Citizens’ Police Academy, Class 3
Editor’s note: This is the third of a nine-part series in which Westport News reporter Laura Weiss takes part in the town’s Citizens’ Police Academy. Weiss will share her experiences with readers in this column.
WESTPORT — At last week’s citizens’ academy, the class got a visit from one of the police department’s newest recruits, a black German shepherd named Atlas.
The police dog stopped in with his handler, Officer Dave Scinto, and fellow K-9 Unit members Officer James Loomer with Belgian malinois Koda and Officer James Baker with yellow Labrador retriever Chase.
Among other skills, the three dogs are trained to detect narcotics, but Chase is trained specifically in passive alert. When he finds drugs, he will sit, rather than bite or scratch at the find, particularly helpful if the department needs a dog to search a suspect.
Chase demonstrated a search for the class, doing a couple loops around the stage area before sitting in front of a curtain, where he sniffed out a find. As a reward, Baker tossed the Lab a bright yellow toy and he latched on, wagging his tail in excitement.
The dogs are trained to receive either a food treat or toy as a reward for doing their jobs. The officers identified the boundless energy and play drive as key qualities for police dogs.
Koda took a traditional route to the department, selected specifically to be a police dog from a breeder. While from a police dog line, Atlas was purchased as a puppy by Scinto, and the pair recently joined the K-9 Unit together. Taking what seemed to be a more unique path, Chase joined Westport Police after he was deemed too high-energy for his guide dog training.
During last Thursday’s class, Lt. Ryan Paulsson gave run-downs on a few of the police’s other specialized units. Paulsson, a lifelong Westport resident and Staples High School grad, took over training in February. The creativity involved in plans for training was surprising. For one session this August, Paulsson decided to take advantage of summer break and conduct active shooter training at Staples while the school was empty.
With the Marine Division, Paulsson said the team mostly deals with disabled or stranded boaters. The patrol boat is fully staffed Memorial Day to Labor Day, but always available, he said.
Paulsson oversees the Dive Team, a police and Fire Department joint unit that carries out water rescues and recoveries, as well as occasional security details. Divers are limited to under 20 minutes at a time underwater in significant depth unless they’re using a device called the sled, which allows the boat to help drag them and doubles the time they can spend underwater in their roughly 155 pounds of gear.
Paulsson also leads the Southwest Regional Emergency Response Team, a joint unit with Darien, Trumbull, Easton, Monroe and Wilton, that gives the towns SWAT team capability that none would have the resources to sustain on their own. Calls fluctuate annually for the team, but they also do security details, including once for President Barack Obama. The number of members per department is proportional: Westport staffs four.
During class, Lt. Jillian Cabana presented on department hiring, a multistage process involving oral and written exams, fitness testing, a polygraph and psychological and medical evaluations. Cabana said Westport’s benefits, pay and job quality make it a desirable force to work for, so the department can be picky with new hires.
A mix of young, new recruits and more experienced transfers have been hired recently, totaling 10 new officers, she said. And that’s not including Atlas, who got his certification last week.