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CITIZEN ACADEMIES: They learn about how radar guns work, but not how to avoid them.

Detective Frank Hackler of the Piscataway (NJ) PD's community policing section talked to P-1 about their department's Citizen Police Academy. The hugely successful program, now in it's eighth year, consists of a 12-week hands-on training course designed to give citizens a better understanding and appreciation police work (see article below).

"This is a nucleus of citizens who get behind-the-scenes insight into what, exactly, their police department does," Hackler says. "The students consistently represent a cross-section of our community."

Piscataway is a diverse community with a population of 50,000.

The program has been so successful, in fact, departments around the country have developed citizen academies based on their model. Academy students learn it all, from preventative patrol and general investigations to special victims and motor vehicle law.

The course also includes firearms simulation training—the experience is a major eye-opener for citizens, who begin to understand use-of-force issues, both legal and psychological. After the training, Hackler says people turn to him, astounded, and say, "I never even realized I shot off 11 rounds!" They now have some real-world experience with which to process mainstream media accounts of officer-involved shootings.

In the last class, the nearly minted graduates put their skills to the test in role playing practicals. "They are astounded at what police officers have to deal with on a daily basis," Hackler says.

Word-of-mouth has made the program the great success that it is. "Neighbors tell neighbors, friends tell friends. Perceptions about what police do have changed, that's for sure!"

With close to 100 graduates, there is now a citizens academy alumni association; even better, the Piscataway PD has brought on a few alums as volunteer officers at special events, like 4th of July celebrations and Memorial Day parades.

"It's resulted in very positive community relations," Hackler says. "And it's amazing how it's spawned other initiatives."

The Star Ledger

PISCATAWAY, N.J. - The only interaction most people have with police officers occurs during traffic stops, but Piscataway's Citizen Police Academy attempts to give residents a different perspective on the law enforcement profession.

The program, which enters its eighth year this month, provides hands-on experience and instruction to help citizens understand the challenges officers face every day.

"It's sort of like a mini-police academy," said detective Rich Ivone.

Students practice simulated traffic stops with an officer acting as the driver, an experience meant to put them on the other side, Ivone said. They learn about how radar guns work, but not how to avoid them.

They are shown how investigators collect evidence, such as dusting for fingerprints and performing interrogations, to understand the process isn't like what they see on "CSI" or "Law and Order."

The academy members also get four "ride-alongs" with police officers where they go out in patrol cars with officers on duty. And in what is often the highlight of the program, the academy trains in a virtual shooting gallery, confronting hostile suspects in a realistic simulation that the department's officers use.

Students also get a full overview of how the department is organized and structured. They learn about every section, from patrol to special victims units.

"The Emergency Services Unit team demonstrates their tactics," Ivone said. "Flash-bang grenades—the whole nine yards. It's very cool."

It's also an opportunity for residents to ask the officers questions, and to debate tactics.

"They ask about the Halper Farm, probable cause, how informants are developed," Ivone said.

On the whole, participants tend to be older and a number of women have attended, Ivone said. There's no homework, he added. "Most of the class are into it, they are very attentive."

The academy meets Thursdays for two hours and one Saturday at Piscataway police headquarters. Applicants have to be township residents more than 21 years old and pass a background investigation.

This year, the academy had more applicants than the 18 slots available. Detective Frank Hackler, who is with the department's community policing section, has had to put people on a waiting list.

"Each year has built upon itself," he said of the program's success.

Hackler said the academy provides a benefit to the department by allowing the officers to learn more about members of the community they serve.

Everyone who graduates from the academy is given a special uniform, and they are asked to help the department with public safety at ceremonies and events like parades.

"They usually help us out," Ivone said. "They become the eyes and ears of the police department."

Some academy graduates go on to become the real thing. Two former members are now training at the police academy with the goal of joining the Piscataway police, Ivone said. Other departments also employ graduates of Piscataway's citizen academy, he said.

"It's just been so successful," said Hackler, who acts as an instructor.

Everyone who graduates from the academy leaves with a fuller understanding of police work, Ivone said.

"They just don't see cops stopping you for a ticket," he said.

Copyright 2007 Newark Morning Ledger Co.
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