DOBSON — As retired educator Dean Wood brushed powder onto a piece of paper bearing his own fingerprints, a State Bureau of Investigation instructor urged him to use a lighter touch.
“You’re not painting a garage,” Special Agent Angie Key teased Wood, a student in the Citizens Academy run by the Surry County Sheriff’s Office.
Key had filled in leading a recent class for Surry County’s local crime scene expert, Det. James “Buck” Turner, who is on medical leave.
The sheriff office’s first Citizens Academy began in September with the aim of providing regular folks with a better understanding of what law enforcement entails.
“It’s something done in other places and has been very well received,” said Sheriff Graham Atkinson. “Captain Lloyd Terry brought the idea forward and said he would take responsibility. I was wholeheartedly for it.”
Terry explained that his interest in the academy was driven by its value as a community relations program.
“You hear in the media we need to train police more. I think we need to train the public better,” the captain said. At the same time, “it’s two ways,” he said. “It’s even transparency. We don’t hide anything.”
Sheriff Atkinson agreed.
“We’ve been very open and honest,” he said. “We are their sheriff’s office,” he said of the citizens. “They pay our salaries and for our equipment. Everything we do here is done with their tax money. We want to show them what we do and why we can’t do sometimes what they want us to do.”
Students involved in the first class were invited to participate, serving as a focus group for the academy organizers.
“We wanted people we knew would give us constructive criticism and help build it into a better program,” said Atkinson, describing the first session as a “trial run.”
Future sessions will be open to the public via an open application process.
“We’ll probably do at least one a year,” said the sheriff.
Tuesday’s class covering crime scenes was the seventh session out of 10, each of which addresses a different division of the sheriff’s office.
Topics such as the agency’s constitutional and statutory obligations, use of force, communications and dispatch have been featured.
The students have practiced on the firearm simulator, and last week, the group made an eye-opening field trip to the Surry County Detention Center.
Upcoming classes include a session with the District Attorney’s office and magistrates as well as an opportunity to ride along with officers on the annual Halloween sex offender check.
On Tuesday, the group gathered at about 6:30 p.m. in the sheriff’s office classroom.
Key, working from a refresher course designed for patrol officers, walked the group through the many considerations taken by officers investigating a crime scene, occasionally poking fun at the many unrealistic portrayals on television, notably CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
“I hate that show,” said Key, a former Mount Airy Police officer who focuses on arson and fire crime scene investigations for the SBI.
She shared crime scene photographs and asked the group to think like investigators.
“What do you guys see in this picture,” Key said, referring to a photograph of a scene in a jail with a pool of blood on the floor.
Challie Milton, a Mount Airy physician, listed several indicators of a disturbance.
“It just doesn’t look right,” Key agreed.
The photograph also served as a touchstone to discuss some of the differences between types of evidence such as fingerprints and DNA.
A good, clear fingerprint is actually very difficult to obtain, Key said, whereas DNA is prevalent.
“You’re all shedding stuff,” such as sweat and hair, she said.
Terry asked the group, “which one piece of evidence would be absolutely positive as an identifier, that that is you?”
Cliff Blackburn answered correctly: fingerprint.
“A fingerprint is unique,” Terry confirmed. “DNA have different markers,” that indicate a high probability.
In a scene such as the common area of the jail depicted in the photograph, however, a fingerprint is less useful evidence because so many people legitimately pass through on a regular basis.
“You’d have to fingerprint every individual that would have come through that area for elimination purposes before you could use that sample,” Terry said.
The students also asked questions to clarify their own understanding, such as Wood, who asked if an individual could effectively remove the prints from their fingers, as occasionally seen on television.
Key explained that such attempts are rarely successful and usually make a print easier to identify.
The participants seemed enthusiastic about the academy.
Scottie Chilton, who serves with the Bannertown Volunteer Fire Department, had been invited by the sheriff.
As an emergency responder, “We’ve seen right much of this,” Chilton said, adding that he’d learned more about how the sheriff office operates “on the inside,” than he typically sees on the job.
“I think it would be good for the community that is not involved with emergency services,” he said.
Minton described the class as “very informative, very enjoyable. The sheriff’s office is doing a lot more than I ever expected.”
The experience provided Minton with a clearer sense of how big geographically is the county, and how few people and resources exist to get the job done.
Minton also said the class led him to a better understanding of how many more inmates are housed in the county jail than he had previously thought.
He “absolutely” thought the community could benefit from the academy.
“The big focus is to have interaction,” Terry said. “That’s the key to really understanding.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.