldn’t get. That helps with our security jobs. If you’re military, you understand that mission.”

Hypervigilance is a trait often picked up in military service, especially by those who have been activated in war zones. Hypervigilance, or combat alertness, saves lives in an environment where a piece of apparent litter on a roadside may conceal an IED. In civilian life, such extreme dangers are unlikely to be encountered. But Plano officers readily admit to a level of hypervigilance that never deserts them, even off-duty. “It’s not paranoia, it’s training,” one says.

According to Sergeant Matthews, after months of constant combat alertness, the transition back to the States is “insane. You don’t want a car driving near you, and if a car comes up fast behind you, your instinct is to go as fast as you can. It translates very well into what we do as police officers, because every traffic stop, every domestic violence call, is a very dangerous situation, with the potential to become violent, even deadly for the officer.

“We’ve done a very good job of teaching our officers the coping skills that have been brought over from the military. I think it attracts police recruits coming over from the military too, because you get the adrenaline—chasing drunks on the highway. It took me a few years to realize that’s what I was doing. It’s almost like being an addict.”

Sergeant Matthews explains that along with that high level of alertness comes the tactical planning that runs constantly through an officer’s mind. “When you’re going to that call, you have whatever information you have, and you’re running scenarios. ‘OK, what am I going to do if I run into this?’ That’s something you do on deployment. You go over the routes and pre-plan for all the contingencies. That’s been incorporated very well into Plano and how we operate. I tell my recruits, if it’s legal and ethical and within policy, it’s okay. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Especially when I have really young officers who are still learning to use that discretion. That’s something that comes from experience, like prior experience in the military and experience here as well.”

Detective Ellis reveals that situational awareness and running mental scenarios don’t stop when the officers are off duty. “It becomes part of us,” he says. “Even when you go out with your family to the movies, you’re always considering what clothes can you wear to cover your weapon, where should you sit where you can see the exits? I have to be in a tactical position all the time. I’m not going to be sitting right in the middle of a crowd if I might have to protect those people. I’m on the end, or I’m standing by the fence at a ball game. I need to be able to maneuver. Going back to the military and transition over to police work, it’s a maturity level; you have to have wisdom. You’re dealing with people’s lives daily, hourly. That level of alertness just doesn’t go away.”

Officer Russ Harris of the Plano Police Motorcycle Traffic Division, a former Captain in the U.S. Army, joined the police department in Natchitoches, Louisiana right out of college, and later enlisted in the military.

Describing his early police experience, Officer Harris says, “I worked in a rough neighborhood—I actually took more small arms fire as a police officer in Louisiana than I did in Iraq. Working in the Projects, just driving down the street sometimes, people would take potshots at us. In Iraq they just kept trying to blow us up. They wouldn’t shoot at us because we’d shoot back. The insurgents’ tactics were to detonate bombs or shoot mortars at us … or Russian-made 122mm rockets, which make a big boom.”

It’s the danger faced almost daily by military personnel and police officers that ties them together in a web of mutual protection. “It’s a bond of loyalty,” Harris says. “That’s another similarity of the military and the police. You’re in a tight-knit group. If one of you gets into something, all of you want to be there. That’s an easy transition—it’s the camaraderie, the team concept. If one of you is in danger, it’s going to rain the rest of your crew or your team or your platoon on that situation.

“We’re family. Any family is going to have some arguments and disagreements but nobody else is going to mess with your family.”

Service members and police officers alike have a deep-seated drive to protect the weak and innocent from aggression. Officer Harris discovered this trait in himself as a youth when he confronted a bully who’d been tormenting his friends. “I was able to overcome my fear of fighting this bigger kid for a better cause. I knew it was going to be painful. You can’t always control your fear completely but you can push it to the background and focus on the task that needs to be done.”

Chief Rushin says, “This is a great career, it’s very rewarding, but of course you see some of the worst things in our society. You see tragedy, you see loss, you see death. You see children and the elderly involved. It’s very difficult. People who get into this job do it because they care. They have to care. They have to have a heart for people.”

That heart is the force behind the motto “to serve and protect,” and Harris sums it up neatly: “We choose to be the sheepdog. We keep an eye on the flock. If a wolf starts to mess with the flock, we’re there.”

Assistant Chief Fortune serves as the Plano Police Department’s military liaison officer. He maintains contact with officers who are reservists on active duty. “My main responsibility is checking with them, seeing how they’re doing, how their family’s doing. We’re still brothers, even though they’re gone.”

Fortune ensures the officers are fully fit to resume policing when they leave active duty. “We look at how long they’ve been gone, and what they’ve missed from a required courses perspective for certification. Depending what they did in the military, we want to make sure they’re comfortable going back on the streets. We’ll do that in the training environment, but also talking to them, making sure they’re good to go.”

Chief Rushin adds, “In the military, there are rules of engagement defining how and when you would engage and actually fire at a target. Their rules of engagement are totally different than ours, obviously. When our people come back from a combat mission we’ve got to be sure that we retrain them.

“In a war, there are combatants. Here in our community, there are no combatants, only citizens. There are people that break the law, but you still have to show them the utmost dignity and respect and try to use the least amount of force.”

Above all, Chief Rushin strives for diversity in the agency. “If they were all people from college or all people from the military or all people from the business or education sectors, it wouldn’t work as well. You’ve got to have that diversity of backgrounds to make it the best police department you can. When you put them all together you have a rich tapestry that mirrors the community. They can help one another and they grow and learn better if they do have that diversity. At the end I think you’re going to see a better recruit coming out.”

As men and women whose mission it is to run toward the sort of dangers the average civilian runs away from, the worst may happen, and occasionally, one pays the ultimate price. When there has been a line of duty death, officers draw even closer together in mourning.

Assistant Chief Fortune has oversight of the Plano Police Honor Guard, and Officer Harris is a long-standing member. Half of the Honor Guard is made up of military veterans.

The Honor Guard supports funerals, memorials, veterans’ observances and other solemn occasions in Plano and the greater area. They are often joined in solidarity by Honor Guards from other cities and agencies, especially Plano Fire-Rescue, to pay tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, or who have passed on after distinguished careers in public service.

It is considered a privilege to be part of this elite team. The long hours of additional drilling and practice are given freely, for one simple yet profound reason.

“We do it for the families.”

Cynthia Edwards

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