That’s because the drivers were participants of the 11-week Tracy Police Department Citizens Academy and were busy being taught evasive driving maneuvers by Tracy officers on a secluded section of Tracy Municipal Airport.
Each academy member got the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a police car to learn the basics of police driving, including trying to evade police and tracking down a suspect as part of a high-speed car chase.
“It’s wonderful to show them how to operate a (police) car at a high rate of speed in a safe environment,” said officer Gary Castillo, who teaches driving at the police academy with fellow Tracy instructor Gary Wilson.
Splitting into groups of four, each team took turns on different parts of the course, from stopping a suspect vehicle to driving around obstacles at top speeds.
“It’s a lot of hands-on,” academy coordinator Vivian Mendoza said. “We want each student to understand what an officer goes through.”
The first step, to make the students more comfortable behind the wheel of a police cruiser, officer Richard Graham took drivers through a cone-lined obstacle course, teaching them to remain in control during a sudden turn.
“They started off at 25 mph, and some were getting to 35 to 45,” Graham said, “and they always hop out of the car with a smile on their face. It’s fun. We’re trying to give them real-life driving training.”
Students progressively increased their speeds as they approached a simulated intersection as Graham radioed what path they should take an instant before hitting the intersection. Most of the academy members averaged 35 mph, but police hopefuls Tim Ford and his friend Michael Summers broke the daily record with 45 mph.
“It was fun,” Summers said. “I think I got up to 45. I thought it would be a lot harder than it was. It’s a taste of what they do — as much as they can of real life experiences.”
Another portion of the class was collision avoidance. Each student drove as if they were going to an emergency call, while another officer in a second car simulated a driver unexpectedly interrupting their path.
“I like the collision avoidance,” academy member Ana Albarracin said. “It’s the dynamics, and you have to be prepared to stop, because you don’t know what the other person is going to do.”
Wilson said officers deal with people getting in their path every day on the roads, because some drivers don’t hear or see the police car, despite its lights and sirens.
“You have to watch the other driver and react to anticipate the other driver,” he said.
The final task before the session’s show-stopper — the high-speed pursuit — was conducting a traffic stop.
Taught by officer Miguel Contreras, students had to deal with different scenarios that included unlicensed drivers and uncooperative drivers, as well as passengers who simply tried to walk away from the scene.
“It’s a little unnerving. Given the scenarios, you never know what you’re going to run into,” academy member Dan Mena said. “It’s a hard job. This changes your perspective … These guys have a hell of a job to do.”
“It shows citizens exactly what we have to deal with out there,” Castillo said. “Most (people) get pulled over and they don’t know what goes into it before we stop them.”
The highlight of the driving academy was a high-speed car chase. Each student took a turn behind the wheel as both the officer in pursuit and the suspect trying to get away.
A few of the students spun out on tight turns, but for the most managed to do a good job, officers said.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” Ford said after his turn as an officer in pursuit. “You’re trying to pay attention to everything — so much to process. You’re thinking about so many things while your adrenaline is pumping. It must be fun to be a cop.”
• Editor's Note: This is the second in a two-part series about the Tracy Police Department Citizens Academy.