When Jenny Poch sees a police car while cruising the streets of Columbia, her first reaction is slam on the brakes, worried that she's driving too fast.
"Sometimes people see [officers] as people at the end of the street who are out to get them," she said.
Ms. Poch, 18, a criminal justice major at Howard Community College, is one of 25 students enrolled in the Citizens' Police Academy, an 11-week class set up by the Howard County Police Department to introduce civilians to the dynamics of police training.
Police hope that by the time the students graduate on Nov. 18, the course will have helped to dispel some of the negative myths about law enforcement.
"We're not looking for sympathy, we just want understanding," Chief James Robey told the class during a recent session.
The fall program, which began Sept. 9, counts ministers, attorneys and high school students among its participants.
From 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. each Thursday, officers discuss various police duties, including lock-up procedures, investigation techniques, drug enforcement, crime prevention, use of force and judgment under stress.
Last Thursday, the academy class was in the briefing room of police headquarters in Ellicott City to learn about the mission, role and values of the department.
Later, participants toured the 911 dispatch center across the parking lot from the department in the George Howard Building.
The course is just a taste of what Howard County police recruits undergo before they can wear a badge, a drill that includes a 22-week academy program and 14 weeks of field training.
Howard County has about 300 sworn police officers who respond to about 86,000 calls from the county's 209,000 citizens each year, Chief Robey said.
"Police work has become more complicated," said Lt. Jay Zumbrun, the Citizens Academy instructor. "If you don't have that community, you're not going to be successful."
The program is one of several ways the Howard County Police Department has kept in touch with residents through community-oriented policing.
Others include satellite police offices in troubled housing developments and a Citizen's Advisory Council that scrutinizes the department.
The Citizens' Academy has proven so popular that police have scheduled another class for Feb. 1 through April 12 -- and it already is half full, Lieutenant Zumbrun said.
To qualify, participants must be 16 or older, submit an application and undergo a criminal history check.
In addition to classroom sessions, students will practice at a firing range, steer a police car around obstacles in mock-pursuit of criminals, ride with officers and practice policing under pressure at a new $30,000 "Shoot/Don't Shoot" simulation facility, paid for with money confiscated from drug seizures.
At the first academy session, on Sept. 9, Chief James Robey told participants, "You are about to embark on a new area of police work. We promise you it will be interesting."
He was followed by Lieutenant Zumbrun, a 17-year Howard County police veteran, who drew laughter from the class with his jokes about crime follies.
Later, participants were given a tour of the department, examining jail cells and the indoor firing range, and learning how warrants are served.
The program gets rave reviews from participants.
Bob Guth, an Ellicott City attorney, said some of his clients have filed suits against the police department.
"It's difficult from the outside looking in," Mr. Guth said. "I figure this is an opportunity to see it from the other side and maybe help me give better advice to people."
The Rev. Dennis Kleppin, a police chaplain, said he wanted to learn more about officers' duties.
"I admire what they do," he said. "The church and the police department can work together to better the community."
Paul Crickard, a senior at Oakland Mills High School, said he enrolled in the class because he looks up to his uncle, who is a police officer.
"Taking the class, you can say you're actually helping out and doing something good."
And in a few years, Paul said, he hopes to join the police department's ranks.