Citizens' academy provides civilians a glimpse of police life

Program aims to build relationships between law enforcement and residents

September 07, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Dolores "Jackie" Dunphy stood at the front of the dark classroom, gripped a 40-caliber SIG-Sauer pistol and pointed it at the image of a disgruntled employee projected on a screen.

The man in the picture sat alone with a gun in his hand on the back steps of an industrial warehouse. Sgt. Bob Wagner instructed Dunphy, a 79-year-old Ellicott City retiree, to try to coax the man into surrendering.

"Be a good boy and put the gun down," she says, sparking laughter from other members of Howard County's Citizens' Police Academy. "Be a good boy now."

It didn't work. The angry man charged at her, delivering a fatal shot before Dunphy had time to return a direct hit.

Dunphy's gun was attached to a computer, and the screen was part of the county's shooting simulator. But she and the other citizen recruits learned some important lessons. It is hard to know when someone is dangerous or harmless. It is difficult to judge the best response. And it is even harder to shoot accurately under duress.

Graduates of the popular citizens' academy now know a bit about what it feels like to be a police officer.

Participants in the academy, which is taking applications this week for its 23rd class, fire weapons at the department's shooting range, practice evasive driving in police cruisers and ride with on-duty officers, sometimes for up to 12 hours at a time.

In return, police build sympathy among a cadre of law-abiding citizens who have little prior knowledge of police procedures or involvement with the officers who teach classes.

"My neighbors would call the police and complain that they didn't come immediately - that they had to wait," said Juanita Robinson, 65, who is on the board at the Kahler Hall Community Center and started Citizens on Patrol in Columbia's Harper's Choice Village. When officers would show up, "they'd ask a lot of questions. And people didn't understand why they had to know all of this stuff and why it took time to arrive. Now, I can explain it to them," she said.

False perceptions, for which police often blame the news media and fictional crime dramas, are exactly what academy leaders hope to undo.

The open-door approach is one that departments across the country are using to build trust, especially within minority communities. Howard County plans to launch a version of the program for high school students next year.

"Participants become the greatest advocates for the department," said Lt. Mark Joyce, who directs the civilian academy formed under former police chief and now County Executive James N. Robey. "It's a give-and-take venue that civilians normally wouldn't have, and it humanizes cops, for a lack of a better expression."

Joyce's "advocates" - more than 500 graduates over the past 11 years - are a diverse lot. Clergy, business leaders, housewives, neighborhood watch leaders, reporters, married couples and county employees all have taken the 10-week course.

The classes, which usually have about 25 participants per session, are two hours long on Monday nights, although the group can opt to switch the day at its first class.

The academy meets weekly, usually at the county's offices on Columbia Gateway Drive. The free program is open to those who are 21 or older and have no criminal record.

The academy is intended to be interactive - and, in some cases, stunning. Officers showed a widely used video of a South Carolina state trooper being killed during a routine traffic stop.

On ride-alongs, participants learned about the grunt work that goes along with routine patrols. Many academy graduates said they "never stopped" during the 12-hour ride.

"You watch CSI and stuff on television, and it's nothing like the real thing," said Bunny Garber, 69, who works part time at the Bain Center.

To apply for the Citizens' Police Academy, log on to http://www.hcpd.org, click on "Community Policing" and then "Citizens' Police Academy," or call 410-313-6080. The course begins Oct. 10.

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