“Love the aggression.”
This is supposed to be the fun part: Screaming sirens, strobing lights, steering cars through quick turns.
But orange cones are everywhere. “Bad guys” are getting away. Coaches are yelling, stressing out the recruits.
The cadets are beside the vast driving range at the St. Petersburg police academy, alternating through the “pursuit” course: Four-point turns in tight intersections, racing through gravel, then along wet pavement, backing up through cones at 35 mph, screeching to sudden stops.
A coach rides with each recruit, watching their maneuvers, offering advice — and angry criticism. “What are you thinking? If you do that out there, you’ll die!”
It’s a crisp December morning. A second recruit had to drop out after catching COVID-19 during Thanksgiving break, so now there are 23. Everyone is tired, distracted, anxious.
“Take a deep breath,” says a coach. “Talk to yourself. Remind yourself what you’ve learned. Tap your brakes going into those turns.”
If you hit a cone — or start crying — you’re done.
They only have one week to practice in the white, unmarked cars. They’ve been getting used to the powerful engines that leap off the line, the loud motors, tight steering, quick brakes. Most of them have been driving Tauruses. A few were assigned classic Crown Vics.
This afternoon, they’re competing to be the “Top Driver,” an honor given to whoever finishes the course fastest.
You get an award at graduation. You get to sign the orange cone that gets handed down from class to class.
“Okay, you’re going to go straight into the intersection, we’ll shout at you where to stop. Make sure you stop correctly, no skids,” cautions a coach, pointing out corners of the course. “Make the 90-degree turn. Serpentine through the six-pack. Don’t run over the pole.
“This is a timed event. Line up in alphabetical order.
“Oh, and today, everybody’s driving the Crown Vics.”
The cadets start complaining. Why those old cars? That’s not fair. Why teach us on Tauruses, then switch now?
First up, Hannah Anhalt, one of the smallest recruits. She climbs behind the wheel. The seat is so much lower than in the Taurus, the dashboard so much higher. When she stretches to see through the windshield, her feet barely brush the pedals.
No time to adjust the seat. Or mirrors.
As soon as she straps on her seatbelt, the coach beside her barks, “Go!” and starts his stopwatch.
“You got this!” classmates yell.
She knows she doesn’t. When she presses the gas, the Crown Vic lurches forward, and she brakes. “Go!” yells the coach. “Go! You’re being timed!”
On the rifle range, she learned to tune everything out, keep her cool, focus. She scored 47 out of 48 on the exam. “More Jane Wick stuff,” KeVonn Mabon teased her.
That’s been her favorite part of the academy so far. For Hanukkah, she asked her fiancé for a gun, so she wouldn’t have to keep borrowing his. She’d wanted to take him shooting over the break, but she has to do ride-alongs with the Clearwater police.
Over Thanksgiving, she had helped arrest an elderly homeless man defecating on a loading dock, responded to a domestic violence call where a man had a concealed weapon license, and gone to a park to settle a dispute between two women arguing over a dog collar. Every night, her brother texts her: “Did you die today?”
A cadet had asked her classmates: Have you ever felt like you were going to die? One woman had panicked while rock climbing. Anhalt had talked about waking up in her fiance’s car, while it was spinning, just before they crashed.
Here on the driving range, she tries to block that out. But she can’t concentrate with all the obstacles she has to skirt, with coaches screaming and everyone watching. “C’mon Anhalt!” someone shouts. “Hurry!”
Gripping the wheel, white-knuckled, she steers into the first turn. Beside her, the coach clicks on the stereo. Deck the Halls blasts across the driving range.
Anhalt, grimacing, plows over the first cone. “Out!”
During the first couple of years on the force, cops spend most of their time in their cars, on patrol or answering calls.
You have to get used to sitting there for 10, 12, 15 hours, a coach told them. Practice paying attention. You can’t doze off.
Make yourself get up and move.
And just because you’re ensconced in a cop car doesn’t mean you’re safe. Chases can be as dangerous as responding to shots fired.
One coach echoed a persistent message: Treat everyone as if they want to kill you.
The cadets who are former military have mastered that mindset. But it’s a shift for those who are used to trusting strangers.
“That guy you pull over for rolling through a stop sign might have a gun — and use it.”
The next two cadets bowl over cones and get disqualified. Then a beefy guy speeds to the finish line and makes a clean stop.
“That’s how it’s done!” shouts a coach. “1:07. That’s the time to beat.”
The recruit beams and fist-bumps the air. Most of his classmates cheer.
But the youngest cadet crosses his arms and says: “That’s not fair. He’s been driving the Crown Vic all week.”
When it’s Mabon’s turn, he’s grinning. He loves being in a cop car, speeding through the obstacles.
He tears into the straightaway, Jingle Bells blasting through the open windows. He stops without skidding, races into the turn, pumps his brakes. He slaloms through the six-pack, avoids the pole, tears into the final stretch.
“Coming in hot! I like that!” calls a coach. “Love the aggression.”
Mabon already broke the academy record for the 300-meter dash and got to write his name on the mat room wall. He wants to buy himself $220 Air Jordans for Christmas but worries about spending that much. On the NFL practice squad, he made $18,000 a month. As a cop in training, he makes $3,000.
“Go! Go! You got it!” calls a coach, as Mabon’s classmates cluster at the edge of the asphalt, watching.
Mabon takes the last turn too quickly — and knocks over a cone.
Everyone groans, even the coaches. Mabon climbs out of the car, smiling, and shrugs.
When it’s Brittany “Mama” Moody’s turn, she walks across the asphalt confidently. She’s 5-foot-9, drives a Tacoma pickup. Fast. She’s ready.
“Get in there, Moody!” a classmate calls. “You go!” shouts another.
She nods at them, then folds into the driver’s seat. Before she even straps on her belt, the coach beside her turns up the radio, roaring Sleigh Ride.
She’s dreading the holidays. Her son Bryan keeps asking for Nerf guns, but she won’t buy them. She doesn’t want him to think guns are toys. And what does she want? Ammo. It’s getting so expensive and hard to find.
On the driving range, Moody takes off quickly, stops well, then races into the turn. Too fast. Her left front tire topples a cone.
She slams on the brakes, throws open the door and stomps out, scowling.
During the long walk across the pavement, she balls her hands into fists, keeps her head down.
After a dark-haired recruit wins Top Driver and signs the cone with a Sharpie, the cadets start moving toward the academy. But a coach calls them back.
“When you get distracted, look at all the mistakes you make. Just do it as the coaches told you to do it,” he says.
“And quit complaining.” He switches to a whiny voice: “This car sucks. This gas pedal is too close to the brakes.”
“Be a chameleon,” he shouts. “Just do your job. Don’t make excuses. When you screw up, own it.”
Back in the classroom, they have to take a written driving test: 50 questions in an hour. Mabon finishes first, in 10 minutes, scores 96.
When Anhalt gets a perfect score, a coach tells her, “Well, you’re doing better than most. Most women don’t know which way to turn the wheel.”
She tells this to a female recruit, who says: “Yeah. He told me I was going to be a sucky deputy.”
The cadets end the day listening to two young cops tell war stories: Trying to calm a schizophrenic woman robbing a bank with a bomb — that turned out to be a sandwich; tending to someone stabbed at a church; smelling a body that had been decomposing for days.
The hardest call, one tells the class, was for a 28-year-old veteran who killed himself. “I had to tell his mother,” the cop says. He closes his eyes. “That night, when I went home, I shed a few tears.” He pauses. “I’m a vet, too.”
Silence swallows the room. These recruits are about to face so many tragedies. They look at each other, then at their laps.
“But don’t get me wrong,” the officer tells them. “This really is the best job in the world.”
In the back of the room, Coach Joe Saponare laughs and says, “Like getting a ticket to the greatest show on earth!”
He tells them to have a good break. “Enjoy yourselves, but stay focused.”
When they come back in January, they all have to take the Cooper Test, an assessment of physical fitness. If they don’t pass, they’ll get kicked out.
Most of them are confident. Everyone is excited to see if Mabon will beat his own record for the run.