PORTSMOUTH — A mad gunman’s on the loose after shooting two people inside the Town Council chambers, and Robert Ruttenberg, a 45-year-old pharmaceutical rep, is hot on his trail.
Inside a taped-off Town Hall last week, he snaps photos of the crime scene, collects data, takes notes and tries to match a fingerprint found on a door with one that police have on file.
Mr. Ruttenberg’s not a real cop, but he plays one as a member of the new Citizens Police Academy offered by the Portsmouth Police Department.
“I’ve been fascinated with law enforcement since I was a kid,” said Mr. Ruttenberg, explaining why he decided to enroll in the eight-week program, which began March 6. “But sometimes life takes you into a different direction.”
The town had a Citizens Police Academy in the past, but it hasn’t been active in several years. Police Chief Thomas Lee expressed interest in reviving the academy shortly after his appointment last fall. The program allows citizens to learn and experience the inner world of law enforcement while giving them a firsthand look at the daily operations of the police department.
To be eligible for the academy, participants must be at least 18, live or work in Portsmouth and have no felony convictions. Some who enrolled are studying criminology, while others — like Mr. Ruttenberg — are merely curious about police work. One of the students is an elected official — Town Council member David Gleason, who was spared the role of a murder victim last week.
“I just wanted to see how the different functions of the Police Department work together. I felt I should know this as a town official,” said Mr. Gleason.
So far, the 10 students in the class have taken a tour of the police station and learned about traffic laws and drunk driving enforcement, accident reconstruction, animal control and more. On Thursday, April 10, they’ll learn about animal control, recruitment and hiring, crime prevention and firearms safety.
The following week students will take their turns at the firing range and learn about police administration and the harbormaster’s job. The Academy wraps up with a session on internet crimes and a graduation ceremony on April 24.
“There’s an intense interest in policing in the United States; look at our TV shows,” said Chief Lee. “People want to see what really goes on, plus I think they’re interested in their police department — meeting their officers. That’s why we try to have some different officers every night.”
Last week’s class on crime scene investigations was led by Detective Sgt. Mike Arnold — described by Deputy Chief Brian Peters as “the guy behind the scenes who doesn’t get any credit” — and Detective Lt. A.J. Bucci. They’re the guys who have to decide whether they need to come in after being roused from bed by a 3 a.m. phone call every week.
Upon arriving at a crime scene, it’s a “hands-off” approach for less-experienced police officers, he explained. “The rule of thumb is not to touch anything until someone qualified gets there,” said Sgt. Arnold.
And then the process of collecting evidence begins, and no detail is too big or two small, he said. Lt. Bucci stressed the importance of following proper procedure, because a defense attorney is always looking to trip up detectives.
Sgt. Arnold agreed. “We’re in the wrong until we get a conviction. That’s the way I look at it,” he said. “You are the storyteller. There’s no one else to call; you’re it.”
Fingerprints are still among the most effective pieces of evidence in identifying a suspect, he said. “There have not been in 100 years, two prints that have been found to be the same,” said Sgt. Arnold.
But those outside of law enforcement may be surprised, he said, how fingerprints are collected and matched with others. “We take fingerprints the old-fashioned way,” said Sgt. Arnold. “There are no scanners like on TV.”
He talked about the “CSI effect,” in which an exaggerated portrayal of forensic science on TV crime shows such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” taints the public perception of what police work is really like.
“It’s not like TV,” said Chief Lee.
Class moves to Town Hall
After his presentation, Sgt. Arnold briefed the class on the mock crime scenario police set up at Town Hall, where students will apply what they’ve learned so far.
“You didn’t kill the tax clerk, did you?” asked one student. (Nope. It’s the head of the Open Space Committee.)
Students arrive at Town Hall to find the front entrance surrounded by yellow police tape. Chief Lee tells them to make sure they have something with which to write.
“The first rule of policing is that you have to have a pen with you at all times. Even if you forget your gun, don’t forget your pen,” he says.
Inside the council chambers, a body (a 185-pound dummy on loan from the Fire Department) is slumped over the dais, with a chilling hand-scrawled note on the public lectern. “I am upset and going to kill someone. Have a nice day,” it states, followed by a drawing of a smiley face.
Appreciation for police work
While dusting for fingerprints, taking measurements for a crime scene diagram and collecting other evidence, students marvel at what police officers do on a regular basis.
“This exceeded my expectations. I’m really impressed,” said Mr. Ruttenberg. “You really get the details of every aspect of a criminal procedure. It’s not done in an hour.”
Nick Argillander, 20, said the meticulous way in which evidence is collected is what impressed him the most.
“It’s way more in-depth then I thought it would be,” said Mr. Argillander, who’s wanted to be a police officer since he was a child.
Mr. Gleason said he’s impressed by the dedication of Portsmouth police.
“They have a lot of things working against them,” he said. “They don’t have any space, for one thing. I didn’t realize that (the police station) was just built on a slab. There’s no space upstairs as well.”
Sgt. Arnold said creating a better understanding of police work is one of the main goals of the Citizens Police Academy. “I think it’s a great opportunity to let people know what we do on a regular basis, give them an understanding of the practical aspect versus the TV aspect,” he said.
Crystal Thibault, a criminal justice major at Roger Williams University who jumped at the opportunity to take part in the Academy, agreed.
“It’s a lot different than what you see on TV,” she said.
“I really thought you could just scan a fingerprint.”