A Taste Of Police Work For County's Civilians

Part Of Community Relations Effort, Six-week Class 'Breaks Barriers,' Chief Says

November 01, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

The piece of white paper with a bunch of fingerprints on it got passed around the classroom. So how many of those fingerprints would be of use to police?

Some people guessed two. Some people guessed all.

The correct answer? Six. Nobody got it right.

But that won't stop any of the 20 adults in this one-night-a-week program from graduating Monday night.

This is the Annapolis Police Department's first Citizen Police Academy, a six-week peek into the department's workings.

"This is another tool to strengthen our partnership with communities. It breaks barriers," Annapolis Police Chief Michael Pristoop said. "It busts rumors."

One of Pristoop's priorities has been community relations. The class, an online survey and new crime mapping are part of the effort.

Such free courses have been criticized as propaganda, but police agencies across the country have been offering them for years, and many are wildly popular as they give ordinary people a taste of police work. Most in the Annapolis class said they signed up out of curiosity or to get information to help their communities with safety matters.

"I like this," Melodie Butler of Arnold said as two police dogs were put through their paces, finding drugs (real samples) and latching onto a suspect (not a real one, just another officer) to the delight of adults who murmured that they wished their pets heeded as well. "It's the best part, aside from holding the gun in my hand."

She recently completed an associate's degree in criminal justice and plans to seek a bachelor's degree amid thoughts of making a midlife career change.

Some participants picked up the unloaded weapons and handled the safety vests used by special units, commenting on how light the guns were and how heavy the vests were. As they toured the new vehicles another week, many were surprised at the heft of an armored personnel carrier, and were wowed by the creature comforts of the RV-like mobile command center and how much it looked like the ones on crime dramas. Others said they were gaining an understanding of what it is like to be on the writing, not receiving end, of a traffic ticket, as well as getting an introduction to gangs.

The class is likely to be held again, and Pristoop, who taught a session on search and seizure issues, has not ruled out making changes.

Elsewhere, programs range from the mostly classroom lecture-style, like the one in Annapolis - participants blanched when an officer suggested they might be ordered to drop and do 20 push-ups - to the more interactive ones that send participants charging through fields.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department has been operating its program for more than a decade. The 14-week after-hours course is held annually at the Training Academy in Davidsonville, where the facilities allow instructors to put participants through scenarios in which they must determine if they are about to shoot an innocent person or a perpetrator with simulated weapons. Feedback is good, and they routinely fill the springtime classes with 35 people, said spokesman Justin Mulcahy.

The Annapolis class shows people the disconnect between local policing and police dramas on television - on TV, people are arraigned before evidence implicates them, the time from the commission of a crime to the jury's verdict is an hour, and graciously appointed crime labs turn out DNA results over a commercial break.

"Students" range in age from their 20s to 80s, with most middle age or older, a disappointment to some older participants who say the younger set could use an earful of what's being said there.

Riding along with a patrol officer for a few hours was part of the program, offering a glimpse into the multitasking that an officer performs in dealing with multiple channels on police radios, a cell phone and laptop computer.

"I'm actually going to go on an all-day ride-along," said Marcus Giddings, an electrician who is part of a safety patrol in his Annapolis neighborhood. "I'm going to take the day off work."

Giddings said not only is the class giving him helpful safety advice, but he hopes that it will give him contacts within the department.

The session on how police use evidence recovered from crime scenes to build their cases came from the 2006 fatal shooting of a man who was killed in a drug deal gone bad. But Annapolis is a small town, and several people in the class knew the victim.

"Told him selling those fake drugs was going to get him dead someday," one murmured.

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