How a Citizens’ Police Academy can be a positive approach to public relations

When we as police instructors discuss the why of what we do as well as how we do it, greater understanding, trust, and cooperation can be garnered from members of the community


At a time when national headlines continually criticize the police and create mistrust of law enforcement, developing a citizens relations program through a citizens academy can pay significant dividends. Tustin (Calif.) — a town with a population of 78,000 located in Orange County — has a program which can be a useful model for agencies that have not yet set up such an academy. 

Tustin has a relatively low crime rate due to the proactive stance the police department maintains under the leadership of Chief of Police Charles Celano. Utilizing the expertise of an in-house crime analyst, the department has developed a process that determines where crimes  are taking place and holds commanders and their rank and file accountable for developing proactive methods of enforcement and prevention — a modified version of CompStat. 

Equally important is the attitude the citizens in the community have regarding their police department. In addition to a Youth Explorers program and community crime prevention programs, their Citizens Police Academy is top rate. I decided to participate in it to see for myself what ordinary citizens are getting out of the program. 

Even This Old LEO Learned Something
The 14-week academy is held once a week for three hours each evening in the training room of the department. After background checks and the completion of a form asking why you want to attend, 24 citizens are accepted to participate. The program begins with a welcome from Captain Steve Lewis, who was the officer who initiated the program in 1994. Since its inception, the department has conducted 38 classes — holding the academy twice a year. The make-up of my class was extremely diverse in gender, age, ethnicity, and occupation. 

Because I am a former police officer — who also served years in corporate security before serving as a police trainer for the past eight years — I was curious if I would learn much other than some of the recent changes in technology and policing procedures . 

I was surprised to learn about — and experience the use of — new equipment, devices, and innovations Tustin PD has adopted. The most startling to me was the use of DNA evidence and the now rapid turn around time that can be accomplished. Although fictional television shows portray almost instantaneous DNA processing (which it is certainly not), the reality of how quickly the evidence can be examined was still shocking. 

One of the most valuable lessons citizens attending the academy were given was the complexity, legal requirements, and time it takes to develop a case and present this kind of evidence. I could see the expressions of surprise when fellow classmates realized how television exaggerates and shrinks time frames to accommodate their one hour show or uses technology that has not even been developed to solve crime as though it were a part of everyday police work. When groups of citizens have that “light bulb” go on, a lot of myths about policing can begin to be debunked by a larger number of people in the public. 

Just as intriguing, useful, and necessary to learn about is the training, attitude, ethics, and demeanor of the officers and command staff in the department. This understanding helps strengthen their relationship with the public. When those relationships are stronger and healthier the department can be more effective.

How the Academy Is Structured
How you structure your own academy is up to you, but it may be useful to get an idea of how Tustin does it. Below is an overview of the 14 week course:

Week 1: Introduction and tour of department
Week 2: Overview of the Criminal Justice System
Week 3: Patrol Procedures
Week 4: Chaplain Services, Traffic Division
Week 5: Communications / Dispatch Operations, Crime Analysis
Week 6: Professional Standards, Ethics, Citizen Complaints, Officer Discipline
Week 7: Use of Force, Levels of Escalation
Week 8: Firearms Familiarization
Week 9: Live fire at firing range
Week 10: Gang Unit, Street Gangs, Gang Graffiti
Week 11: Detective Bureau, Crime Investigation, SWAT
Week 12: School Recourse Officer Program, K-9 Demonstration
Week 13: Property Room, Evidence and Safekeeping, Crime Scene Investigations
Week 14: Narcotics Enforcement and Drug Operations, Ride along with PTO, Visit to County Morgue, Graduation Dinner

Applying Corporate Customer Calculus
Tustin’s Citizens Police Academy has trained more than 500 citizens since it began. That is five hundred ambassadors in the community that now have a positive attitude about the department and an understanding of how effective policing is conducted. These are people who now understand the knowledge and caring exhibited by each of the officer/instructors — they’ve seen the human side of police officers and the challenges they face.

Looking back at my corporate experience and understanding of customer relations, it is generally accepted that for every individual who has a negative experience with a company, ten people will be told. However, this is also true with a positive experience. 

Using that calculus, there are approximately five thousand people in the Tustin community who are being positively influenced by the graduates of the citizens academy. At a time when American policing is under fire, this type of program can be worth its weight in gold.

Yes, there are some minimal costs and time commitments to organize and administrate the program, but Tustin utilizes a retired officer as their academy coordinator and uses different off duty officers at each session to present the various topics. 

You can tell the instructors enjoy this assignment as it gives them an opportunity to explain their job functions and helps remind them of their importance to the department and the community. An additional benefit is these officers get to interact with citizens in a non-adversarial and non-threatening manner. The officers get to see that all citizens are not what they often encounter in their normal daily duties. They get to hear the concerns of the people in their community first-hand. The Tustin Citizens Academy is very transparent and does not “sugar coat” the department or their job functions.

The reactions of the participants to the program were extremely positive and there was an obvious camaraderie between the class and officers who participated. If your agency does not yet have a Citizens Academy, you might consider applying some of the positive lessons learned in Tustin.

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