“This could happen to you.”
“True story,” a coach tells the cadets. “This could happen to you.”
The 27 recruits are lined up along the driving course behind the St. Petersburg police academy, wearing gym shorts and white T-shirts, sweating under the October sun.
Several are wearing glasses. No contact lenses today, they were told. Those will only make your eyes burn more.
“Not too long ago, not too far from here, a state trooper pepper-sprayed a perp on the Howard Frankland Bridge,” the coach says. “Wind blew it right back into the cop’s face. The guy picked up the trooper to throw him into the water. But the trooper shot him. Justifiable homicide.
“You need to know how incapacitated it can make you if someone uses it on you.”
Don’t panic, he says. “Don’t go flapping your arms all around out there. We’ll laugh at you! When you get done, you’re going to shower. Don’t bend over or the contaminant is going to run down to parts of your body you don’t want to burn. And don’t come running down the hall naked. We’ve had that. It’s time to cowboy up and take a little pain.”
An ambulance is standing by. Two paramedics watch the cadets crowd around an eye-wash station made out of PVC pipes, a hose and a shower head. Bottles of baby shampoo wait below.
Around the asphalt, coaches have set orange cones — four stations the recruits must run to after being shot in the face with pepper spray.
“You’ll have to pick a partner, someone to guide you. You won’t be able to see,” says the coach. “Hopefully, you’ll always have a partner. Or at least back-up.”
As soon as the coach sprays them, they have to define one of the “levels of resistance.” The coach yells: passive, active, aggressive or deadly force.
Officers are allowed to respond with one level higher than the threat coming at them.
At each station, they have to perform a defensive technique they learned last week. At the last stop, while their eyes are still burning, they’re supposed to grab their gun and fire into a target.
KeVonn Mabon, who played in the NFL, is ready, eager to get it over with. Brittany “Mama” Moody had meditated on it that morning, and found peace.
Hannah Anhalt admits, “I’m terrified.”
After five weeks at the academy, the recruits have learned knee spikes and ankle kicks, how to unlock handcuffs and break up a party, to differentiate human trafficking from smuggling, when to read Miranda rights, how to de-escalate a situation with “verbal judo.”
They’ve learned what not to do, too, from a cop turned lawyer. “Don’t be stupid,” he warned. Don’t be a pervert. Don’t molest females. Don’t have sex on the hood of your cop car, even if you’re in a cemetery. Dead men don’t tell tales, but dash cams do.
They’ve memorized the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics: To serve the community, to safeguard lives and property, to protect the innocent against deception…
They’ve watched videos of a guy who killed his kids and stuffed them into barrels. Analyzed crime scene photos of a human head on a shelf, a shooting victim who bled out, a man who put a bomb in his mouth and exploded all over his bathroom.
They’ve talked about how cops are targets, more than ever.
One cadet was driving home with his uniform hanging in the backseat and a guy on a motorcycle flipped him off.
Anhalt scraped the Blue Lives Matter sticker off her car.
“I don’t know anything about defensive tactics. I think as I get more training, it will become less scary,” Anhalt said. “At least I hope so.”
She grew up in Davie, just north of Miami, and trained as a gymnast. Her dad mostly raised her and her older brother. In high school, a friend’s mother, who worked for the Secret Service, invited Anhalt to shadow her on “Take your daughter to work day,” which sparked her enthusiasm for law enforcement.
She’s always loved shows like 48 Hours and true-crime podcasts like Sword and Scale. “My boyfriend is always saying, ‘You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?’”
Tyler Dressel, 29, is a wine vendor. They met in college and have been together six years. He supports her but worries. She’s 5-foot-3, 130 pounds. Could she hold her own against big guys and people with guns?
“It’s a very dangerous job. That weighs on me,” Dressel said. “But I know she’ll be good at it. She can be intimidating. And she doesn’t take any BS. Other people will see her as a cop. But I know, deep down, she’s a sweetheart.”
Over the summer, they got engaged and moved into a house in Dunedin with their two greyhounds.
“Of course, I want to help people,” Anhalt said. “I’m a people person. I also need to do something for my future. I want to make myself proud.”
She calls herself “pro-police,” though long before a jury decided on the George Floyd case, she felt he was murdered.
“Something needs to change with the training,” she said. “You have to have other officers’ backs, but also be able to bring them down, de-escalate things. They need good cops out there now more than ever.”
The $50,000 salary will be enough to help support a family. She wants to have a family. And after 20 years on the force, she said, retirement benefits will be sweet. If you make it that long.
“My dad keeps telling me, ‘You can still be a Realtor,’” she said.
He’s an optometrist, who fitted her for contact lenses when she was in fifth grade. All those years of wearing contacts, he said, might make her eyes extremely sensitive to pepper spray.
“Okay, you ready?” a coach asks Mabon at 9:30 a.m.
He’s by the eye-wash station, rocking in his sneakers. He’s always moving, bouncing like a boxer. “Hands behind your back,” says the coach. “Don’t touch your eyes.”
Mabon takes a deep breath and throws back his shoulders. The coach, barely a foot away, squirts a stream of pepper spray into each of his eyes. He winces, shakes his head.
“Okay, now look at me,” shouts the coach. “C’mon, c’mon, look at me.” He can’t open his eyes. “How many fingers am I holding up? You gotta look at me!”
He squints, and can barely make out her hand. “Four?” he guesses.
“Okay,” says the coach. “Go!”
The other recruits watch, knowing now what’s coming.
Mama Moody is up next and takes off her glasses. When the pepper spray hits her eyes, she stomps, slaps her thighs, tugs her shorts. “All right, active resistance,” yells the coach. Moody spits, shakes her hands, coughs. “Active resistance!” the coach calls.
She spits out the definition, then takes off, eyes closed, running in the wrong direction. “This way!” calls her partner. “Follow my voice.”
She makes it to the first punching bag, then doubles over, spitting. “Hit it! Hit it hard!” says Coach Joe Saponare. Moody keeps missing the bag. “They’re trying to hurt you!” the coach screams. “You wanna go home? You gotta fight like you mean it. It’s a life or death battle!”
She stands still for a second, shakes her head, tries to focus. Behind her burning eyes, she pictures her son waiting for her. She opens her eyes, tears washing away the pepper, and starts unleashing all her anger and fear on that bag, determined now, shouting, “Police, get back!”
She just had to remember what she was fighting for.
When it’s Anhalt’s turn, she tries to stay silent. But as the pepper hits her face, she whimpers. It takes her twice as long as anyone else to open her eyes. “Okay, go!” the coach finally shouts. “Go!” Anhalt veers to the left, way off course. Her partner calls her back, but Anhalt doubles over coughing. Snot is spewing from her nose, dripping off her chin.
“Breathe!” says her partner. “Calm down! Open your eyes.”
She punches at the first station, runs to the second, then steps back from the kick bag, gagging. “Get angry!” screams Coach Sap.
Somehow, she makes it to the final stop, pulls out her gun — and fires straight into the bullseye.
“You did it! It’s over. Calm down,” her partner says, leading Anhalt to wash her face. She squirts baby shampoo into each eye, gasps as the water carries pepper spray down her neck.
“I can’t breathe!” she cries.
“Your face will cool down. You got this!” says Moody, putting her arm around Anhalt’s shoulder.
“Get your hands off her!” shouts a coach. “Stop babying her! You can’t do that on the street.”
Moody backs away. Anhalt swallows tears. “It feels like someone is cutting my eyeballs with glass,” she says. “Like my face is melting.”
In the classroom that afternoon, two former Marines say that was more painful than being gassed. Was it worse than childbirth? someone asks Mama Moody. “It’s right up there,” she says. “But there’s not the happy ending.”
It makes me wonder, one female recruit says: Should police be allowed to gas protesters? “Now I feel bad for them.”
At the end of the day, Anhalt still can’t open her eyes and has to call her fiancé to drive her home. She can’t see the academy textbook to study for the next day’s exam, so he has to read to her.
That night, for the first time since she started the academy, she breaks down. She had paid her own way to attend. She hasn’t been hired by an agency yet, doesn’t owe anyone anything.
“What am I doing?” she cries to her fiancé. “Why am I doing this?”
The day after being pepper-sprayed, Anhalt still can’t see. She has to catch a ride to school with another recruit and keeps leaving class to rinse her swollen eyes.
She’s in the academy bathroom when Moody comes to get her. “The Clearwater PD is here to see you.”
Anhalt dries her face and tries to blink back the pain as she greets the officer waiting in the hall.
“We’ve been watching you,” the man says. He admired her drive, had seen progress in the physical training and been impressed by her problem-solving skills. “We want to offer you a patch.”
Just like that — after one of the worst days of her life, one of the best. If she graduates from the academy, and passes the state exam, Clearwater police will refund her tuition. And hire her.
First, she has to learn how to shoot a moving target, tackle a suspect, tie a tourniquet.
And talk to strangers at Walmart. “That’s the part I’m dreading the most,” Moody says. “I’d rather be pepper-sprayed.”