Why I attended a citizens' police academy and why you should too
What is a Citizens’ Police Academy?
Last fall I was fortunate to participate in my local police department’s citizens’ police academy. Citizen Police Academies are designed by police agencies to educate the public on the activities of their local police department. In my case, the academy was an eight-week course plus a ride-along with a police officer. The course covered all aspects of the department including:
- Station operations and management
- Administrative services
- Detective and inspection division
- Patrol officers
- Use of force and firearm training
- Motor vehicles
- Criminal law
- Department history
- Looking forward at policing’s future
Quite the list! Ask around to find out if your town offers this and how others have felt about the experience. In the case of my town, the department was open and welcoming and the course was well-received in the community. The class illustrated the complexity of policing really well.
The context of my participation matters — I’m a white guy in a low-crime suburb of Boston. The police in my town are well-funded and supported by the community. Clearly not every department will offer a citizens’ academy in the spirit of openness and transparency, and not everyone in a community will feel comfortable participating. I did feel comfortable though and it helped me understand what policing is when it is done well, and what it could be if communities were able to make their voices heard.
With that out of the way — here are just a few of my big takeaways:
Policing is a highly skilled profession.
Great teaching is often referred to as a “performance” — the instructor is carefully crafting a performance that is structured to be engaging and logical while leaving a lasting impression. The craft of teaching is — in large part — the craft of being able to perform.
Policing is in many ways similar. So much of what police do is about exercising authority and controlling situations through their presence and their words. Police are very aware of this and consciously thinking about how to navigate social spaces in a way that defuses conflict and promotes public safety.
Policing has gotten much harder.
It’s been noted elsewhere, but time and time again, leaders in the department emphasized how much the job has changed and how much they have had to change with it.
Herman Goldstein, winner of the Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his global impact on the improvement of policing, describes this change:1
Today, the best example… stems from government having closed down the mental health institutions, presenting a different kind of problem today than it was 30, 40, 50 years ago. The police must deal with mental health issues on the street. It’s not an enforcement problem. It’s not a criminal law problem. It’s a behavioral problem they have to deal with, and they have to have a means of dealing with it… The major focus is to try to get help to people who are mentally ill. So the police end up being sort of nurses.
These themes repeated throughout the course. Our town has invested heavily in additional trained professionals to support police in this role, and our police chief and officers recognize the need for a different set of skills when addressing mental health issues as opposed to enforcing criminal code.
Police really understood the magnitude of the mental health crisis affecting the country and our town and thought that if the general public saw it, they would demand something else be done. This theme of police being much more in tune with many problems that are left invisible to many of us came up repeatedly in the class.
Towns get the police they support and train.
What I mean by this is that, much like schools, the way a town prioritizes policing determines the type of police force it will have. Repeatedly in our CPA class, the police chief emphasized how lucky he was to have the town’s support to recruit good officers and support them professionally with ongoing training and support services. Many of the officers who spoke to the class or who we did our ride alongs with remarked on the support they felt from the town in terms of salary, training, and mental health services for coping with the stress of the job. They referenced other officers they knew in other towns who did not have that support and how it created a negative culture for the officers and between officers and the community.
Police shift between stretches of boredom and split-second decisions.
We spent some time in the use of force simulator that the police use to train on defusing tense scenarios. It was an eye-opening experience and really helped underscore why police training is so important. One minute you are joking with the training officer and the next second you are deciding how to keep yourself and the others in the simulator safe. Logically, most of us know that policing is like this, but getting even the simulated experience of your adrenaline rising, your heart racing, and time distorting is a completely different experience. I immediately felt more empathy for police officers.
Of course most police shifts are long stretches of nothing close to a single scenario in the training simulator and it is easy for police forces to overemphasize the hazardous parts of the job — leading to militarization.
But it is helpful when thinking about how we build a society with an accountable police force to have this understanding of the nature of the job — to set expectations correctly. It was something I always argued for when setting K-12 education policy as well — if we aren’t being honest in engaging with the day-to-day reality of the classroom we won’t set good policy at all.
Why you should go
I attended the academy because I am interested in police accountability. and how to build support for a better form of accountability nationwide. I realized that I hadn’t interacted with a cop outside of a traffic stop in well over two decades and needed a broader and more personal perspective on what police do and waht challenges they face.
If you like your town and feel safe in it, and your police department is interested in offering a course like this, I highly recommend it as a way to interact with and get to know the police and your town. If you have issues with how things in your town are handled it can be a great way to build rapport and help your voice have a better chance to be heard.