Behind the scenes at sheriff's office

Weekly four-hour class offers public window into how county's officers do their job

May 18, 2008|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun Reporter

Students shuffle in with their binders and notebooks at the start of the four-hour class every Tuesday evening, sometimes convening at an evidence collection lab or maybe the Harford County Detention Center.

In this class, there is no homework nor any pop quizzes. The only rules are to show up on time and don't wear flip-flops to class.

Thirty students - a mix of retirees, aspiring police officers, housewives and others - are taking a crash course, learning how the Harford County Sheriff's Office works.

"It's not CSI, where we take a hair and we can see who was driving the Ford," said Cpl. James Pangratz, coordinator of the Citizens' Police Academy, referring to the TV crime drama. "This brings it down to reality and brings it down to a personal level."

While wandering through the courtrooms and talking to criminal investigators, the students learn that law and order takes a lot longer than an hourlong TV show.

In a recent field trip to an evidence collection unit, they learned that there is no mega-computer spitting out fingerprint matches in a matter of seconds.

During that trip, the detective put up a slide of a blood sample for students to examine. Detective Jan Ryan demonstrated the movement of a suspect hitting a victim.

"The first time, I'm not going to have blood," Ryan said, swinging his arms to re-create the motions, while the class tried to guess how many times the victim was struck from the pattern of blood.

"It's not smoke and mirrors," said Judy Terrill, a Forest Hill insurance agent, about the class. "It's things that are really happening. That's why I'm here. My husband asked what do you need that [class] for? But I wanted to see it hands on."

And more than halfway through the course, this class' perceptions of officers are changing.

Every week, the class meets a deputy who discusses his or her specialty, such as victim services, crisis negotiation, underwater recovery or the canine unit.

"They're normal people," said Kim Grant, 40, one of the students. "You always see a police officer and you're scared or you're nervous around them. But they laugh, joke and smile like everyone else. They're not so serious all the time."

Students also know that the officers aren't bumbling caricatures as seen on comedies, nor are they the scowling cops on power trips, dishing out speeding tickets.

"They're the farthest thing from the stereotype," said Larry Stancill, a 74-year-old mining engineer.

The three-month class, which is offered every year and is free to Harford County residents who pass a background check, attracts different generations.

"Young people are possibly interested in the job," Pangratz said. "The middle-aged people are more interested in their community and interested in how the office works and what they can do to help. The biggest group is retirees who want to know what's going on, why we do things, and they have more time."

During the 1990s, citizens' academies began cropping up nationwide in police agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Police agencies saw it as a way to reach the community and demystify their roles.

The Harford County Sheriff's Office started their program 14 years ago.

"A lot of people don't understand why we do what we do," Pangratz said. "It clears things up for a lot of people."

madison.park@baltsun.com

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