How to create a successful Citizens' Police Academy

A simple, well-designed Citizens’ Police Academy can help educate the public about what law enforcement truly does

You’ve decided to offer a Citizens’ Police Academy for your jurisdiction as a means of bridging the gap between law enforcement and the community.

You’ve done a quick assessment of available instructors and possible field trips, and recognized that you have many, many options for your academy.

Now comes the harder parts: designing your curriculum and acquiring and selecting your students.

Tailored to the Community
Your academy will be most successful if you design a curriculum based on the typical functions/encounters of law enforcement and citizens in your community in a blend of classroom presentations and practical exercises.

In designing your curriculum, look at the function and culture of your agency and community, and how they intersect and interact. Remember, you are seeking to counter any misconceptions, fear of, and hostility towards law enforcement by seeking to educate an uninformed or misinformed public.

What are the major law enforcement concerns in your jurisdiction, based on crime statistics and current events? Speeding? Drunk driving? Drugs? Burglary? Domestic violence? It’s a safe bet that if such issues are concerns for your department, they’re a concern for the majority of your community members. By offering classes that address such issues, you’ll quickly establish your academy as relevant and valid in the eyes of the community.

For example, if drunk driving is an issue in your community, consider using one night to focus on just that. Blend classroom with practical learning. Bring in someone from your local prosecutor’s office to talk about the various social and legal ramifications of drunk driving for the first part of the evening (classroom), and get an officer who is a shining star with DUI enforcement to talk about and demonstrate the enforcement process and techniques of a DUI stop (practical).

Have them conduct and teach the students field sobriety tests, and demonstrate the use of a field breath test device. Helpful hint: if demonstrating the field breath test device, use a very limited amount of alcohol with your test subjects! A BAC of .01 is more than enough to demonstrate how the equipment works, and allowing a student to get drunk can create all kinds of really ugly liability.

These kinds of “show-and-tell” sessions are always well received. If methamphetamine is a problem in your area, teach a class on it, complete with examples of all the poisons that are used in its manufacture. Use the class to dispel the TV-myth of “Breaking Bad” when it comes to local manufacturing. By displaying the more commonly used taped two-liter soda bottle, you can further educate the students on dangers to be found in the community.

Similar classes can be designed around radar enforcement, police equipment, and forensics. Have a classroom presentation on how radar works (another opportunity to dispel some myths), then divide the students up for practical sessions in radar unit operation. Affording the students the opportunity to see and safely handle all the equipment an officer carries is always a great empathy/sympathy lesson, especially when they learn how much all that gear weighs! A basic class in dusting for prints and crime scene processing, followed by a staged crime scene practical exercise, can go a long way to counteract the “CSI syndrome.”

Use of force is obviously a major perception problem for law enforcement these days. If your local academy has — and will make available — a FATS machine or other UOF simulator, it can provide an excellent means to open civilian eyes to the reality of such occurrences. And don’t forget to schedule ridealongs — they are a wonderful means of realistically conveying the long periods of boredom with which every officer has to deal!

Getting Participants
Having designed your curriculum and located instructors, the next step is in actually getting students. You have a number of very effective options. Start with some pre-registration publicity, particularly if such an academy has not been offered before in your jurisdiction. An article in your local paper or a brief radio interview on a local station can go a long way in generating interest and getting the word out. This affords you the opportunity to not only talk about how interesting and fun the academy will be, but to also talk about your department’s commitment to excellent relations with the community.

Local community service organizations and social groups such as the Lions Club and Senior Centers typically bring in speakers for their meetings. Giving a brief presentation on the upcoming Citizens’ Police Academy not only gives you a chance to publicize your new endeavor, but it offers a means to actively recruit students and to raise your department’s profile in a very positive manner.

Don’t shy away from issuing personal invitations as well to individuals who could benefit from having a better understanding of what, how, and why your department does what it does. Ask local religious and community leaders — they’ll be great spokespersons for the academy and the department once it’s over. Take the bull by the horns and invite members of your town or city council, as well as community activists and police critics. They may decline to attend, but you’ll have made the effort to bridge the gap.

As with the length of the academy, limit the number of students you accept — particularly for the first academy. For smaller jurisdictions with limited resources, 10-14 students are probably ideal, recognizing that you’ll likely lose one or two along the way. It’s not a bad idea to have a system of screening students, with standards applied equally to all. How thorough a background investigation you want to do is up to you, but you’ll likely want to consider things such as age (an academy for juveniles can be a whole different project) and criminal history. Be certain that the necessary waivers are signed and legal procedures are followed.

Remember Recognition
When the academy is over, have a graduation ceremony. The students and instructors will have shared in a unique experience, and that should be recognized. Perhaps the local journalist will want to do a follow-up story, complete with pictures. Print up a simple but nice certificate of accomplishment, and bring in a speaker for a few remarks (the mayor, town manager, or local representative are all good possibilities). Organize a pot-luck supper for after the ceremony — make it a party!

As you know, we have a complex and varied profession, the majority of which the general public doesn’t know about, have accurate information on, or understand. A simple, well-designed Citizens’ Police Academy can greatly facilitate our pursuit of the modern police mission through the education of our public, and develop empathy and sympathy for what law enforcement does.

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