By Nicole Ross
PoliceOne Special Contributor
At their core, Citizen Police Academies (CPAs) are extensions of community policing efforts. The intent is to help create more informed citizens, debunk myths about law enforcement, and open the lines of communication between civilians and officers.
According to Assistant Chief Bill Weems of the Avon (Ind.) Police Department, “Citizen Police Academies help people see first-hand how we operate; learn about our policies, procedures and programs; meet local officers; and understand challenges we face on the job.”
Citizen Academies are typically offered once a year, free of charge, to civilians 18 and older with no criminal history. Duration ranges from ten to twelve weeks, and classes are usually held weekly for two to three hours. Class size is often limited to a few dozen students to ensure high officer interaction and quality hands-on experience.
“We also require people to complete an application with several essay questions,” said Sergeant Jeff Lewis, one of Avon CPA’s founding officers.
Lewis, who has 20 years of law enforcement experience (including as a jail officer, school resource officer, special projects administrator, and uniform division sergeant) added, “It helps us weed out folks applying for the wrong reasons and focus on the students who genuinely want to learn how we do what we do.”
Here are eight tips for designing your CPA curriculum.
1.) Begin with the basics. Spend your first class giving an overview of the program and doing staff introductions. Give students a tour of your facility and host a casual Q&A.
Weems — who has 21 years of law enforcement experience, including U.S. Army Military Police Corp, USARSO Commander and other dignitary security, and Federal Protective Services — added, “You’d be surprised how fascinated civilians are with everyday things like interview rooms, holding cells, and evidence lockers.”
The first meeting is also a good time to handle administrative tasks like class waivers, ID badges, etc.
2.) Variety is the spice of life. It’s OK to stretch a particularly complex or interactive topic across two weeks. But the end goal is to expose students to as many aspects of law enforcement as possible during the program.
“We give students a glimpse into everything from road patrols to investigations, weapons and defensive tactics to crime scene management,” said Weems. “We can’t go too deep on any one topic, but students leave with a solid introduction to police work.”
3.) Recruit the right officers for the right reasons. The power of CPAs comes from building bridges between officers and civilians. That’s why it’s important to engage other officers to be guest speakers. But be careful to select officers who want to get involved for the right reasons. If they’re only interested in showing off — or clearly don’t want to be there — they’ll do more harm than good.
“Recruit guest speakers who are engaged and enjoy interacting with civilians in a friendly, casual environment,” Lewis said. Keep in mind, some officers may be reluctant the first time around, but wind up loving it.
“Once officers have a great experience with the CPA, they can’t wait to come back,” said Lewis.
4.) Get out of the classroom. There’s nothing wrong with classroom lectures. But your students shouldn’t spend three hours a night staring at PowerPoints. Instead, include both lectures and hands-on exercises each week. For example, if you’re teaching a class about your Road Patrol Division, start with a short presentation. Explain the mission of the team, basic hazards of a traffic stop, and talk through common scenarios. Then move to hands-on exercises.
“Our students particularly love doing simulated traffic stops in our Sally Port,” said Lewis. “We role-play day and nighttime scenarios and provide constructive feedback about how they handled each situation.”
Special equipment can also inspire hands-on exercises. When the Avon PD won a $200,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security, they purchased a high-tech Meggitt Firearms Simulator.
“The Meggitt system allowed us to expand our firearms session and give students a much more robust experience,” Weems said.
“Now they begin with a lecture on firearms basics and safety, do some target practice with Simunition guns, then put their new skills into action using Meggitt’s arsenal of 400+ real-life scenarios.”
5.) Play to your strengths. Have an experienced K-9 unit? Dedicate a class to their work and consider letting your students help with a simulated drug search. Have a SWAT team? Ask them to walk the class through a few memorable calls step-by-step. You can also leverage partnerships with other departments, training facilities, and teams to offer your students once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
Weems and Lewis partner with the nearby Indiana Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) to host an onsite class about Emergency Vehicle Operations. Students have the opportunity to get behind the wheel on the ILEA’s skill pad (where the speeds are lower, but precision driving is required). Instructors then drive participants around an outside track to experience high-speed maneuvers and pursuit-style driving.
Not every session needs to be action-packed, as long as the content is compelling. Classroom sessions about policies and procedures, legal considerations, and investigations can be equally engaging — if done well.
“Our Detective Division has a 100 percent success rate solving bank robberies,” Lewis said.
“So, we spend two weeks with the detectives walking through real bank robberies from 911 call to conviction. The students absolutely love it.”
6.) Make it personal. The key to making any topic interesting is the use of personal stories and real-world examples. Tell your students about actual cases in their community and use a variety of media to keep them engaged. “Our officers integrate police videos, recorded 911 calls, and personal stories into every presentation,” Lewis said. Speakers are also encouraged to use real crime scene photos, witness statements, and evidence in the classroom.
“The detectives also walk through a high-profile homicide case step-by-step,” Lewis said. They show students how they gathered each piece of evidence, what witnesses said, and how they developed an airtight case against the killer. Along the way, they ask students what they can deduce from the evidence and what they would have done next.
Bottom line: Don’t tell the class how you do your job. Show them.
7.) Bring it all together. Many CPAs offer ridealongs at the end of the program.
“Ridealongs are invaluable when it comes to translating classroom lessons to the street,” said Lewis.
Once ridealongs are complete, consider reconvening for a casual graduation ceremony. Open it up to students’ family and friends, give out certificates of completion, and give your class a fun opportunity to reflect on their experience.
8.) Strive for continuous improvement. Brief weekly evaluations can help you gather feedback while experiences are fresh in students’ minds. Sometimes what the class likes most might surprise you. Use their feedback to continually tweak your curriculum. But if a session works well, and students like it, then the old adage applies: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Departments of any size can design and facilitate effective CPAs. The key is designing curriculum that will engage your students, be reinforced through hands-on exercises, and — above all — help civilians forge relationships with officers serving in their communities.
About the Author
Nicole Ross is a freelance writer and graduate of the 2013 Avon PD Citizen Police Academy.