10 weeks in a police officer's life


January 27, 2004|By Dana Klosner-Wehner | Dana Klosner-Wehner,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DO YOU secretly long to get behind the wheel of a police car? Or would you like a glimpse of the real life of a police officer beyond the television dramas and reality shows?

For more than 10 years, the Howard County Police Department has invited the public to participate in its Citizens' Police Academy. The class, held in the Gateway Building, is designed to give Howard residents a basic understanding of law enforcement and build a positive relationship between the community and the police.

David Hlass, a member of the Long Reach Village Board and a Columbia Council member, graduated from the academy last month. Hlass says the class is a great idea for anyone who wants to get involved in a neighborhood watch.

"It shows in a nutshell how to respond as an average citizen," he said. "A lot of citizens here in the village do care and can make a difference."

The 10-week Howard County Citizens' Police Academy is a miniversion of the Howard County Police Academy training course that recruits must pass to become full-fledged members of the Police Department.

"In 10 weeks, you learn about procedure, crime laws and forensics," said Lt. Tara Nelson, commander of the Police Department's training division. "You get a tour of the 911 center, a tour of the forensics lab and you see how DNA evidence is collected and sent to the lab."

The course is offered twice a year, in the fall and spring, and includes lectures, tours and hands-on experience. Students come from many walks of life. In Hlass' class, participants included a young man who wants to be a policeman, a police officer's father, and a husband and wife who volunteer with the nonprofit group MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

Reasons for taking the class are as diverse as its students, many of whom find the class exciting, interesting and, at times, surprising.

For Linda Hickerson of Ellicott City, a highlight of the class was learning about weapons and having a chance to try them out at a firing range.

"Shooting was fun," she said. "I didn't realize how heavy the gun is. And the [kick] is really heavy."

The course combines tours with lectures.

"The tour of the forensics lab was very interesting," said Hickerson, who volunteers at sobriety checkpoints to keep statistical records for MADD. "The evidence can really tell a story. A footprint, a bullet casing can solve the case. [Detectives] showed the way everyday items, such as the heat from an iron, can make evidence become more obvious. The heat from a blow dryer can make fingerprints more obvious.

"We saw some gruesome photographs of crime scenes. But the more we heard about what the detectives were looking at, the photos became more scientific. We were looking at a photo of a homicide victim and looking at where the blood splattered. I was thinking, `If she were in this position when she was killed, the blood would have splattered the other way.' "

After the tour of the lab, the class learned about a murder investigation and the role the lab plays in examining evidence.

"It really gave you the sense of what it takes," Hickerson said. "And it makes you realize everywhere you are, you are leaving evidence like hair or fibers."

James Aleshin, 19, of Ellicott City hopes to become a police officer. He took the class as an introduction to police work while he is attending the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville. Eventually, he hopes to study criminal justice at the University of Baltimore.

"It really shows you that [the police] have to follow rules constantly," Aleshin said. "They have to have a search warrant and probable cause. They can't just go bust down doors.

"It also shows that the police are just like regular people," he added. "Many people are ignorant with police and think they are robots that can't think for themselves."

"People become more aware," Nelson said. "They learn drug trends and the signs people might exhibit, such as heightened agitation, lethargy, or being irrational or paranoid. It's important to recognize that [such a] person may need treatment."

Students also learn to be sensitive to situations where things may be amiss. "If a vehicle is parked for a long time, it may be casing the neighborhood," Nelson said.

They also saw what happens in response to an emergency call.

"Seeing the 911 center was very dramatic," said Hickerson, whose husband's life was saved by a call to 911 when he was having an asthma attack. "The lights are dim so they can see the screens better. ... There are maps and grids everywhere. People were very focused."

To see how police respond to such calls, the students had an opportunity to ride along with a Howard County police officer during one shift.

"The ride-along was scary and exhilarating," Hickerson said. "You're right there with a bird's-eye view of what's happening. The first call was a domestic disturbance with a weapon. I stayed in the car for that."

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