The Sky Valley Citizens Academy went out with a bang this month. Two of them, to be exact.
The non-lethal explosive devices, which are also known as flash-bangs, were used by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team during a demonstration on Thursday, May 1. In addition to the SWAT demonstration, the academy’s final presentation included a graduation ceremony officiated by Sheriff Ty Trenary, Sultan Police Chief Monte Beaton, Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick and academy facilitator Det. Danny Pitocco.
Many attendees weren’t ready for the academy to be over. Monroe resident Linda Conner summed it up aptly when she asked, “Can we do another one?”
The 13-week series, which began on February 6, was held every Thursday night from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Sultan Middle School. The multi-faceted academy was spearheaded by Chief Monte Beaton, who recruited East County Det. Danny Pitocco to be his primary facilitator. Pitocco, who has over 40 years in law enforcement, was greatly appreciated by academy attendees for his lively and spirited way of presenting information.
Pitocco was enthusiastic about his participation in the series.
“I think I got more out of the academy than the citizens did,” said Pitocco.
Approximately 60 Sky Valley residents enrolled in the academy, with attendance fluctuating slightly each week. Each week focused on a different area of law enforcement including crime scene technology, patrol procedures, media relations, traffic enforcement, auto theft, corrections, mental health, detective investigations, prosecution and more.
During week six, Commander Pat Slack gave a presentation on drugs and gangs, and a K9 unit presentation was given by Deputy Jim Gibson and his partner, a four-year-old German Shepard named Jack. All presenters donated their time to participate in the academy each week. The academy’s grand finale on May 1 included a SWAT demonstration as well as the graduation ceremony.
The SWAT officers’ demonstration included a simulated bus hijacking, with academy attendees getting the opportunity to be on the bus as the team “apprehended the bad guy.” The scenario was played out twice, giving all academy attendees the chance to observe from inside the bus as well as outside the bus.
The team also demonstrated a tactical maneuver known as the “human ladder,” which consisted of one officer utilizing another as a stepping stool in order to get a look inside the bus. They then gave attendees a close up view of their armored vehicle, a Lenco BearCat. Stanwood Sgt. Rob Martin took questions about the team, along with Sgt. Steve McDonald, the SWAT team’s training sergeant.
Sgt. Martin, who was recently honored by the sheriff’s office with the Distinguished Service Medal, is the SWAT team leader and formerly served as police chief for the city of Gold Bar.
The SWAT team is comprised of approximately 40 volunteer law enforcement officers, including nine crisis negotiators, six snipers, 18 entry officers, five drivers and one medic. It takes between six months to a year to become a deployable member of SWAT, and the team trains on average from 260 to 280 hours per year. The SWAT team officers serve as volunteers and perform their SWAT team duties in addition to their regular assignments.
“All these deputies, sergeants, and lieutenants… They’re volunteers,” explained Pitocco. “Nobody drafts them to the SWAT team.”
Sgt. McDonald explained the SWAT team’s “priority of life” philosophy.
“The top of the food chain in the SWAT world are hostages and innocent people,” said McDonald. “Their safety is above everything else. We come below that.”
The graduation ceremony commenced immediately after the SWAT demonstration. Sheriff Trenary helped facilitate the proceedings, along with Chief Beaton, Mayor Eslick and Det. Pitocco. Each academy graduate was given an official Sky Valley Citizens Academy certificate signed by Chief Beaton and Det. “Gumshoe” Pitocco.
Before they handed out the certificates, Sheriff Trenary commended Chief Beaton for the tremendous effort it took to coordinate the academy.
The certificates were designed and created by Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office volunteer Ray Coleman who lives in Gold Bar. According to Chief Beaton, Coleman and volunteer Pat O’Donnell were instrumental in helping the academy run smoothly. O’Donnell was in charge of making coffee and preparing the room at Sultan Middle School each week, while Coleman handled the IT by putting together numerous PowerPoint presentations throughout the series.
Coleman, who has been volunteering for the sheriff’s office since April of 2009, works closely with the cities of Gold Bar and Sultan, compiling monthly reports containing statistical data about crime and noteworthy incidents in the area.
Both Coleman and O’Donnell were honored during the graduation ceremony for their efforts throughout the academy, and were given a sampling of baked goods prepared by Chief Beaton’s daughter, Emily. Emily brought freshly-baked cookies and other treats each week to the academy, wanting attendees to feel at home and welcome. After the Oso tragedy she added a “tip jar,” donating all the money she earned to the Darrington Family Resource Center, the fire department and other Oso-related relief efforts.
After the graduation ceremony was complete, attendees lingered, reluctant for the series to be over. Snohomish resident Janet Zwar was enthusiastic as she recalled the different presentations given throughout the academy.
“I loved the suspense of who was coming next week,” said Zwar. “All the speakers were just wonderful.”
Linda Conner echoed Zwar’s sentiment.
“I can’t say enough as to how honestly sincere, in and out of class, every deputy has been with teaching us their daily duties and helping us make a difference in our own backyard,” said Conner.
Sultan physician Hans Dankers also very much enjoyed his experience at the academy.
“The graduation ceremony capped the 13 week experience with reflections and thanks. I really appreciate the time and effort to put this program together,” said Dankers. “The passion to serve is evident and the number of people who participated reflects well on our Sky Valley community.”
Det. Pitocco and Chief Beaton both later stated that they considered the academy a tremendous success.
Chief Beaton explained that, essentially, the entire purpose behind the academy was to give the community a chance to have a different experience with law enforcement. He wanted to portray that, despite the uniform, police officers are just regular people who experience the same trials, tribulations and heartbreak that everyone else does.
Beaton thanked Det. Pitocco, plus volunteers Ray Coleman, Pat O’Donnell and also Ann Gifford, who helped get the academy started on the right track. He also thanked his mother, Mary Beaton, who drove down each week from Tonasket, Wash. to attend the three-hour sessions, and his daughter, Emily, for taking the time each week to prepare desserts.
But most of all, Beaton thanked the attendees because without them, he said, there wouldn’t have been an academy. He was also impressed with their overall generosity; through her “tip jar,” his daughter helped raise over $500 for people affected by the Oso landslide.
“So not only did these people come and give of their time to find out about us…They then turned around and gave of themselves again to help the folks in Oso and Darrington,” said Beaton.
Beaton found the standing ovations given to him, Det. Pitocco, his daughter and volunteers Ray Coleman and Pat O’Donnell to be extremely gratifying.
“That class was a success,” said Beaton. “People really enjoyed what they got from us.”