Shadowing the cops to glean their tactics

Citizen police academies help ease strained relations

Dottie Stepp knows how to keep a cool head.

And after word quickly spread around her Arlington community that a couple had been found shot in their home, Ms. Stepp was able to help calm her neighbor's fears.

"I had people calling me up all upset and worried about their own safety," she says. "And with my knowledge of police procedures, I was able to explain to them that they probably had nothing to worry about."

As president of Arlington County's Citizen's Crime Prevention Council, Stepp made a special effort to learn how the police operate. She'd even taken a course offered by her local police department called the Citizens Police Academy.

There are more than 100 such academies offered by police departments around the United States. And President Clinton and other national law-enforcement leaders now see them as a key solution to the growing gap in understanding between the police and the public.

So much so, the president has launched a new nationwide program to help more communities establish citizen police academies to "inform residents about police procedures and teach them new ways to make their own neighborhoods safer."

The strained relations between the police and the public have become increasingly evident, particularly in large urban areas like New York where four officers recently shot to death an unarmed African immigrant, exacerbating racial tensions between a mostly white force and the minority community.

But all across the country, even as the crime rate has gone steadily down, police work has become increasingly more dangerous. And even in the seemingly safest rural areas, police sometimes behave in ways that people don't understand.

"The goal of a Citizens Police Academy is to teach people the hard realities and the responsibilities involved in police work ... and why they do what they do," says Rich Roberts, director of special operations for the International Union of Police Associations in Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Roberts believes society is asking police to go further toward accommodating the public's needs, then it is asking the public to understand the pressures and restraints under which police operate. The citizen academies offer a remedy to that.

Mending strained relations

But critics argue that citizen education won't curb abuses by officers, which they contend are at the heart of the strains between police and many communities.

"Lecturing the public on how they do their job is not a strategy to fight police misconduct," says John Crew, head of the police practices division of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco.

But advocates say a better understanding is often exactly what's needed to explain troubling incidents. The academies also give citizens direct contact with the police administration, so they know whom to contact when there is trouble.

At the headquarters of the Alexandria Police Department on a recent Wednesday night, about a dozen local residents gathered in the briefing room for their third class in police practices. The night's subject: communications.

"We want to dispel the myth that it's anything like the TV show," says Jill Eastman, an emergency communications technician supervisor, about the 911 calls that come in. "People are rude and discourteous to us all the time."

Ms. Eastman explains the high level of expertise and stress involved with working the police radios. Dispatchers are given a year's worth of training on the computers and radios, they've got to learn the geography of the city, the criminal codes, dispatch priorities, and the "10" codes, police shorthand for the problems they confront.

But most important, the dispatchers need sensitivity and keen judgment to discern the seriousness of an incident, and how best to deal with the person who's calling for help.

"It's hard to type and talk with someone screaming at you, you have to constantly fight your own reactions," Eastman says.

Arlington's 26 dispatchers handle more than 150,000 calls between them each year. That's just one of the many facts the class is learning. During the 10-week course, they'll tackle probable-cause rules, use-of-deadly-force policies, patrol operations, and crime scene and drug investigations. They also get to ride along with an officer.

"I went on a ride along and it's scary," says Carmen Gonzales, a local community activist who is taking the course. "They're putting their lives on the line every time they go out there."

Behind the badge

One of the most important things police would like people like Ms. Gonzales to learn and share with their neighbors is why they do what they do. For instance, when a police officer stops someone for speeding or even a simple equipment violation, the officer may appear stern and curt - especially if it's at night.

"I always tell people if you're ever in a traffic stop, turn on your dome light immediately, hit your flashers, and keep your hands in sight," Roberts says. "If the officer can see your hands, he's a whole lot more comfortable."

That might sound silly but, when approaching a car, an officer has no idea who the driver is or whether they're armed, Roberts adds. "If civilians understood that, it would reduce some of the tension."

Most of the students in Alexandria fully agree. They say they're amazed at the level of professionalism and training the officers receive, and the sometimes difficult, split-second decisions they often have to make. It's also given most of the students a better understanding of the role they can play in the community.

"If you want good policing, you have to be willing to contribute to your own safety. The police can't do it all," says academy student Mike Jukoski. "I don't think a lot of people realize that."

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