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Week 8: Inside The Citizens Police Academy

The Mt. Lebanon Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy launched on Tuesday, September 14. Mt. Lebanon Magazine content creator Stephanie Hacke is attending the class and will share what she learned each week in a Thursday blog post.
Lt. Chops talks inside the firing range.
Lt. Josh Chops talks to the Citizens Police Academy cadets inside the new, under-construction firing range.

I’ve never fired a gun. Even holding one scares me. There’s so much pressure. There’s so much that can go wrong if you don’t handle it right. My anxiety spiked just thinking about it as Officer Scott Kunz handed me an unloaded, unfireable gun during Week 8 of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy. 

“Is that how you hold a gun?” he asked, then proceeded to show me how to correctly hold the gun. Clearly, I don’t have much experience in this area. 

Looking through the sight, a red dot appeared. That helped me to know where I was aiming (at a spot on the wall, of course!) But I quickly understood how that little red dot would make it so much easier for an officer to keep their eyes on the situation at hand and focus on the suspect, instead of focusing all of their attention trying to line up three little markings on the front of the weapon. 

That little red dot is just one of the new features on Mt. Lebanon officers’ guns when the department purchased new service weapons for all officers this year. 

“We wanted to find the best tool,” Lt. Josh Chops explained. “This allows us to have target focus. We are no longer lining things up. We are placing a dot on the threat, which allows us to continually focus on the threat.” 

In 2019, Mt. Lebanon began an extensive search to find the best new guns for the department. From 2001 until that point, officers had carried either a Sig Sauer P226R or a 40 S&W from Smith & Wesson. Through their search, they found the Glock 9mm RMR to be a better fit for the department. 

“This is an expensive tool,” Chops said, noting each firearm costs about $1,000. “We didn’t take this decision lightly.”  

The old guns were great when they were purchased, Chops explained. But, as time went on, they became more antiquated. There are many advantages to adding an optic on the top of the pistol for the new guns. 

With the new guns, the department took a “Burger King” Have-It-Your-Way approach, said Chops, who described nearly everything in layman’s terms and using real-life examples to help us understand the complex topic (This was something a person like me, who is clearly not an aficionado on the topic, really needed!) 

They wanted officers to be as comfortable as possible with the gun in their holster. So, they offered sizes small, medium and large to find the best fit for each officer’s hand. And, they offered two different dot sizes: A tiny one for officers with crystal clear vision and a little larger of one for officers whose eyes might need a little assistance. 

Mt. Lebanon Officer Scott Kunz shows a firearm to a member of the Citizens Police Academy.

Making sure officers are comfortable with the gun they carry is important, Chops explained. That’s why proper training is necessary. While officers are required to pass a qualification (or test) with their gun, Mt. Lebanon focuses on training. They train, train and train again. Chops has even included firearms training into other training areas so that officers repeatedly are learning and becoming more comfortable with their firearm. 

He equated this to someone who learns to play a sport, but then doesn’t use it for 20 years, then is asked to throw out a pitch or take a swing at the ball. They’re probably not going to be very good, right? Because they haven’t practiced. 

“We want to make sure that the first time I have to employ use of force is not the first time I’ve been in that situation,” he said. 

He emphasized the need for officer education with another example: Imagine you were handed a scalpel and asked to perform surgery on a complete stranger right now. You had never taken a class or practiced performing surgery. You had no clue what you were doing. Do you think you’d do a good job? 

That’s why Mt. Lebanon puts a great deal of emphasis on training its officers to handle their tools. 

That’s what a firearm is, Chops repeated: It’s one of the tools in an officer’s tool belt. You have to make a decision, based on policies, procedures and education, on which tool is appropriate for a given scenario. Think: You wouldn’t use a wrench to put a nail in the wall. You would use a hammer. 

Firearms are just like that, one tool that officers have in their toolbox, Chops said. Based on the situation, they made the decision which tool to use. 

Just because you’re a police officer, it doesn’t mean that you’re automatically perfect at everything you do. Officers make mistakes too. (Take a moment and think about how many small mistakes you made today. Did you make a typo in your story? Did you switch lanes without putting on your turn signal?) But for a police officer, a mistake can have life-altering consequences. 

That’s why it’s so important for them to train. “My job is to try and decrease that one to as low as possible,” Chops said.  

Mt. Lebanon Lt. Josh Chops stands in the new range.
Lt. Josh Chops talks about firearms and the new Mt. Lebanon range.

You can see why, then, having their own firing range where officers can train is important. Mt. Lebanon is in the process of constructing a firing range for its officers in the Public Works hub on Cedar Boulevard. Read more about that here! [1] 

We took a tour of the facility on Tuesday night and got an idea for how things will work once the range is complete. We also got a tour of the cell blocks. That was another one that made my heart race. As soon as the cell door was shut and I was inside, my heart began to pound. And this was only for a few minutes. There also were large red buttons on the walls in case an officer faced an emergency or a combative prisoner and needed help. My mind shifted to what it would be like to be in that situation, as one of them. I can’t imagine being in that position. 

I left class on Tuesday night thinking about all of the stress that police officers experience. I can’t fathom being under pressure in an unknown situation where someone else’s actions will affect how you respond. You have to remember all of the policies and make a split second decision with a large impact. Sure, everyone has stress at work. But if I make a typo in a sentence, I might look like a fool, but no one’s life is on the line.  

I can’t imagine that pressure. 

Next week, we’re headed to the North Hills to go through a MILO scenario simulator training.