Learn More about Police Through Your Local “Citizen Academy”

by Dean Rieck

Like many Americans, I’ve been following the national discussion about policing for many years. But I question whether this “discussion” benefits anyone.

As with so many public issues, this one has become starkly political and binary. Either you think police are insensitive brutes violating rights at every opportunity or you think police are being unfairly blamed for the actions of a few bad apples. Either police are racists protected by a corrupt system or they’re noble public servants doing the best they can in a supremely difficult job.

This is unfortunate because no issue is one-sided. The moment people choose sides, a discussion stops being a discussion. People stop listening and learning and start rooting for “their team.” Solutions elude us because too many people become too invested in their own anger, frustration, and bias.

I suppose this is human nature and I don’t claim to have the answer. However, I do have an observation and a simple suggestion for those genuinely willing to open their mind on this issue.

First the observation: While I see an overwhelming number of commentaries suggesting more training for police, I see very few commentaries suggesting any level of education for citizens.

This too is unfortunate, because when we’re talking about police interacting with citizens, we need to remember that “interaction” presumes that there are at least two parties involved: a police officer and a citizen. Both play a role in any interaction and both have an effect on the outcome.

Granted, police must have the highest level of training possible before we empower them to enforce laws. But what most people don’t understand is what sort of training police already get, the realities of the job, and why police do things the way they do. Some commentary makes it sound like government just hands them a gun and the keys to a cruiser and off they go.

I think if we’re asking police to be better educated about how to deal with citizens, it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that citizens should be better educated about how to deal with police.

Now the simple suggestion: Enroll in a local “citizen police academy.”

Many municipalities offer these free classes as a key part of their community outreach. The purpose is not to turn you into a police officer, but simply to give you the opportunity to learn about the day-to-day operations of your police department.

The classes are run by the same police who work in your neighborhood and cover a wide variety of topics, including criminal law, drug investigations, traffic enforcement, crime prevention, forensics, SWAT, canine officers, firearms training, and use of force policy.

You can learn not only what police do, but why and how. You may have the chance to participate in hands-on activities such as building searches and police ride-alongs. Many courses even include CPR and First Aid Certification.

There’s a lot more to police work than most people realize. And even if you think you know a lot, you may be surprised at how difficult much of it is in practice.

My wife and I learned more than we expected when the instructors of our hometown citizen police academy put us through various real-world scenarios. In one, we had to respond to a call where two brothers were arguing about rent and it was our job to resolve the situation. In another, we got a call about a break in and had to confront a violent criminal who threatened us with a shovel.

The most challenging roll playing by far was a simulated traffic stop at night where we were confronted by an armed driver. This was followed by responding to a call about a “strange” man sitting in the park watching people. So we had to first deal with a life or death situation followed by a situation where there was no threat at all, which is not unusual for a day in the life of a police officer. The scenarios were stressful and challenging and drove home just how difficult police work can be.

Class members did not discuss politics. The police did not try to indoctrinate us. There were certainly disagreements and hard questions, but the conversations remained respectful. And while I thought I knew a lot about police work, I was humbled by how much I learned.

To find a nearby citizen police academy, google the name of your city followed by the words “citizen police academy.” So if you live in Cleveland, google “Cleveland citizen police academy.” Chances are good that your hometown offers this program. Similar programs are offered by county sheriffs, fire departments, and other organizations.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And there’s no lack of people with strong feelings about police pro and con. But if we’re serious about having this national conversation about law enforcement, don’t you think we owe it to ourselves to be well-informed?

NOTE: If your local Citizen Police Academy is postponed due to COVID-19, make sure to ask about it when restrictions are lifted. It’s well worth the effort.