Citizens Sign Up to Peek Behind Badge
More police departments offer classes in forensics, hostage negotiation to build community ties
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.