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How a Citizens’ Police Academy can help improve community relations

A CPA provides an excellent opportunity for participants to gain a better understanding of the procedures, responsibilities, demands and laws officers face

It’s a tough time to be a cop. Typically, when members of law enforcement watch the latest police video to hit the mainstream media, we have one of two reactions:

a. “That was a good arrest (or use of force). I would have done the same thing.”
b. “What the $%&*?! What were they thinking?! Another idiot tarnishing the badge!”

Unfortunately, the general public seems much more inclined to the latter reaction. More unfortunately, this perception creates more suspicion, hostility and fear toward law enforcement as a whole. At the root of many of these negative emotions is a basic lack of knowledge about law enforcement. We tend to fear what we don’t understand.

A Tool to Inform
So how do we, as police leaders, counter the misconceptions, fear and hostility toward law enforcement? One way is by seeking to educate an uninformed or misinformed public.

Make no mistake: There’s no “light switch” solution or immediate fix. Negative public perception is an elephant that can only be eaten one bite at a time. It will take dedication and continued effort – a Herculean task, perhaps, but not impossible. The creation of a Citizens’ Police Academy (CPA) is a great way to educate the community we serve, especially in smaller jurisdictions.

A CPA provides an excellent opportunity for participants to gain a better understanding of the procedures, guidelines, responsibilities, demands, policies and laws that guide the behavior and decisions of a department’s officers. Incorporating hands-on experiences for the participants creates a chance to explain law enforcement techniques in basic, easily understood terms and logic.

Perhaps most importantly, a CPA is a unique and powerful means to increase the community’s empathy and sympathy for law enforcement officers. It provides an opportunity to humanize law enforcement officers, to get to know the actual person behind the badge.

While there are a lot of ducks you’ll need to get in a row, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s likely that the majority of resources you’ll need – human and otherwise – are readily available.

For your first academy, start small – quality will be much more important than quantity. Design a curriculum that runs six to eight weeks, meeting one night a week for approximately two or two-and-a-half hours a night. Consider using the time slot of 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 or 9 p.m. with a break in the middle. This will allow participants to get home and have dinner and gets them back home before it gets late. Putting a break in the middle works well, as it promotes socialization and group identity among the students (light snacks go a long way), and you’ll have time to set up practical exercises for the second half if needed.

Do a bit of research and reach out to other departments in your state that have run their own CPA programs. Get a copy of the schedule and curriculum from several and use them to create an academy that’s unique to your department and community.

While you’ll need to consider many variables to design your academy, you’ll first want to take into consideration the availability of instructors. The reality is, you probably already have a large reserve of untapped instructor resources within the local law enforcement community. Draw on your own people, certainly, but also make a point of reaching out to other local agencies for specialty instructors and field trips. Aside from having a bigger pool to draw from, it creates a good opportunity for (and presentation of) inter-agency cooperation — something that benefits everyone involved.

If you have a decent relationship with your local prosecutor (frequently an elected position), invite that person to come meet with and talk to citizens (who are likely to be voters) about the criminal justice system and how the office works. Perhaps an officer or deputy with another department is a superstar when it comes to DUI arrests. Inquire if that person would be interested in speaking to the academy about DUI enforcement.

Perhaps the director of your area law enforcement training academy would be willing to have one of their recruits-in-training meet with your citizen students (field trip!) to talk about the application process and what’s involved in going through the basic academy. How about tours of the jail, courthouse or 911 center? Chances are, at least some of those folks will welcome the opportunity to talk about the work they do and why it’s so important to the profession.

Get Started!
The more the public can learn about all the facets of our profession, the greater their understanding and empathy will be. A CPA can go a long way toward making that happen.

Rob Hall began his law enforcement career in 1994 as a volunteer for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. Hired by the S.O. on January 1, 1995, he was fewer than five months into his career as a cop and just five blocks away from the Murrah Building when it was blown up at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. That incident defined many things for the rest of his life, including his dedication to law enforcement. In the years that followed, Hall has served as a Patrol Deputy, Drug Investigator (including a four-month stint in deep cover), Homicide Investigator of capital murder cases, Investigations Supervisor, Assistant Chief, and Chief of Police.