Citizens Sign Up to Peek Behind Badge

More police departments offer classes in forensics, hostage negotiation to build community ties

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For three months, Thomas Kilbridge put blowing into a Breathalyzer, sitting through a mock interrogation, and riding around in a blue-and-white cruiser above catching "Mystery!" on PBS or spending time with his wife.

He and 19 other Framingham, Mass., residents gathered every Thursday evening this winter to learn firsthand the techniques and philosophy of their local police force.

"I was curious to see how my tax dollars were being spent," Mr. Kilbridge explains. But, he says, he came away with much more. "It's given me confidence as a citizen that I would be able to go to someone at the department who would not only respond, but understand."

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Kilbridge is among a blossoming number of residents from Seattle to Boston who are taking part in citizen or community police academies. For the public, the academies offer the curious or crime-weary an opportunity to peer inside a long-shrouded organization. For police, the classes allow them to reach out to a sometimes estranged community and create more crime-aware residents.

"With the academies, we have a link, a bond in the community," says Kathleen O'Toole, the Massachusetts secretary of public safety. "And the rapport they have with the police does not disappear when they leave. Now, we have so many more people out there with eyes and ears to help improve the quality of life in neighborhoods."

The citizen academies are further evidence of a profound shift in law enforcement. The community policing movement, which has caught fire over the last decade, has already witnessed officers in unusual roles such as directing the needy to social- service organizations or sponsoring youth mentoring programs. But for police to break down their code of secrecy and usher the public into the inner sanctums of the department is a significant step in a new direction.

"In the old days, police thought of themselves as the professional crimefighters and the community just sort of got in the way," says Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "Well, when you start breaking that down, you find out there are huge gaps of knowledge: Police departments don't know about the community and the community doesn't know about the police. This is a way to fill in those gaps."

Not everyone is so sold on the academies, however. Critics warn that the academies may be a waste of money and represent police public relations more than an effort to reduce crime. "It seems like an opportunity for police to tell their side of the story so people will know how hard their job is and what they're up against. I don't think that's how you use scarce crime-fighting dollars," says Richard Moran, sociology and criminology professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass.

The first citizen police academy was opened in Orlando, Fla., in 1985, patterned after similar academies in England. Gradually the programs began flourishing across Florida, Texas, and California. In the past five years, academies have begun popping up from Eugene, Ore., to Amherst, N.Y. In Massachusetts, 103 academies are in operation today - twice as many as existed only a year ago.

The growth is connected to the increasing popularity of community policing techniques, which many credit with reversing the shockingly high crime rates of the '80s. As police have begun to walk their beats rather than ride in cruisers; appear in community meetings to hear concerns; and make efforts to get to know businesses and community leaders in their districts, officers have come to see the public as a valuable resource in preventing crime. The academies, in many places, were established to teach the community how policing really works (not like on TV) and explain to them how they could help out.

At the same time, academies have powered their own growth. Residents in one community will complete the program and tell friends in another community, who may pressure their local police department to set up an academy. In Texas, the citizen-academy wave has grown so large that an annual convention is held to bring together graduates from the state's many academies and provide an introduction to interested residents from cities and towns not yet offering the programs.

To the police departments sponsoring the classes, academies are an important, positive addition to their work. "The academy's a viable tool to get into a working harmony with the community," says Dave Langston, with the training division of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., police department. "It provides the structure for much needed support from the community - and it's working."

The citizens who participate also tend to call it a productive experience. "It was interesting to see how everything works together," says Julie Israelson, a college student majoring in criminology, who also took part in Framingham's academy last winter. "Now, I look around my neighborhood a lot more. I'm more careful."

BUT critics say the academy concept can be misused. "The problem I see in them is the problem that often happens in some versions of community policing," says Nancy Rhodes, a sociologist at Syracuse University in New York. "They are used in a way that, instead of educating the community, they can kind of skew everything to a certain point of view and entrench the attitude that police can do no wrong."

A greater concern, to some, is whether the concept can sustain its own success. Many worry that the academy movement may be short-lived unless police can find a way to bring graduates in as volunteers for the departments. "They are a constituency that we can use to help us do policing, but we're not very good at figuring out how," Professor McDevitt says.

But for now, the popularity of citizen police academies seems unstoppable. Youth academies have sprung out of the adult-academy concept, reaching out to a population often responsible for much of a city's crime. Alumni associations are also cropping up to better organize community crime-fighting efforts. Most academies have long waiting lists.

"You find for the most part, it's a wonderful program, and it's not a lot of money," says Tom Rhatigan, at the Community Policing Consortium in Washington, D.C. "It's exciting, it's hands on, and it works pretty well."

Typical Curriculum at Citizen Police Academies

Week 1

Introduction, history, philosophy of community policing

Week 2

Patrol procedures, officer safety

Week 3

Recruitment and hiring, media relations

Week 4

Gang units, community policing

Week 5

Firearms training, Special Missions teams demonstration

Week 6

Tour of department, jail, communications center

Week 7

Hostage negotiation, narcotics

Week 8

Victim services, domestic violence, child abuse

Week 9

Investigations, photo lineups, crime scene, computer identification

Week 10

Laws of arrest, search, and seizure; internal affairs; canine unit; traffic

Week 11

Self-defense, CPR

Week 12

Graduation

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