The accidental shooting of a 73-year-old librarian and citizens police academy student in Florida some days ago could never happen here in Wilson County, two local law enforcement officials said.
Officers with both the Wilson County Sheriff's Office and the Mt. Juliet Police Department are adamant their citizens academies are 100 percent safe - and by the book.
Retired 28-year Marine Lt. James Lanier, who has been with the WCSO 18 years, as well as head of the WCSO Citizen's Police Academy going on four years, said applications for his Sept. 6 CPA course are no where near normal. "They are down."
He doesn't know if it's related to the sad press about elderly citizen Mary Knowlton, who at the Punta Gorda, Florida, police station with a 35 person citizens police academy group, was hit with a live round of ammunition during a role-playing "scenario" at the class.
"I was absolutely dumbfounded when I heard this news," Lanier said Wednesday evening. "We never use real guns or real ammunition. I can't even begin to explain how that could have happened. I have absolutely no room for any liabilities. It's on my watch, and nothing like this could ever happen here."
Lanier said simulated incidents are nominal in their class and the students only use SIMS (plastic guns) while shooting at a paper target. They also have a practice where someone in the department dresses up in a protective suit and the students role-play with fake guns with plastic bullets.
"No guns are ever pointed at our students," he said. "Never."
There's no way any real ammo can be put into the plastic guns, not even BBs," he said.
Lanier said he's set strict guidelines, and even citizens with gun permits are not allowed to ever have a real gun during class.
"In going on four years, we've never had a safety issue," he said.
His last class graduated about 20 citizens.
Their course is 12 weeks, and when citizens graduate they can become citizens of the alumni association and participate in public events. Some of the things introduced to students are "more than just pulling people over." They include court procedures, jail, dispatch, school resource, crime scene investigation and issuing various warrants, among others.
WCSO officials said people just don't realize the extent of the duties there.
At the citizens policing courses Mt. Juliet Police Department, Lt. Tyler Chandler said there's no way a scene such as Florida could go down there. They've conducted CPA since 2002, with their next class spring 2017, with no safety incidents.
When Chandler first heard about the accidental shooting of Knowlton at at the academy in Florida, he thought, "At first I could not believe how that could ever happen."
"It was awful," he said. "We have no lethal firearms involved during our classes. Safety is key here."
According to records, the MJPD has one citizens police academy a year. Their largest class graduated end of June 2016 with 35 students.
"The purpose of the academy is to give people who live and/or work in Mt. Juliet an opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the police department," Chandler said. "Many people are not aware of what goes on to keep a community safe, so this is a great opportunity to learn and see exactly what it takes."
Since inception, almost 500 citizens have participated in the MJPD citizens academy. When they graduate, they can become a part of the police academy alumni and volunteer to help. There are around 40 active alumni who volunteer. This is the same case with the WCSO citizens police academy.
MJPD's academy is 10 weeks long and they meet one night a week for up to three hours. At MJPD, they learn patrol function, crash investigation, crime suppression duties, investigative unit duties, tour the Wilson County Jail, take part in a handgun safety course and do ride-a-longs, among others.
As far as safety related to the Florida tragedy, Chandler explained participants are only exposed to real, lethal-capable firearms when they participate in the handgun safety course.
"Participants never have real, lethal-capable firearms or simulated, non-lethal firearms pointed at them during the citizens police academy process," he reiterated.
He did say there is a time when participants go through training scenarios where they "make a decision to "shoot or don't shoot," so they can experience similar situations police officers experience with having to react and make quick decisions based off a potential suspect's action."
However, the participants use a bright blue simulated, non-lethal training system gun that fires "reduced-energy paint cartridges."
And during the scenario, the "suspect" is a member of the police department, "and not a participant," Chandler said.
He said, adamantly, there are many safety checks taken to ensure real, lethal-capable firearms and ammunition are never introduced into the training area. All are checked for ammunition and firearms, which are not allowed.
"The training systems are bright blue or bright red so everyone knows that it is not a lethal-capable item."
Participants also wear protective head and eye protection during any scenario.
"Safety is paramount in everything we do, and it takes proper safety checks and screening to ensure potentially lethal items are never introduced in such an environment."