SANTA MARIA, Calif. - "Never put your finger on the trigger until you're ready to shoot," Santa Maria PD officer Andres Lopez says.
I rest the firearm in the "V" created by my left thumb and forefingers, while my right hand hovers around the trigger.
"Line that up with your target, and then you're gonna pull the trigger," he says next, so I shoot.
And that was the first time I fired a gun.
It was the second to last class of the Santa Maria Police Department Citizen's Academy, and the one everybody in our group --around 20 of us --had been probably looking forward to after seven weeks.
"When you get to shoot a fully automatic weapon that you've never shot before, that totally felt different," Citizen's Academy participant Mark Salinas shares.
Every year, Santa Maria PD offers a behind-the-scenes look at the agency through its Citizen's Academy, granting participants a chance to see how officers train and the challenges they face in our area.
Each Thursday, for eight weeks this spring, we gathered behind the walls where crimes are solved, learning about the agency's crisis negotiation tactics, active killer training, the SWAT team arsenal, and more.
"We try very hard to be open and transparent as much as we can," Detective Andy Bryce told me.
On our fifth class, Bryce had walked us through the step by step moments leading up to the 2017 homicide of Natalia Morozova.
"911 what is your emergency?" he plays the emergency call.
"Please come... I think there are people getting shot!" one caller pleads.
It's chaos at the dispatch center on August 21, 2017:
"Multiple reports of shots fired on North College," we hear one dispatcher say. "The female is screaming 'No stop, get away!'" someone else says over the radio playback Bryce is showing the class.
Officers on scene find a woman laying on the ground, blood pooling under her head. We see crime scene pictures --Morozova's body sprawled on the sidewalk, evidence markers sprinkled around her indicating where the bullets landed.
"We don't deal with this very often. These things don't happen on a regular basis where you can train yourself to expect this type of thing," the detective admits.
The killer --husband Konstantine Morozov-- had fled with their 9 year-old son, prompting PD to put out an amber alert.
Bryce says the alert went out five hours after the murder --in retrospect, he describes this as a "big mistake".
Nonetheless, thanks to Morozov's phone provider, the help of the FBI and other agencies, they ping his location to an affluent Russian community in Encino the next day.
"As he's pulling the Glock up [LAPD] shoots him once, he spins it around and then takes his own life," Bryce says.
As he puts it, the case was a learning experience for SMPD, although that's not to say they don't train for all kinds of situations.
SCHOOLS AND MASS SHOOTINGS
The department is particularly upping training for active shooter situations in schools.
"Run, hide, and fight," School Resource Officer Sam Gwo tells the class.
Gwo says they are in the early stages of partnering up with schools to roll out safety measures in case of mass shootings.
"In an active killer event, the worse thing you can do is be passive and do nothing. Barricade the door to make it harder for the perpetrator to come inside, to not make yourself an easy target," he says. "If you're running out of a building, make sure your hands are visible so officers arriving on scene don't think that you're the killer and holding a weapon."
SMPD conducts active shooter trainings year-round.
The department staffs 10 detectives, "each detective carrying an excess of 30 cases," Detective Bryce says.
Priority in solving them depends on the offense, which can range from "lower level felonies like identity theft, and burglaries... all the way up to sexual assault, child molestation, things like that," Bryce explains.
His unit works closely with criminalists like Angela George.
"We have a refrigerator to keep things cool as well as a dish washer. We do make our own chemical formulations," she says.
George gave me a tour of their crime lab, fancy microscopes and all.
"The spec finder is where we can put two casings together and see markings," she explains.
What caught my attention was the dryer –a refrigerator-sized appliance for items that may have been exposed to the rain, or body fluids like blood or semen.
"Somebody gets shot, somebody gets run over, there's blood on it. You can't just bag that stuff up –you have to dry it first," another SMPD officer explains.
Next we walk to a side room.
"This is where we do a lot of our photography and light source for fingerprints, biologicals."
I asked her to look up my prints.
"This is your fingerprint prior to any type of processing using the reflective ultraviolet imaging system."
She dusts my print, "and then this is what you would get," she shows me.
Detectives would then look me up in the system via the state's Cal ID program.
Before there's even a crime scene to process, though, officers work hard to deescalate situations.
Michael Parker of the Crisis Negotiation team says active listening skills are key.
"In one instance, I was dealing with a juvenile who was holding a nail to his head. I was able to kinda talk to him a little bit, build up a rapport where he was able to put that down. By the end of it, he and I were trading stickers, and what he does for fun, who his favorite soccer team is..."
That's one successful interaction, but when all other fails, there's always the SWAT team.
"We have a very short time window before things go real bad," officer Reid Goeckner tells the class.
Goeckner showed us their arsenal –a combination of firearms and less lethal weapons like flash bangs.
"Pretty much it's got a little explosive in there, it doesn't actually explode. We'll throw that into a room before we go in, or sometimes in a backyard. Big o' flash, lots of smoke."
There are also pepper ball guns, which are exactly like what they sound like.
"We shoot paint balls with pepper spray," says Goeckner.
The guns are different colors. Non-lethal weapons are either painted orange or have an orange sling to differentiate them from the actual firearms.
K9's work hand in hand with the SWAT team.
"They can sniff out and find people and bite them if need be," officer Amanda Ricker explains. "They can find marijuana, heroine, cocaine, and methamphetamine."
The pups also train with neighboring agencies like SLO Sheriff, Santa Barbara City, State Parks, and the California Highway Patrol.
They're schooled in German, though they come from a breeder in Santa Ynez.
Ricker says there are different requirements to become a handler, but it ultimately comes down to those who best pair up with the K9.
The dogs are constantly re-training and getting exposed to multiple environments.
"The only time I've ever seen fear in the dog is just more fear of the unknown, it's more of like an uncomfortable feeling," says Ricker.
The four-legged partners usually serve for around eight years, after which a handler may buy it from the agency.
Santa Maria PD Chief Phil Hansen says the city is not as crime-ridden as some assume.
"I think we get a bad rep in the area sometimes, and we really shouldn't. We're a fine community," he says. "Our crimes are very close to those of Santa Barbara, and much lower than places like Bakersfield."
That doesn't mean the dispatch center is not busy.
"We make about 300 plus calls for service a day. At any given time we could have 15 calls going on," one dispatcher says.
"It's totally different from what we thought" participant Mark Salinas reflects on the program.
The Citizen's Academy is also offered in Spanish, and for teenagers. To learn more, visit Santa Maria PD's website.